One of 13 Case Study Films on the Hollywood Representation of News Broadcasting.
From Chapter Five: "We, the media..." Case Study Analysis : Broadcast News (1987)
“James Brooks’ wry and perceptive angle on the 1980s media developments is helpfully seen in the context of a parallel concern emerging in academia about the “now…this!” corporate news discourse. Neil Postman, in his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (1987), scored early points. Here, the late Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at New York University fulminated how, under the pressure to deliver audiences by the minute and even second, the “now…this!” syndrome prevailed,
“…in its boldest and most embarrassing form. For there, we are presented not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment.” (Postman, 1987, p. 102).
Postman’s (1987) argument pivots on the notion that all cultural communication conforms eventually to the leading paradigm – the format – as defined by broadcast television – that it must entertain and look good. The point of proof for Postman (1987) was in broadcast news where – across news items, music jingles, commercials and even kooky weather reports – the real and the fictional, the serious and the trivial become hopelessly blurred, kept into some ‘meaningful’ focus by the reassuring staged presence of the news anchor. Similarly, in the case of Broadcast News (1987) David Ansen (1987) began his review of the film with a timely, and for us, useful, contextual account that summarised how,
“In the last few years, network news has entered the Twilight Zone. With NBC General Electrified, ABC in the clutches of Cap Cities and CBS dished and Tisched, the news traditionalists have lost yardage to the bottom-line boys. Massive cutbacks and layoffs threaten the quality of news journalism. Ratings fever gives rise to showbiz razzle dazzle (Ansen, Newsweek. 28.12.1987: 44)
Broadcast News (1987) explores in powerful close-up the tension between journalist integrity and those powerful commercial expectations to perform both on the screen and thence in the stock market. Within this frame, the theme of authenticity becomes central since it is both the (visible) corporate asset that broadcast news depends on for its own legitimacy and provides that narrative frisson which the filmmakers rely on for lacerating dramatic irony, for as the script would say of Tom Grunick/William Hurt, “He seems authoritative, compelling, even in a low key way. We trust him…
Anchor: “…an object used to hold something firmly in place, a source of stability or security.” (Hanks, 1990, Collins English Dictionary)
The broadcaster’s claim on news authenticity is vital if their appropriation of the public airwaves – as licensed by the FCC – is to be justified. The human ability to convincingly convey information truthfully is the core asset in justifying the broadcaster’s right to transmit programmes for the “public interest, convenience, or necessity”. Ratings, revenue and individual resumes all ultimately depend on this intangible but vital asset that, if anywhere on the schedules, depends on the assured and credible performance of the central news anchor who serves – eye-to-eye – as the only public face of the broadcasters anywhere on those schedules. Maintaining the apparent symbiosis that connects truth-telling to the viewer on one hand and viable corporate brand logo to the advertiser on the other is the key function of the million-dollar salary news anchor.
In this respect, James Brooks’ 1987 film – that scrutinises the role of a highly successful news anchor who knowingly and admittedly lacks any intellectual or emotional connection with the news he communicates – also serves as a knowing metaphor on both the contemporary commercial news environment of the 1980s (and since) and, more pertinently and implicitly, as a knowing metaphor on the staged dramaturgy of the U.S. Reagan Presidency itself.
Television to Film – A Director’s Journey for James L. Brooks
The first and lasting instructions to any screenwriter is: write what you know about but write also what you care about. James Brooks’ critical and box-office success with Broadcast News (1987) would certainly stand as a useful example of this adage.
By the time he focused his sights on a three-way Romantic comedy set in a Washington, D.C. newsroom he had been a highly reputable writer, director and producer of the major TV hits The Mary Tyler Moore Show then Lou Grant, both newsroom-based soap comedies which he created, the former with Allan Burns. His only actual industry contact with the real world of news delivery seems to be in the early 1960s when he worked as a copy boy for CBS in New York (Ansen, 1987). From this we might rightly assume that what Brooks brought to the screen in Broadcast News (1987) was a thorough and clear understanding not only of contemporary U.S. news broadcasting – but the workings of successful television soap drama as well. He also brought a certain credibility earned in Hollywood as the Oscar winning writer and director of his first feature Terms of Endearment (1983).
Genre Binary Oppositions
In keeping with Brooks’ television predecessors, Broadcast News (1987) is carefully attuned to the genre conventions of the screwball journalist film (Ehrlich, 1997). The Romantic triangle becomes a demanding noose that tightens around news producer Jane Craig/Holly Hunter who must decide between the competing opposites – her long-term professional associate and friend Aaron Altman/Albert Brooks or the newly appointed news anchor, bland, beautiful but beguiling WASP Tom Grunick/William Hurt. For the committed Jane, however, the character portraits represent the alternative values of news journalism that are becoming more evident in the newsroom as market forces impact on both news content and dwindling staff numbers. The dark, curly haired Altman works, eats and thinks as the representative but untelegenic news journalist who is committed to context, accuracy and risking life, while Grunick, the lithe but illiterate WASP is loved – but only by the studio camera and the watching millions. But ultimately they will all owe their careers to Grunick’s success in the ratings war The construction of such conflicts that generate plot development and theme turn on well formulated syntactical dualisms that have characterised the news journalist genre since The Front Page (1931/1973).
