When a movie called “Network” came out in 1975, it was outlandish satire of something that could never possibly happen. But it doesn’t seem like a parody anymore. It just seems like a drama about people who are very much like incompetent bullies who appear on your television “news” channels today.
In 1975, news was a serious business. The men and women who produced newspapers and broadcast news saw themselves as responsible people who the public trusted to be serious and accountable.
In “Network,” writer Paddy Chayefsky was asking what would happen if news turned into entertainment and nothing about television mattered except ratings. He intended his movie to be a warning, but it’s turned into a blueprint for chaos in modern culture.
Few people listened to the warning — and politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Donald Trump are the result.
Most people see Ocasio-Cortez and Trump as opposites, but they’re actually flip sides of the same coin. They’re people who are sure of themselves — despite being incredibly ignorant — and they’re perfect for modern television. Why? Because today’s television news revolves around conflict, not around intellect or ideas.
We’ve known since at least 1960 — when the telegenic John F. Kennedy was elected — that television drove the popularity of politicians. But that was an era when ideas still mattered, at least at times. Over the next couple of decades, television changed — both in quantity and substance — and that changed which politicians became popular.
Television is all about conflict, whether it’s scripted shows or news content. Conflict drives ratings, so networks — which now have to fill 24 hours a day of content — are willing to do almost anything to create conflict and keep viewers tuning in.
So what matters on television today? Confidence, media-savvy, an attacking screen presence, and a willingness to be controversial.
What doesn’t matter on television today? Rationality, honesty, humility, intellect or responsibility.
Many people have been asking why Ocasio-Cortez is suddenly all over the media. She is a nobody with no achievements. She’s just one of 435 members of the House. So why do you see her all the time?
She doesn’t represent the future (as some Democrats hope) and she’s not going to change everything (as some Republicans fear). She’s simply a media-smart and outspoken person who’s divisive and confrontational.
She’s perfect for television — in the same ways that Donald Trump is. They are mirror images of one another.
Ocasio-Cortez divides Republicans and Democrats. She divides different factions in her own party. She divides classes and age groups in a way that few people have the polarizing ability to do. She talks in TV-friendly soundbites (whether she’s right or wrong) and she’s always attacking someone.
She’s the perfect character for TV “news” shows. She could have been written as a character for the Howard Beal Show. Her popularity is all about television ratings — generating enough hatred between enough people that both sides watch the drama — not because she’s going to achieve anything and certainly not because she has any achievements to her name.
She is a reflection of the worst in media culture.
And like a random ink blot, Democrats and Republicans are going to see in her whatever they most want or fear — just as they have with Trump for years.
I doubt she will ever achieve anything of note in Congress, simply because Congress is a body that gets things done by personal relationships and deal-making — and this is something she’s clearly terrible at. All she does is throw bombs, in the same way that Trump throws bombs.
Trump would have been a nobody in Congress, because of the nature of the body. She will also be a nobody in Congress, at least when it comes to achievements.
If the country ever moved far enough to the left, though, she would have a legitimate chance to be elected president, because her personality would play well in the modern media executive model.
Watch “Network” sometime. (I’ll post a modern trailer for the movie below.) See if you don’t see Trump and Ocasio-Cortez as characters who would have fit in well on the Howard Beal Show.
The fictional network executives of UBS in the movie didn’t care how irresponsible their on-air talent became, just as long as they could have “the No. 1 show in television.” The same is true today.
As long as shallow modern media — and now shallow social media — drive the direction of our society, you can count on more and more “leaders” such as Trump and Ocasio-Cortez. The medium which you have embraced and given control over politics — by your viewing habits — demands people such as these.
When these people lead us over a cliff — as they will — remember that you supported the system which gave them power.
The only thing which can stop the anti-intellectual ignorance you see in front of you is to stop watching the televised conflict which you call news and for you to withdraw your consent from an immoral system of coercion.
Since almost nobody will do either of those things, expect to see a lot more politicians such as these ignorant incompetents. But they will be televised and you will keep watching — so you can cheer and boo as though you’re watching professional wrestling.
Just remember that Paddy Chayefsky warned you. Neil Postman warned you. Marshal McLuhan warned you. But you didn’t listen.