A Wakeup call from the grips of TV land
by Jahanzaib Haque
(Published in The Friday Times)
In a seeming challenge to those working in Pakistan’s media, Karachi’s, ‘The Second Floor’ cafe offered up a screening of, ‘Network’ – a 1970’s classic which offers a satirical glimpse into the dark, unseen fantasy world of those who run prime time news in the U.S.
The Peace Niche group (who own and operate The Second Floor) announced the film on their website (www.t2f.biz) recommending it, “to all our friends who work in television media!”
These words cannot be understated.
Although the viewing was attended by a considerably ‘cozier’ gathering than expected, the impact of the film’s examination of TV journalism, and its relevance for Pakistan was not lost on those in the darkened cafe.
As if speaking directly about Pakistan’s condition, failing news anchor, Howard Beale (played by actor, Peter Finch) announces a prophetic, unscripted diatribe on one of his last live newscasts at the start of the film,
“I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job…banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it.”
As Howard Beale descends into madness and delusion, he is exploited by a brilliant, but hollow young producer, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) who keeps him on air with the help of her boss, Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) despite warnings and appeals from Beale’s old friend and one-time producer, Max Schumacher (william holden).
The now crazed news anchor is allowed to say what he likes on-air in the name of ratings. He is dubbed, “mad prophet of the airways” and fuels his captive audience with anarchy, despair and ironically – freedom.
At this point, the soft chuckles in The Second Floor have died down. Those watching the film can feel the sinking sensation of a parallel to Pakistan which hits too close to home. Director Sidney Lumet’s brilliant criticism stabs deep at the heart of the media’s craze for ratings and entertainment value over an ethical code and quality.
Questions come to mind… Is Pakistani media creating parts of our dark reality or is it just highlighting it? What is going amiss? And most importantly, who decides what is allowed on air and why?
“Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube… this tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers…and woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people” says the flailing News Anchor in, ‘Network’.
Beale’s end finally arrives in the form of a meeting with the Chairman of the news network, Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) who far from firing the crazed news anchor, encourages him along a new path; a darker vision where, “The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale… And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company.”
Having gone over the deep end, there is no rescue for the film’s dark, maniacal hero/puppet. Spoiler warning: After the news anchor begins preaching the network chairman’s reality to the masses, his ratings fall, and he is eventually gunned down by assassins placed in his audience – orchestrated by his production team.
The film closes with a single line by the narrator,
“This was the story of Howard Beale: The first known instance of a man who was killed because of lousy ratings.”
While the film’s breadth and depth explore many other factions of human reality (through an intimate relationship between Max and Diana for example) the focus of this Oscar winning movie remains clearly on the issue of the massive impact of TV news in modern society – and the dangers of the depths to which this medium can descend into madness – possibly taking its audience down with it.
With the screening over, the Second Floor remained unusually quiet, as discussion was trumped by each viewer’s internal re-examination of the state of Pakistan’s news reporting, the role of our new ‘prophets’, the News Anchors, and whether ethical checks and balances are currently in place for the media as the country continues to face previously unchartered crises.
One hears a muted, “Pakistan First” as people file out of the cafe.