As examples, the holy grail of journalism is, of course, Truth (objectivity vs subjectivity) and certain character attitudes to this (idealism vs cynicism) help determine our empathy with the stars as they contest the conflicting values of home vs work, the public interest vs corporate interest or industry interest vs private interest (Ehrlich, 1997). How each film etches and colours these binary oppositions through character representation and plot developments signifies, on the broader palette, contemporary cultural tensions – both conscious and unconscious. Looking momentarily to the genre lineage, for example, Ehrlich (1997) observes how,
“The 1970s saw a resurgence of the journalism movie, responding to a changing political culture. Disillusionment over Vietnam and Watergate helped foster the so-called conspiracy films… In All the President’s Men 1976) and The China Syndrome (1979), reporters are heroic figures who help expose such conspiracies. But in The Parallax View (1974), the reporter’s attempt to uncover truth ends with his death. And in Network (1976), corporate greed subsumes journalist integrity, culminating in an anchorman’s murder on live television.” (Ehrlich, 1997, p. 272-273)
One common stereotypical element in a number of our film texts is, of course, the role of the committed ambitious female as she contends with her patriarchal environment of ‘hard’ news journalism. The formulaic plot pattern – from Network (1976) and Up, Close and Personal (1996) to Deep Impact (1998) – presents the female journalist with the home vs work dilemma, not the crusading male. Dow (1996) argues that “traditional thought prescribes that woman are best suited for the private realm, and men for the public, professional one…”, and critically considers how Brooks’ earlier The Mary Tyler Moore Show (amongst several others) is an example in television entertainment where this ideology is continually reproduced, despite often laudable surface gestures to the contrary. So, even though ‘Mary’ is at work, and as a secretary, she nevertheless plays the stereotypical “caring nurturer” in the happy family of mainly overstretched male bosses (Dow, 1996, p. 268).
In our 1987 version, plot (Jane’s problem) and theme (truth/reality) are neatly fused within the first five minutes during her earnest but unsuccessful seminar in news ethics delivered to a largely unresponsive selection of new-era well-groomed television news journalists:
JANE: Our profession is in danger. Yesterday’s compliment has somehow managed to become today’s kiss of death. To be considered a serious journalist is no longer flattering. It presents the risk of being labeled ponderous, or worse yet, elitist, right? We are being increasingly influenced by the star system. The network anchormen are so powerful they compromise our last best hope. The current group is clearly qualified, tied still to our best traditions, but who follows these men?
Jane’s earnest critical overview of the contemporary news broadcasting environment chimes both with critical commentaries in academia (Postman, 1987) and, in narrative terms, establishes very effectively what McGee (1999) would describe as the moral universe through which the film will take us. It is a moral universe that negotiates across the set of binary oppositions we have outlined from Ehrlich (1997), and particularly that opposition which specifically underscores the tension between public interest and corporate interest. Underlying Jane’s professional emphasis, of course, lurks related oppositions (home vs work) and the unspoken private but very obvious issue of finding a man not in the office, but in life.
So, Jane is quickly positioned, as screenwriting guru Robert McGee (1999) would have it, as an empathetic protagonist who is,
“…living a life that’s more or less in balance…life is in relative control…then…suddenly an event occurs that radically upsets its balance, swinging the value-charge of the protagonist’s reality either to the negative or to the positive.” (McGee, 1999, p. 190).
Jane is both a successful and well-established news producer but remains fighting the uphill battle to rescue the heritage of American news broadcasting from the surrounding marketers (as if this is a new development). The contest is vividly dramatised as she confronts the lethargic faces of her audience and counters the sighs of those already leaving the auditorium for an early lunch. In rising frustration, Jane turns quickly instead to a contemporary example of news broadcasting – fresh, perhaps, in the minds of the film’s own 1987 audience:
JANE: Oh, I was going to show you a tape – a story that was carried by all networks on the same night. The same night not one network noted a major policy change in Salt Two nuclear disarmament talks. Here’s what they ran instead.
Alongside her live audience, we see a sequence showing the Japanese Domino Championships as broadcast by all the networks in the Spring of 1985. The multi-lines of dominoes create waves, crossing tiny bridges and setting off little fireworks. Despite her intentions, however, Jane’s audience applauds loudly and enthusiastically and it is against calls for more of the same that she battles:
JANE: I know it’s a good film. I know it’s fun. I like fun. It’s just not news. Well, you’re lucky you love it, you’re going to get a lot more just like it.
A stray voice answers back “good!” as the media workers of the future leave for their ‘network’ lunch. Jane is now perfectly pitched by Brook’s script as the successful but idealistic news producer having to work within a counter commercial culture turning quickly towards the rewards of easy and cheap entertainment. So we have a Hollywood film critically assessing how the entertainment values of commercial cinema are being appropriated by the news divisions. Her moral and private dilemma is dramatically focused with the quiet, modest but alert intervention of Tom Grutnick/William Hurt – cable sports anchor – who remains after the hall has quickly emptied and woos her to her bedroom and yet departs without making any of the unseemly moves which her years in the business have come to mostly anticipate, dread or, in his case, hope for. However, her fey attempts at seduction fail to divert him from his professional concerns, and the uncertain outcome of the scene arcs across their relationship throughout the film. Her moral universe is then quickly turned around when, much to her confused frustration, she learns that the illiterate Tom has been appointed as her new star anchor in situ – Mc Gee’s (1999) “sudden event”.
