3/22/08

Reflections on 'Broadcast News'

It's been Spring Break here, which means I had to go to work at 8am instead of noon. It's a difficult life I lead.

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I recently rewatched James L. Brooks' critique of media, 'Broadcast News', which Anderson Cooper claims is his favorite movie about the media. I used to laugh really hard because there are so many fantastic lines, and as a teenager, that's pretty much all that interested me (that and one of the female character's naked thighs on a pillow- a scene I don't remember seeing this time). Albert Brooks' Aaron Altman is the 'me in film': a character we all identify with, even though we wish we didn't, a kind of counter-public.

Brooks was unfortunately not a "this is what could happen", soothsayer-type. Unfortunately, this is exactly what has happened to at least the American media in the nearly 20 years since the making of 'Broadcast News'. Flash has become substance and instead of people getting what they need, they're getting whatever makes them watch your channel versus one of the other channel.

Consider this: even though CNN existed at the time Brooks made the film, the incident that takes place as a central point in the film -the Libiyan bombing of American plans in Sicily and then William Hurt's Tom Grunick becoming the anchor of the special report, catapulting him into stardom- would have become completely different in context with 24 hour news. There'd be no need to pull reporters as someone would already be on the air. Chuck Roberts would shift his facial expression and report.

What Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) fears has come true in the American media. Instead of reporting anything vaguely important, the news is filled with mind-numbing quantities of stories meant to scare you into acting a certain way. The curtain has been pulled over our eyes in order to breed a group of people so detached from what's going on in the country that government has been allowed to run amuck with little resistence from the populous. What has happened with our sound-bite driven media is that when George Bush comes on and says the economy is strong, and then the news networks play that 5 second piece ad nauseum, it becomes the truth for so many Americans.

When Aaron Altman walks in during Grunneck's report on date rape, and later stands up to ask if he can put on the news, he is shushed by all those claiming to be the media. Their reaction to him leads to one of him fantastic lines: "Sex? Tears? This must be the news." And it is the news now. The only reason you may have had a chance to forget about Gary Condit is because of 9/11.

And you'll never forget 9/11, will you? Who would give you that chance? Between the media, the President, and those running for President, 9/11 has become the only thing people living in this country are all aware of. The media is an obsessive conspiracy theorist, so concerned with filling time that any idea is worth talking about and beating to death.


The struggle between Altman and Grunick is a central struggle for the film. Altman is incredibly talented and intelligent but doesn't look good or speak commandingly. he is, however, incredibly aware of all this and knows that with the changing times, his kind of journalist is out. At the same time, Grunick's stock is on the rise, and very quickly at that, even though he is aware of his short-comings. He doesn't understand the news he's reading most of the time, but due to his showmanship and good looks, he's able to convince the powers that be, as well as the television audience, that he's legitimate journalist. It's because he knows he's selling himself.

The moment that Altman hears Grunick talk about being salesmen, Altman knows the path the media will follow: lowering our standards little by little until our detachment grows to such a level that all we have left is the material goods through which these interactions are possible.

At the end of the movie, with Altman's pending move to Portland, Altman laughs that Portland will see a huge rise in international news coverage. This was the direction local news could have gone: to grow larger and more powerful and take hold of the media and drive it in a positive direction. Unfortunately, the opposite has happened and local media have become a channel for all the local terror, including making suburbanites afraid of the inter-cities and their denizens.

Ultimately, Brooks' film could not stand as a warning, but only as a sign post. As if people watched the movie and thought that what was happening was a good idea and that it should be followed! Call me a negative nancy, but this spiral is now unstoppable and we will continue to fall, detached and diseased by media.

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