In Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant film, “Network,” Faye Dunaway’s character, Diana Christensen, prods William Holden’s aging newsman to let her revamp his news hour for better ratings. The aptly named Diana (goddess of the hunt) is in tireless, maniacal pursuit of higher ratings via ever-escalating on-air outrageousness. She envisions adding a psychic to the evening news, with the centerpiece of the “news” hour being the fanatical tirades of newsman-turned-latter-day-prophet Howard Beale. After all, Diana purrs, “…even the news has to have a little showmanship.”
33 years after “Network,” it seems Mr. Chayefsky was, quite literally, right on the money. CNN has a theme song and nifty graphics for each war, natural disaster, and political scandal. The Glenn Becks and Keith Olbermanns of the airwaves, like Howard Beale, nightly incite public outrage vis-a-vis their impassioned invectives. As these celebrity oracles point fingers and choke back tears, the subtext is clear: they’re mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore.
But they will, we presume, continue to take in the tidy profits they accumulate as they appeal to the paranoia and disenchantment of the American public. The stock and trade of television today is fear, peddled as casually as Cracker Jacks at a baseball game, that other great American pastime.
Yesterday afternoon, a 6-year-old boy in Colorado pulled a 6-year-old boy stunt that dominated every news network for hours on end. Young Falcon Heene untied his storm chasing, reality tv-contestant father’s giant helium balloon in the backyard, and then, fearing punishment, hid in the attic. The balloon flew at high speed across the state; fearing that the young boy was trapped inside, the National Guard was called, activity at the Denver airport was halted, and Americans sat riveted to their televisions.
Never mind the mounting casualties in Afghanistan! Health care? Nuclear armament of Iran? Meh. A little boy may be flying through the air in a big, silver balloon! While search parties combed Colorado for Falcon Heene, Wolf Blitzer and his cronies examined and reexamined fuzzy photos that may–or may not–have depicted an “object” falling from the balloon.
In serious tones, “experts” were consulted as to what “lessons” we could all learn from this story. (Um, don’t climb inside your storm chasing reality tv-contestant father’s science projects and fly across Colorado? Yeah, that sounds pretty universal.) No one seemed terribly interested in the fact that, given the dimensions of the balloon, Falcon’s weight, and the laws of physics, the balloon in question would almost certainly have been unable to even lift a 50 pound child, let alone soar across Colorado for 60 miles carrying one.
When young Falcon was found (and, for the record, I’m as happy as anyone else that the kid was unharmed), he and his family were interviewed by Mr. Blitzer. The boy came right out and said that his adventure had, in fact, been “for the show.” So was the whole boy-in-the-balloon story just a big hoax? Is the American dream of a house with a yard and a white picket fence incomplete without a gaggle of cameramen on the perfectly manicured lawn?
And at the end of the day, who is more culpable? The news networks, for sensationalizing and dumbing down every pseudo-story that comes down the pike, or us, for actually giving a shit? And now, for more on this story, we turn to Howard Beale. Howard?