Their opening sequence at the conference that fuses plot (the need for a new man) with theme (truth/reality) has been turned, tightened and let loose to screwball the frenetic operations of her private and pubic life across act two where plot and subplots meet and clash to ever greater dramatic effect. The Romantic melodrama that comprises the main plot is neatly secured within a number of knowing and highly charged subplots focused on the working operations of the news division and culled from the contemporary setting which include the United States’ military contest with Libya and the radical changes to news broadcasting operations in the wake of those very mergers and acquisitions of the mid-1980s of the kind we have documented. These narrative impacts occur at two key plot points: Tom Grunick’s first real test as an anchor and, by contrast, Aaron’s failed rehearsal for the same role.
Film Representation of News at War
A phone call during an office party prompts the news division into an emergency – a Libyan jet has bombed a U.S. military base in Sicily and regular anchor Bill Rorich/Jack Nicholson is absent on vacation. The choice between experienced Aaron and novice Tom is an easy one for Paul, president of the news division (veteran NBC correspondent Peter Hackes). Despite Jane’s ardent protests that point to Aaron’s recent interviews with Colonel Quaddafi, Aaron must step aside and Tom must step forward from the shadows and carry the show with Jane acting as first-time executive producer. The filmed representation of the frantic backroom drama that brings the show smoothly to the screen is itself a finely balanced dramatic treat pulled off with some directorial panache by Brooks. It begins with Jane’s own self-conscious wariness about her new responsibility and her uncertainties about Tom’s ability and ends with a general acknowledgement of his highly tuned and composed professional skills both by her and the entire news division. Her strength of character and flair for leadership and his polished assured performance will effectively make it the Tom and Jane Show.
Tom, Aaron and the Hot Seat
A sleek camera dolly-in first presents Grutnick against the polished studio backdrop of warm orange and silver global map and then, once behind him, a gentle uncut 360 degree camera turn reveals the array of cables, monitors and off screen support staff of unfazed technicians, make-up and script personnel, with carpenters and sound engineers who hold the frail operation together. Tom’s performance is now in full view of the film audience. Across the sequence that follows, Tom neatly balances live interviews to outside broadcast units at the White House and confident camera address with rushed intercut video footage of Colonel Quaddafi and sea borne aircraft carriers. Frantic sound prompts and urgent instructions across studio and Outside Broadcast Unit personnel add to the rich visual mix while, at the centre, Tom maintains his professional calm focus, the epitome of polished unsweating grace under the live pressure of a national crisis. As the shot moves in to a tight close up showing the white earpiece firmly in place we begin to hear the barely audible crackle of Jane’s voice as she tells him roughly what to say and how long he has to say it. The two characters are thus intimately networked head-to-head in a way not possible elsewhere in their busy professional lives.
The real dramatic frisson for the film audience is how at this point Tom’s performance clearly relies almost entirely on those urgent prompts from Jane looking down from the monitor room and as based on points of fact and information provided by the drunken Aaron – who phones from home where he is watching the newscast. From Aaron at home through Jane in the monitor room to Tom in the studio comes a stream of historical understanding about the Middle East and relevant technical knowledge about those Tomcat jets in action over the Mediterranean, all picked up and mimicked with calm unflinching surety by Tom to the (unseen) watching millions.
The whole sequence underlines Tom’s obvious brilliance in selling himself as a performer who brings both credibility to other people’s ideas, opinions and perceptions and an appropriate authentic emotional pitch to that performance. However, as he gets the professional plaudits and Jane’s professional confidence and becomes studio star attraction, Aaron – the backroom bearer of knowledge and context – remains isolated at home, unknown to the public and under-appreciated by his bosses.
The contrast between Tom and Aaron is further exacerbated with the next major plot point that takes us to act three – the looming $24 million budget cut and the severe staff layoffs that must follow. The new regime-change prompts Aaron to actively consider a future life as an anchor and so he enlists the support of Tom (“just for superficial performance things”) as he rehearses for a weekend test spot. The scene serves as a working masterclass that provides our first insight into Tom’s working methods as it allows him to calmly and surely tutor the anxious Aaron in the fine art of successful news anchoring – by sitting on the jacket tail to assert the authoritative poise, or:
TOM: Don’t let your eyes go from the beginning of the sentence to the end like that. You don’t want to look shifty, do you? And the left side of your face is the good one. Go again. And try to punch one word or phrase in every sentence. Punch one idea a story. Punch. Come on. Try not to move your head or wrinkle your forehead. This is good, very good.
Finally, Tom’s last words of advice are punched for their own dramatic effect as if life and performance in him are unconsciously one. They remind Aaron, high priest of informed context and personal commitment, that:
TOM: …you’re not just reading the news or narrating. Everybody has to sell a little. You’re selling them this idea of you. You know, what you’re sort of saying is, trust me. I’m, uh, credible. So whenever you catch yourself just reading…stop and start selling a little.
Despite Tom’s earnest attempts, though, Aaron’s performance is a painfully wrought disaster – his fine prose cannot be emphatically punched, and so emerges as a complex and unfocused academic delivery. Added to this is Aaron’s anxiety under the intense heat of the studio lights that engenders a dripping flop sweat, demanding a rushed change of clothing from his bewildered back-up crew. The scene is finally complete with the swinging backdrop that comically results when costume and make-up personnel collide with cheap studio cardboard directly behind him. The fabricated world of the network studio becomes for Aaron a crazy jungle of comic misadventure and subsequent failed career hopes from which no magical pen – or rod – can save him.
