Monday, August 31, 2009

Unfriendly Persuasion

In 1976, a film called "Network" written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, won four Academy Awards for its satirical portrayal of a television network.

In it, long-time "UBS Evening News" anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is being let go because of the show's low ratings. He has two more weeks on the air, but Beale announces that he will "blow his brains out" during an upcoming live broadcast.

UBS immediately fires him but they let him back on the air, ostensibly for a dignified farewell. Beale promises that he will apologize for his outburst, but instead in an obsenity-laced tirade, complains that life is bull, to put it mildly.

The program's ratings soar and UBS execs decide to exploit Beale's antics rather than pulling him off the air.

In one impassioned diatribe, Beale galvanizes the nation with his rant, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" and persuades Americans to shout the same phrase out their windows which they do by the millions.

Soon Beale is hosting a new program called the "Howard Beale Show," billing him as a "mad prophet of the airways" which becomes the highest-rated show on television.

Ironically, what caused belly laughs in 1976 is causing belly aches 33 years later.

The script for "Network" was written long before the advent of cable television which has made it all come true.

Now, we have a veritable Greek chorus of prophets, mad and otherwise, who fill our screens with opinions great and small. And like the fictional Howard Beale, the more outrageous they become, the higher their ratings soar.

I was reminded of all this by the recent very public dust-up featuring Fox's Bill O'Reilly and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, two gentlemen from opposite ends of the political spectrum who on some nights sound like a couple of guys arguing down at the other end of the bar in some beer-and-a-shot joint.

O'Reilly, from Fox, is the darling of the right who, while alleging that his show is fair and balanced, squashes anyone to the left of Ronald Reagan like so many ants on the kitchen floor.

Olbermann is a onetime Grade B sportscaster who reinvented himself as a liberal commentator throws mud at anyone to the right of Nancy Pelosi.

They are joined in this Tower of Babble by the likes of Glen Beck, Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow and John Stewart.

These people define political discourse in this country? May God have mercy on us all.

In a recent incident, Olbermann called O'Reilly "a racist clown" on the air. O'Reilly in turn has refused to let anyone utter Olbermann's name on his show.

Wait, it gets more sophomoric than that . O'Reilly once initiated an online petition to have MSNBC remove Olbermann from his timeslot, purportedly to have former slot host Phil Donahue's show reinstated.

Olbermann responded by playing a selection of disparaging television clips featuring O'Reilly and mocked the whole affair in signing the petition to have himself fired.

O'Reilly raised the ante claiming General Electric, whose NBC News Division operates MSNBC, was "promoting the election of Barack Obama and then seeking to profit from his policies."

The sniping caused the chief executives at General Electric and News Corporation, which owns Fox News, to reach an unusual agreement last spring to halt the regular personal assaults on each other's channels, according to the New York Times.

Eric Burns, the former host of Fox's media criticism show "Fox News Watch" said, "Even in an age where there seemed to be no boundaries, people at the very top of two networks thought, 'Well, I guess there are boundaries,
because they've been crossed.'"

What's interesting is that the corporate suits were not only trampling on the First Amendment, but engaging in some dubious business practices since O'Reilly and Olbermann draw big ratings.

All of this would be mildly amusing if these clowns weren't contributing to the dangerous polarization of this country, a place where town halls become blood sport.

Olbermann once accused then President Bush of "subverting the Constitution, not in some misguided but sincerely-motivated struggle to combat terrorists, but instead to stifle dissent.I accuse you of fomenting fear among your own people, of creating the very terror you claim to have fought."

Fox's conservative pundits paint President Obama as everything from a socialist to a Marxist to a racist and "illegitimate Kenyan fraud."

It "invites, incites and prepares a prefabricated justification for violence," according to David Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush.

I understand that reasoned, analytical and rational discussion of the issues facing this country can be boring stuff. If it wasn't, C-SPAN would be the most watched cable system in the United States.

But we have reacheded a point where the winner is the one who shouts the loudest.

It's time we all got as mad as hell and vow not to take it anymore.

No comments: