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January 17, 2019

It’s ‘Network’ nation: How our media became overrun by polarization, outrage and attitude

January 13, 2019
NEW YORK, NY – DECEMBER 06: Bryan Cranston takes his opening night curtain call for the play “Network” on Broadway at The Belasco Theatre on December 6, 2018 in New York City. (Bruce Glikas / Bruce Glikas/WireImage)

On Broadway, Bryan Cranston is performing to sold-out audiences in the stage revival of “Network.” Reprising the classic role of television news anchorman Howard Beale, Cranston plays an aging anchor who revives his career by learning that outrage sells.

Informed that he is going to be replaced due to poor ratings, Beale tells his audience that he is going to commit suicide. His threat to kill himself brings viewers alive. The network’s executives seize the moment and capitalize on his anger, letting him go on the air every night to rant and rave about world events.

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“I’m mad as hell,” Beale yells, “and I’m not going to take this anymore.” In the theater, the audience joins the actor and the action of the show.

The current play and the original film are clever parodies of the news industry. When the movie debuted in 1976, audiences were entertained by its prediction of a dark future of the evening news — a dystopia driven by commercialized, sensationalized, and celebrity-driven formats for delivering information.

At the time, ABC anchorwoman Barbara Walters insisted, “There’ll never be that kind of show-biz approach to the news. The entertainment side of television is more respectful of the news side than at any time in the past.”

Seen in 2019, however, Cranston’s performance largely confirms the reality of what we see and read on a daily basis. As the star said in an interview about the show, “talking about the packaging of news and manipulating audiences . . . being addicted to our televisions . . . that’s exactly what is happening.”

Beale no longer surprises us and, in some ways, even seems a bit tame. (One reviewer noted that the character doesn’t have access to Twitter, which would make things even worse).

While contemporary commentators have noted the ways in which the news industry has become increasingly partisan, they have not given enough weight to another, equally important aspect of the industry’s modern history — the ways in which news has become sensationalized.

News outlets, from television to social media, constantly play to the partisan fault lines that divide this nation because that seems to be what audiences want. In a politically polarized nation, the news is increasingly discussed in terms that are less black and white, and more red and blue.

This basic theme of “Network” is incredibly fitting in the age of President Trump. No politician has understood or exploited the changes in the media landscape more than Trump, a commander-in-chief who makes provocative and shocking statements that predictably garner attention from those who love him and hate him.

When he announced that he would give a national address about a manufactured border crisis, the President knew that he would shape the national narrative, as professional pundits in the print and TV media, and amateurs on social media, would find themselves drawn to debate his decision.

How did the news media become this way?

The changes started in the early 1980s when the “big three” networks (NBC, ABC, and CBS) and the handful of city newspapers that had long dominated the media ecosystem first started to lose their hold. On television, cable news networks revolutionized the landscape.

CNN — the original Cable News Network — introduced the 24-hour news cycle when it went on the air on June 1, 1980 and, unlike the old networks, never went off. Other competitors followed suit, replicating the model in the world of news and countless other subjects.

Notably, unlike the old broadcast networks, the new channels consciously followed a model of what MTV — launched in 1981 — called “narrowcasting.” Rather than seeking to bring in as many viewers as possible to a middle ground, they instead sought to reach smaller pockets of viewers where they already were, catering to their interests with specialized and stylized programming.

Unlike the old networks, which had earned most of their revenue from non-news programs like sitcoms and soap operas, the new generation of cable news networks depended solely on the success of their news shows.

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And as cable news shows provided new competition for viewers, producers on the old networks were forced to create innovative formats that would draw audiences back. They experimented with one-hour news magazines like “Nightline,” which originally offered dramatic updates on the Iranian hostage crisis.

The strict wall that had separated the “hard” news division from the “softer” parts of the networks began to break down by the end of the decade. Everyone was concerned about the bottom line.

As television news expanded in a 24-hour media landscape — always glomming onto the controversy of the moment with saturation coverage, always prioritizing commentary and reaction over illuminating coverage — newspapers worried they would become irrelevant.

One of the pioneers of the new era in print journalism was USA Today, which hit the stands on September 15, 1982. The slick paper offered a stark contrast to the staid Washington Post or Wall Street Journal, aiming to replicate the tenor of television with glossy color photographs, shorter articles and sensational headlines.

The first issue of USA Today carried glib headlines like “Your kid REALLY may be sick of school” and covered sensational topics like the death of Princess Grace in Monaco (which editors selected instead of covering the assassination of the president-elect of Lebanon).

Established newspapers remade themselves in response. The New York Times, for example, introduced a section called “Living” and in 1997 the editors started using color photographs as well.

The dynamics on television and radio changed even more when partisan news came to be seen as legitimate. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan and his Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ended a decades-old policy known as “the fairness doctrine.”

This FCC rule, established in 1949, had required stations to provide equal time to opposing political views in any discussion of controversy. Meant to provide balance, the “fairness doctrine” in practice encouraged the networks to avoid political disputes and play things down the middle. But Reagan believed that the rule hampered conservative voices who did not have access to the mainstream media.

The end of the “fairness doctrine” ushered in a radically new era in news. As the nation became increasingly divided along partisan lines, producers and executives began to realize that there was money to be made in presenting the news from a particular political perspective.

Talk radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh developed a national following by offering the news from a conservative vantage point. His ratings soared, peaking at over 20 million listeners.

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In 1996, Fox News followed suit on television, offering the most powerful example of what a partisan news service looked like. While those behind the new network had political motives, the true inspiration for Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes seemed to be a recognition that there was a lucrative market in the new world of partisan media.

Meanwhile, MSNBC, which also went on air in 1996, learned during George W. Bush’s presidency that there was also room to do the same on the liberal side. Pushing the news for a red or blue audience, cable networks learned, could draw big audiences.

The expansion of the Internet in the early 2000s only intensified this commercial news culture. Craigslist, an online site founded in 1995, gradually took away a key source of revenue that newspapers had depended on — classified ads — and forced print publications to look for new sources of revenue.

As readers increasingly looked to get their news online, news sites became dependent on online advertisers. For such advertisers, the content of the news was unimportant, except in terms of what might draw in as many readers as possible.

In an increasingly competitive market, with a seemingly endless number of sites and a constant news cycle in need of content, online news providers leaned to attention-grabbing headlines and easily-digested stories.

In the world of social media, sites like Facebook (created in 2004) and Twitter (2006) revolutionized the internet in another way. While news organizations sought ratings, ordinary users on these new forms of media craved likes and retweets as a form of social legitimacy.

Audiences now approved or disapproved of content in real time, and with real consequences. Notably, as reporters from print and television news came to rely on social media as a way to reach readers, they fell sway to the same incentives.

All of this has added up to a media universe that is far more dystopian than anything the creators of the film “Network” could have ever envisioned in 1976. From television to Twitter, the news landscape has become commercialized and sensationalized in ways that have reshaped the ways in which we receive and react to news about our world.

The line between entertainment and information — comically blurred in “Network” — has become tragically confused in our own time. Everyone, it seems, is mad as hell. But it’s not clear if we can take it as a nation.

Kruse and Zelizer are the authors of a new book, “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.”

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