Moments of Authenticity in the Postmodern Tear
A third subplot which signals the film’s 1980s credentials revolves around the issue of sexual politics and this becomes the more vital element in Jane’s decisive moment in act three where, in agreement with genre formula, she must decide between the failed Aaron and the newly promoted Tom – now London correspondent. Since the Hollywood paradigm resists a compromised life that would unite Aaron and Jane, the only uncertain outcome is her commitment to Tom – and all that he represents. Her wavering seems to be secured earlier when viewing his documentary on date rape. For both Jane and Tom, the subject is rich in subtextual allusion since it functions to anchor in her mind his original (noble) intentions in act one when on their first encounter in her hotel room they met so promisingly but from which he broke away so abruptly.
The documentary subject and the interview within it is wholly constructed by Tom, and represents both his professional commitment to earnest investigative journalism and, at the same time, his New Man tender sensibilities – and it works. What seems to close their professional (and therefore private) differences is the moment of truth when Tom dabs a single tear during a particularly painful interview with a female victim of date rape. To all appearances he seems to have answered Jane’s lonely call from the conference podium by perfectly combining the binary opposition between the noble legacy of the past (Edward E. Murrow) and the commercial demands of the contemporary news market – an esteemed news anchor and committed investigative journalist in one.
However, her later viewing of the original footage, (prompted by Aaron), reveals to Jane the very opposite. On closer inspection, the passing camera-shot of Tom’s touching tearful response is checked by Jane as a cheat cut-away, rehearsed and performed by Tom, scrupulously shot and carefully edited into the one-camera interview that would make such a reaction shot in real time impossible. While the cut sequence might underline Tom’s evident acting potential (and directorial skills in managing a news crew) for the ideal Jane it finally exposes his unflinching lack of authenticity – as a professional and as a possible life-partner. The issue that divides them is over professional integrity – the line between adherence to truth telling and truth-selling:
JANE: Working up tears for a new piece cutaway. You totally crossed the line between…
And his sharp defensive riposte speaks volumes about the industry of which they are a part since,
TOM: It’s hard not to cross it; they keep moving the little sucker, don’t they?
The positive/negative moral dilemma that has seen Jane waver from Aaron to Tom finally reaches a conclusion that, in a reunion seven years later, shows Aaron, now married with children but condemned to local news coverage in Portland and, by contrast, shows Tom, now having secured the prestigious New York anchor position and the 5th Avenue social life that goes with it. Jane, however, remains the tireless but slightly more weary working professional, still unwed, childless but dating, she insists, outside the profession.
Flat, Shallow and Very Smart – Benchmarking the Postmodern
“We filmed on a Friday afternoon;that same day everyone at CBS was let go.” Albert Brooks (Ansen, Newsweek. 28.12.1987: 44)
Like its genre predecessor, Network (1976), Broadcast News (1987) garnered a clutch of awards – four from the New York Film Critics and seven Oscar nominations – 1985 Oscar-winner Hurt was a nominee for his deftly nuanced portrayal of Tom (believed to be patterned on real-life anchor, Tom Brokaw). Positive critical reviews and box-office success followed: for Steve Grant (2003) it,
“…is knowing about the wisecracks, back-stabbings, political shifts, and innate decencies of the media game…and underpinning what is a charming protean love-triangle is a serious statement about the function, value and direction of television news.” (Grant, 2003, Time Out. p. 159)
One sequence that supports the film’s critical position covers the news production cycle from Nicaragua jungle ambush that Jane and Aaron undergo with Contra soldiers to its final studio transmission a few days later. Aaron’s assured delivery to camera under fire provides contextual background, informed comment and a poignant dramatic element. His wisecrack after the shot is characteristically knowing:
AARON: Can you believe it? I just risked my life for a network that tests my face with focus groups.
Back in Washington, D.C., however, he and Jane can only watch as his extended delivery is cut at the last minute. The drama of the report is further heightened by razzle-dazzle map graphics and a sharply edited voice-over from Aaron’s shadowed outline. His ominous words about approaching gunfire are left hanging as a narrative enigma to hook the audience across the intervening commercial break that is signalled by the station’s brief signature tune. The sequence that began as an insight into the Nicaraguan conflict by two committed investigative journalists ends, thereby, as a ploy to dramatically capture the evening audience as positioned to watch commercials for kitchenware.
However, like its engaging lead characters who want to play but not commit, the film seems sharply critical of the contemporary news broadcasting landscape yet wants to remain firmly within the Hollywood narrative paradigm that seeks for some satisfactory closure and the elimination of real-life contradictions that these critiques prompt. It is a narrative that glides but never plunges with a tone that, like its protagonists, celebrates knowingness over acquiring knowledge.
To begin our own critique, we can easily question the film’s initial equation that sets the contemporary commercial news environment against the noble legacy of its mythic roots in the 1950s. From our own brief overview in Chapters Two and Three it is clear how those roots were ceded to the commerical imperatives of the broadcasters as far back as the 1930s when major concessions to the commercial ethos were staked out in The Radio Act of 1927. In this respect, the film seems to share Jane’s own faulty assumption about this history, ignoring how the legacy of professional news journalism by the late 1950s was already compromised by the push for ever greater Nielson ratings.
The inaccurate binary opposition thus set in place determines the shading of the characters who are stereotypically sign-posted to personnify these attributes. Most awkwardly for any pedagog are the assumptions which are made and upheld early in the film that focus on the nature of literacy – that Aaron’s intelligent superiority comes naturally from his mastery over the Word, and that, by contrast, Tom’s lack in basic reading and writing skills makes him bland, morally shallow and illiterate. The easy – and false – equation is even voiced by Jane, and agreed by Tom, in their first acquaintance:
JANE: So, you’re not well educated and you have almost no experience and you can’t write.
