The pains of broadcast news

I hate watching broadcast news. I always have. It’s overly dramatic and fluctuates between bubbly, well groomed anchors giggling together and doomsday readings of the latest murder/car chase/drug bust. It wasn’t until I got to Medill that I realized how much work broadcast news is, with long hours and tight deadlines. How hard it is to line up a shot right, get the mike to work properly, find sufficient b-roll, ask all the questions and find someone to say sure, film my every word and movement for the public to see. Maybe it’s because our professors don’t bring in the lightweight anchors like Tom Grunick, the bumbling pretty boy of Broadcast News. They bring in the Aaron Altmans, the hardworking, capable reporters, who tell us harrowing tales of 6 a.m. story pitching, followed by more pitch meetings throughout the day, actual reporting and taping and meetings until the 10 p.m. news. I still hate watching broadcast news, but I respect it more, because I know I could never do it.

So I guess I don’t know how I feel about Network. The satire follows the devolution of a network broadcasting station. Like in The Insider, at times the broadcasters and newsmen are helpless to stop the power of the media machine, try as they might. The news can try to be pure and independent all it wants, but there’s still that pesky corporation to deal with, nagging for viewers, ratings, income. Veteran anchor Howard Beale starts mouthing off on-air when he’s told that he will be fired, and the viewers love it. Conniving and ruthless programming director Diana Christiansen exploits his popularity, turning the news show into a circus complete with raving prophet, fortune teller, and clamoring studio audience. The film ends on a voice over: Howard Beale, the first man to ever be killed for bad ratings. I understand that television news isn’t perfect. It’s showmanship as much as it is hard news gathering. But Network was too over the top for me. The minute they brought out the psychic, I felt myself tuning out. Like in The Front Line, there wasn’t anyone to root for. Harold was a raving lunatic caught up in his own little world, Diana was barely even human and Max, the only one who seemed sane, didn’t push back even as the network crumbled around him, blithely allowing Diana to use and abuse him however she wished.

Broadcast News, even as a romantic comedy, somehow managed to tackle many of the same issues about the weaknesses of television news without the apocalyptic overtones. Tom succeeds even though he barely knows what he’s saying because he’s pretty while Aaron works himself to the bone for few rewards. Personal feelings get in the way of objectivity and Jane sends her romantic competition out on an assignment to get rid of her, instead of because she’s the best reporter for the job. It’s a lighthearted movie with no happy ending, and that made it more powerful and lifelike. Everyone just keeps doing the best they can, under the circumstances.

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