Film class — week 12

10 November 2006, 1428 EST

Film #12 “Network” (1976). We viewed it Tuesday.

Readings for Thursday: Michael Massing, “Now They Tell Us,” 51 The New York Review of Books, February 26, 2004.

PIPA (Program on International Policy) and Knowledge Networks Poll, “Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War,” October 2, 2003.

I selected this film for a number of reasons. First, it highlights the power of transnational corporations in global politics. Arthur Jensen, head of a conglomerate that owns the television network highlighted in the film’s title, eventually lectures anchorman-turned-prophet Howard Beale:

You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West! There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, Reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds and shekels. It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today.

…You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen, and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and A T & T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.

…We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale! It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there’s no war and famine, oppression or brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.

That speaker uses hyperbole, of course, but it is not all that far removed from some of the points made by globalization cheerleaders in the past decade or so.

The second reason I selected the film is that it emphasizes the role of the media in highlighting violence in the world — particularly terrorist violence. Ultimately, the UBS network executives hire a terrorist group to commit and film acts of terror so that the footage can be usedly in a weekly scheduled program. Unsurprisingly, this choice proves to be a ratings bonanza.

Before 9/11, terror experts in the social sciences argued that terrorists did not want to kill large numbers of people — and that their primary goal was to gain attention for their political cause. As Brian Jenkins wrote in 1987, “Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.” In this film, perhaps as in real life, television and terrorists work synergistically, with insufficient discussion of the societal implications.

The readings selected for this week addressed the media’s role in manipulating information used to promote war. Massing’s much-discussed piece elaborates the failure of the New York Times and Washington Post to investigate Bush administration claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Even when the papers did identify and cover dissent, they tended to place these stories well within their pages, rather than on the front page where hawkish administration claims were typically found.

The PIPA study, however, found that people were far less likely to have been misled about the Iraq war if they relied upon print media rather than television for their news. Unfortunately, 80% of the people they surveyed primary relied upon TV. Viewers of Fox and CBS were particularly likely to think (erroneously) that WMD had been found in Iraq, that Iraq had participated in the 9/11 attacks on the US, and/or that most of the world supported the US attack in March 2003.

The least likely members of the public to suffer the misperceptions? Viewers of PBS and listeners of NPR. While 80% of Fox viewers believed one or more misperceptions about the war (along with 71% of CBS’s audience, 61% ABC, and 55% NBC and CNN), only 23% of the PBS-NPR audience had these beliefs. For readers of print media, the corresponding figure is 47%.

In “Network,” every UBS programming decision is made with an eye toward achieving higher ratings and increasing advertising revenues. The executives find a way to avoid potential roadblocks from their own legal affairs advisors, standards and practices offices and FCC regulators.

As critic Roger Ebert pointed out in a 2000 review, “the movie has been described as ‘outrageous satire’ (Leonard Maltin) and ‘messianic farce’ (Pauline Kael),” but “a quarter-century later, it is like prophecy.”

My students have seen Osama bin Laden’s home movies and viewed the twin towers being hit by commercial aircraft — and then falling. Like the rest of us, they saw these images again and again and again. They have seen the shocking images from Abu Ghraib, heard the rants of Bill O’Reilly, and watched Jerry Springer’s guests scream and fight with one another. What was nearly over-the-top in 1976, a live on-air assassination, seems almost like regular programming now.

After viewing “Network,” I wanted the students to think about why they have repeatedly seen all these images. Who makes those decisions? Why do they make those decisions? Who benefits? What are the social and political costs? Does it make certain threats seem overblown? Does it make all of us vulnerable to manipulative leaders? What is the public interest?

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