To which he nods in agreement. Presenting Tom as a sleek puppet was for David Friedman (1987) “perhaps the Biggest Fib yet told about TV news” in the film, since,
“It teaches us that men and women who tell us the news each evening are mindless, wooden head puppets manipulated by all-knowing producers…the TV news business is too competitive and the financial stakes too high, to allow it. What the news divisions are selling each night – to sponsors as well as viewers – is credibility.” (Friedman, Newsday. 23.12.1987: 11)
However, Friedman (1988) misses a key point developed by the film in act two and secured by the film’s conclusion. Tom’s direct and clear mentoring of Aaron underscores a level of literacy about his medium, confirmed by his easy mastery over the techincal equipment around him. So despite our earlier skepticism, Aaron’s later failure – fully ‘explained’ by the film – seems to confirm and justify Tom’s manifest competent edge with the visual medium. His later career success in the art of modern communication suggests another potent level of literacy and understanding which, in common with the-then U.S. President, proves he and his like should never be underestimated.
As another indication of the film’s Janus-like aspect, we can look as well to how it represents the technical delivey of news broadcasting. In one particular early scene that quickly follows Tom’s arrival at the news centre, a last-minute rushed deadline for an insert story tracks a video tape from the editing console to the studio desk from where it is immediately sequenced into the live report as transmitted from New York. The frantically paced adventure across busy office space and packed corridors is, in film terms, a technical and dramatic marvel in itself – attempting to translate to the screen audience and the watching Tom the real-life tensions of network broadcasting. However, the lurking irony remains that the live programme has become dependent upon video taped sequences that have themselves been narratively shaped, edited and timed well in advance. The film sequence, therefore, tries to secure the continuing myth that, despite the advances in video technology, there still remains a live aspect to the exciting thrill of news broadcasting with all the customary uncertain outcomes. Incidentally, the taped story is a heavily truncated account of a war-weary U.S. mercenary returning from Angola as an unknown hero to his roots. Penned and voiced by Aaron, it ironically foreshadows his own disappointing career arc after his return from the jungles of Nicaragua as an unacknowledged hero of the mighty pen.
In the light of our earlier overview of 1980s news containment, the film’s representation of how broadcast news constructs foreign news reports is worthy of some extended analysis – though this is largely beyond our present limited scope.
However, of the three stories already mentioned (Nicaragua, Angola and Libya), the coverage of the Libyan bombing of a U.S. naval station in Sicily warrants some comment. The story is at the centre of the celebrated scene that displays Tom’s anchor skills at their best. It is breaking-news because American forces are under direct attack in the Meditteranean:
TOM: Good afternoon. A Libyan fighter plane attacked a United States military installation early this Morning…. and was, itself, shot down by American F-14 Interceptors. The Libyan Missile destroyed an Army warehouse which, just thirty minutes earlier, had been crowded with servicemen. No one was injured.
The satiric point of the script is, of course, in the last line. The busy rush of combined film and news visuals clouds a simple truth that at the centre of the drama, there is no story – and what there is has already happened and is being reported by the U.S. military and commented upon at a significant remove by journalists standing in the cold winds of Pennsylvania Avenue. What escapes the satire, however, is any question why American military forces are in Sicily in the first instance. While Aaron provides the technical details which support Tom’s command over the broadcast, his report does not suggest or even question the existence of the military base that is within striking distance of the Libyan coast and which might be the reason for the pre-emptive strike in the first instance.
However, what is pertinent about the representation of the show by the film is how the manufactured national crisis creates the “we” that works to identify the corporate news broadcasters with “their” national viewers. The light satirical touch is provided as the network boss proudly points out at the successful conclusion:
PAUL: This was important for Tom – there’s that bonding thing that happens with the public and an anchorman during a crisis. It’s not the conventions anymore; it’s this kind of moment.
The observation, loud and clear on the script page, however, is layered so smoothly into the end sequence mise-en-scene that its potential bite is lost as the main plot of the Romantic Triangle is again foregrounded and we learn of the “great sex” that Tom had with Jane through his earpiece. Sharp and telling satire is thereby sweetened.
Lastly, just as the news sequence that it satirises fails to deliver its final punch, so the film itself fumbles its own closure where it lurches heavily towards a mainstream ending that neatly allows the grim reality of downsizing in the broadcasting industry to function as support mechanism for the required happy ending. The compromised ending is deftly massaged when we learn that Aaron retains his professional integrity (and manhood) by happily resigning and moving to Portland, Tom is slated for the London office and groomed for the prestigious New York anchor post, and their boss Ernie/Robert Prosky happpily volunteers to step aside prior to his imminent retirement and so promote Jane, with no rivals in sight, to her new executive position as Bureau Chief. Indeed, by the film’s denouement, she will eventually move to New York to be Tom’s editor. Hence,
TOM: What did they do to you?
ERNIE: It’s what he did. I’m proud of him.
AARON: They told me they’d keep me because they could plug me into any story and my salary was in line.
ERNIE: The cost-efficient reporter.
AARON; So I quit.
The widespread forced redundancies that were suffered by journalists working in the commerical broadcast industry at this time in the mid-1980s are presented here, therefore, as a positive change that, like a ritual, brutal but necessary cleansing of the system, assists the leading characters towards their rightful place in the industry.
Significantly, there is a marked absence also of any reference to the kind of organised protest and newsroom activism during these years and as detailed by Byerly and Warren (1996). Similalry, unlike Network (1976), the Feminst agenda of the 1980s has become more easily accommodated within the mainstream – with a sexually unthreatening Holly Hunter as the representative successful career woman who at heart remains just one of the guys who chases in the closing minutes of the film other people’s children (a calculated book-end echo of the opening scene where in jogging suit she chased left-to-right after the morning newspapers).
Addtionally, the film’s own narrative jogging between biting satire and neat mainstream closure is interestingly mirrored in its chosen visual aesthetic. We have already outlined Brooks’s previous work in television situation comedy – itself a recurring motif in the standard reviews at the time. One such review from Michael Scheinfeld (1988) negatively assumed that the film’s glossy sheen was a creative failure by a director who had no real visual sense:
“Despite the photography of the esteemed Michael Ballhaus…the look of Broadcast News, like its subject, is flat and one-dimensional. Shots are framed and scenes staged with almost no consideration as to what cinema (as opposed to TV sitcoms) is all about, or capable of.” (Scheinfeld, 1988, Films in Review: 165)
Whether determined or not, it would be the position of the present writer to suggest that the non-cinematic look of the film that Scheinfeld (1987) accurately describes matches perfectly to its narrative theme and stands as a statement in itself about the uncertain status of film and television modes of address in the mid-1980s – where ‘film’ was more likely to be seen on television than in the theatre. The adopted flatness that Scheinfeld (1987) criticises neatly cushions the impact of the television sequences within the chosen film format, thus creating an aesthetic blend that helps position the film audience more fully as a television audience as well. In support, we can consider the ingratiating tinkly piano soundtrack by Bill Conti that satirically echoes – I would say deliberately – those tele-plays that had become the standard product on American television. The chosen visual aesthetic becomes, contrary to Scheinfeld (1987), another knowing angle in the director/writer’s pallete. Indeed, this form of sharp postmodern knowingness would be celebrated in the 1990s with The Simpsons which Brooks produced for the new Fox Channel. Its major success was pivotal in positioning NewsCorps cable system against the established broadcasters.
However, in this and virtually all levels, the film, like its characters, is relentlessly and frustratingly ambivalent – there is always an awkward ‘however’ to be made on each and every point of issue and where no final judgment is immune from compromise. Hence, the highlighted significance of Tom’s tear which was ‘faked’ for the camera but based, he assures Jane, on a real tear that fell earlier but which was not picked up by the camera. Jane’s moral dilemma in determining truth from fiction, real action from performance, is extended to the film audience which is priviledged at certain times to ‘witness’ Jane deliberately manufacture her own private ‘real’ tears within the tight daily schedule that she imposes on herself.
In addition, Brooks maximises the dramatic irony as Jane wells up her own tear on inspecting Tom’s own performed out-takes. Holly Hunter’s performance – like the film’s adopted televisual sit-com style – positions the audience in the very world of necessary compromise experienced by the characters – we are thereby implicated in a postmodern knowing awareness of the ‘truth’ of the performance and its own filmic constructedness, and we are encouraged by the homely mise-en-scene to enjoy both.
Some Critical Questions about Knowing and Knowledge
This form of smart knowingness – the sense of being brought ‘into the know’ – became for Gitlin (1998) a highly suspicious cultural characteristic in the postmodern hipness that coloured public discourse in the 1980s and 1990s. Gitlin was struck, for example,
“…by the growth of ‘knowingness’, a quality of self-conscious savy that often passes for sophistication…a state of mind in which any particular knowledge is less important than the feeling that one knows and the pleasure taken in the display of this feeling.” (Gitlin, 1998, p. 226)
Rather looking to a crude effects model, Gitlin (1998) considered how television, through its form, helped condition the tone and temper of American culture. That form was dictated by the opening markets following the deregulation rulings and exposed the American television audiences to a wider range of programme ‘choices’ wherein,
“A viewer engages less with the content of one program than masters an attitude of superiority to them all. Rather than learn one subject well, he or she acquires a sophisticated repartee and light banter good for discussing anything and everything that comes up – a style in which…to seem quick and knowing is more important than what one knows.” (Gitlin, 1998, p. 228)
The “fun culture” that this inspires, however, is shaded by a darker more sinister tone which, for Gitlin (1998), was celebrated by the promotion of David Letterman at CBS which indulged in the postmodern play that both worked and deconstructed the familiar talk show genre. The stylistic mode for Gitlin (1998) seemed to resonate across the culture where,
“Relentless if superficial self-disclosure is one of the conventions of television today. The audience is simultaneously alerted to the contrivance, transported behind the scenes, and pleased by both – and by the possibility of enjoying both.” (Gitlin, 1998, p. 229)
Gitlin’s (1998) observations in this regard on television, uncannily echo the dual tone we have explored in Broadcast News (1987) – where the perfectly balanced self-consciousness of the characters continually turn earnestness into parody and back again, a feature we can detect in the script samples chosen. It is a nuanced knowingness that differentiates the film from its more Modernist and committed 1970s predecessor Network (1976). Indeed, the closing shots of Broadcast News (1987) contain,
“…no revolt, no walking on water, and no raving mad man as in Network to symbolize the absurdity of it all, just a quiet retreat into individual lives as Tom continues what Aaron calls the longest running success story in history.” (Scott, 1994, p. 280).
In its ultimate compromise to being flat and happy Broadcast News (1987) anticipates those later films of the 1990s, Up,Close and Personal (1996), for example, where even the warm satirical edge of Brooks’ vision will be dissipated.
Into the 1990s – Moving What Line?
It is one central argument in this analysis that the development of news broadcasting in America was not an independent activity prompted by disinterested public servants working for the overall benefit of their fellow citizens. From its inception, the framework of the system was grounded on certain commercial considerations – shared by military interests and business interests – that guaranteed enormous profits for the broadcasters in return for some nominal gesture towards “public necessity” in the form of community service news and information delivery. The deregulatory measures since the early 1980s in particular have exposed this fundamental principle (the pivotal role of William Casey as CIA Director and major stockholder in ABC/Capital Cities serves as a poignant reminder of those links which founded the system after the World War One). Indeed, the neo-conservative success in dismantling the Fairness Doctrine, impacts directly on all forms of news and current affairs discourse in the United States to this day, a theme which becomes of major relevance with our analysis of Fox News in Chapter Eight.
Of building concern for our study is how news content since Broadcast News (1987) has been more nakedly and explicitly driven by commercial considerations – even to the point where informed political debate can be curtailed thus indirectly forcing election campaign ‘discussion’ to appear as aggressive electioneering on (expensive) commercial broadcast time. With this in mind, the recent 2004 Presidential election ‘race’ purported to be a boon for the television networks who, since 2001, had been suffering a downturn from conventional advertising income. This financial burden on the democratic process as imposed by the commercial networks – and supported by 1993 FCC ‘lowest unit charge’ rulings – can only be met by the hundreds of millions of dollars now needed as a result by those few U.S. Presidential candidates (or their corporate sponsors) who can afford the bill. By March 2004, George W. Bush’s election fund had reached $100 million and was targeted towards $170 million (the overall figure for both parties would exceed $500 million).
Such considerations bring questions about the political economy to bear on any textual study of media programming, whether they are news items or film representations of the industry that makes them. Deliberative news management by 1980s White House administrations and regulatory reviews conspired with invisible market forces to create a news environment choked of true investigative enquiry.
Under such free-market circumstances, the media, and news broadcasters in particular, play an ever more influential role, perversely, as social engineers in the very cultural and political national and international theatre on which they affect to report so objectively through their news broadcasting outlets. In short, both by calculated design (FCC rulings) and structured default (deregulation), the world of events about which the news broadcasters report is one that the political system of post-capitalism has, by and large, created in the first commercial instance.
With the Cap Cities acquisition of ABC leading the way, Paddy Cheyefsky’s Network (1976) satire no longer seemed outrageously implausible. The symbiotic relationship that yoked the political agenda of the fictional Ecumenical Liberation Army with the commercial needs of Diana Christensen’s news entertainment network became the subject in real life of those political and media commentaries in decades to come which, like Livingston (1994), argued how market theory created the social stage on which real bombs would be delivered by people said to envy “our freedoms”. If there is a real-life case study that highlights these trends it would be in the operations of the ABC network which, during the 1980s, seemed to merge the ideologies of the ruling administration with the media logics of market journalism.
The ABC of Networking Terrorism
We have already undertaken some gauge of how the U.S. media was positioned to cover U.S. foreign ‘wars’ during the 1980s. It should also be emphasised that such military interventions were rhetorically sharpened against terrorist bases or those states said to be supporting such bases. As an example, the ‘invasion’ of Grenada on 25th October 1983 followed two days after the deaths of 241 U.S. marines in Lebanon and was justified at the time because Grenada, according to the President in his 27th October 1983 speech to the nation,
“…was a Soviet-Cuban colony being readied as a major military bastion to export terror and undermine democracy. We got there just in time… Not only has Moscow assisted and encouraged the violence in both countries, but it provides direct support through a network of surrogates and terrorists.” (Birdsell, 1990, p. 201)
Despite the staged military deflection, however, hostage crises emerged later in 1985 (Beirut), 1986 (the ‘Achille Lauro’), and airport massacres occurred in 1985 (Rome and Vienna). That same year bombs exploded on TWA flight 840 (2nd April 1985) and in a discothèque in West Berlin (5th April 1985). These two events particularly – and their investigations and reactions – became the consistent focus in television news which ended on 15th April 1986 with the bombing of Libya by the United States.
Building on our Chapter Four coverage of Network (1976), we can readily identify a number of critical commentaries which during this time constructed arguments that implicated the operations of the media with the events so depicted. Clutterbuck (1975), Gal-Or (1985), Laqueur (1987) would, for example, concur in what became the “contagion theory” – that is, the notion that, “…the media were instruments used by terrorists to create a theater of terror, commanding publicity, gaining a following, and spreading information about terrorist tactics…” (Dobkin, 1992, p. 18) Considering how the media contributes to the definition of terrorism and how such definitions frame the narratives of news reports, Dobkin (1992) confirms that,
“Many scholarly descriptions of television news mention the entertainment value sought by news organizations, but few address the specific characterizations of news presentations as they reinforce and validate particular conceptions of foreign policy.” (Dobkin, 1992, p. 81)
In answer to this perceived absence, Dobkin (1992) made extensive research on this question using a range of news output from ABC during the 1980s as case study examples. In summary, she was able to affirm how, standard dramatic units in,
“…ABC news stories about terrorism include the tendency to nominalize visual referents of terrorism, portray government effects to combat terrorism as ineffective, mobilize viewer emotions through the use of video postcards, and speculate about the effectiveness and probability of military retaliation.” (Dobkin, 1992, p. 81)
However, by looking at the dual rhetorical function of such coverage, Dobkin (1992) critically observes how (and in allusion to the bombing of Libya in 1986):
“News narratives can criticize public officials, thereby reifying an illusory watchdog function while simultaneously suggesting policy options that may support the goals of those officials. Combined, these dramatic units create a narrative exigency for military action taken by the United States against a target that symbolizes terrorism…these news narratives become structurally aligned with an ideology of foreign policy driven by military strength and intervention. Television news coverage of terrorism thus contributes to the building of public support for military intervention rather than the formulation of policies that can effectively address the causes or prevention of political violence.” (Dobkin, 1992, p. 81).
Dobkin’s (1992) assessment provides a tenable and timely contribution to our closing observations on U.S. media of the 1980s and as it began to more explicitly duplicate themes in Network (1976) that underscored the duplicitous nature of the news broadcasters as innocent recorders of events and actants in the creation of those events. Furthermore, what makes her detailed research even more interesting is that it is undertaken with no reference to those media mergers of the 1980s which saw the ABC network purchased outright by Cap Cities during the years in question. Likewise, there is no reference to how the dramatic coverage of U.S. foreign policy of the kind outlined above may have contributed to the significant rise in the ABC profit margins during this time (Figure 20). Indeed, as way of suggestive allusion, we have already made reference to William Casey’s dual role as key ABC shareholder and as Reagan-appointed Director of the CIA during these years and the work of early ABC directors in financing Reagan’s political campaigns since the 1960s (Chapter Three).
If there is a cogent link across these points, it might lie in Dobkin’s (1992) intriguing account of how upgraded official terrorist figures from Casey’s CIA became unquestioningly reported through the obliging ABC media outlet. Her insight in this respect is worth quoting in full, since,
“…the criteria for labeling an act terrorist is neither clear nor consistent. The media’s role in privileging particular statistics and creating dramatic facts is evident from the beginning of the Reagan administration. For instance, on March 11, 1981, ABC World News Tonight featured a CIA report that documented a “jump in worldwide assassinations” and a doubling of terrorist incidents from 1978 to 1980… Additionally, in 1980 the CIA revised its figures to include both a broader range of data sources and statistics on threats and hoaxes, which led to a “dramatic upward revision of figures” on terrorism (Wilkinson, 1986)…this shift in statistical inventory was not mentioned in ABC’s nightly newscast.” (Dobkin, 1992, p. 35-36)
The account from Dobkin (1992) that points to the co-mingled operations of the CIA and ABC reporting highlights the degree to which this broadcaster in particular was eager to forward the neo-conservative agenda. How far this specific agenda had a direct bearing on the rising profits that the company amassed during these years is a matter of speculation (Dunnett, 1990). What can be said is that the adopted news agenda did not detract from these profits. Indeed, the rich mix of new technologies, recent mergers and sympathetic political ideologies provided all the temptations and opportunities to test the line of journalist integrity as ABC met the challenges of the 1990s.
In 1989 for example, under continued pressure to perform for higher ratings under the new corporate regime, the ABC Evening News became the first media conglomerate to dramatise its stories using specially faked footage. This transpired when it ‘exposed’ a story that was only based on allegations from anonymous sources at the FBI and State Department against the former American diplomat Felix Bloch – who was suspected of spying but never formally accused. A July 1989 statement from trusted anchor Peter Jennings was aired that apologised for the deliberate deceptive use of dramatised fiction. Considered more critically, however, the ritual of apology could be rhetorically positioned to suggest that everything other than faked news footage on ABC was, by definition, objectively right.
As a measure of how far such ‘objective’ programming was rhetorically used to serve the corporate agenda of the broadcaster, Mazzocco (1994) provides a telling insight into how, by the end of that same year,
“In December 1989, at a time when decisions on crucial FCC regulatory waivers were pending, ABC’S “20/20” broadcast a prime-time report touting the benefit of government deregulation in the telephone, airline, gas and oil, trucking, and other industries…“the competition of the free market held down costs better than government did, but the bad news drowned out the good news of deregulation,” argued “20/20” consumer reporter John Stossel. All in all, “the total gain to the country is huge”. Stossel compared U.S. government regulation before Reagan’s 1980s election to the centralized planning of the former Soviet Union.” (Mazzocco, 1994, p. 111).
The ABC 20/20 report coincided with intense lobbying at the FCC that succeeded in repealing the financial-syndication rules that would bring $ billions of additional revenue to the broadcasters from the domestic and international syndication of off-network programming. By the close of the decade, ABC became the highest rated U.S. news television service and entered the 1990’s in characteristic fashion: by 1993 ABC anchor Peter Jennings would introduce the video conference tape by U.S. General Schwarzkopf which provided his account of how the allied forces had won the Persian Gulf War – it would sell 80,000 copies – and Rush Limbaugh’s radio show was being broadcast across the American airwaves through ABC’s 500 affiliate stations, with more listeners than any other competitor. That same year Peter Jennings was reported in a TV Guide interview that his show would pay more attention to the conservative agenda since “their ideas are ‘more provocative and less predictable on some issues’” (Mazzocco, 1994, p. 128).
Working up the Corporate Tear on ‘60 Minutes’
Lastly, we should pay passing notice to another media event that took place in the early 1990s which conveniently for our study had at its dramaturgical centre a single camera shot whose subject focus is not coincidental to our earlier discussion of Broadcast News (1987).
In November of 1993, CBS 60 Minutes celebrated its 25th anniversary. In a bizarre form of corporate intertextual webbing, celebratory interviews with ace anchor Mike Wallace and producer Don Hewitt took place on CNN’s Larry King Live, and even the rival NBC hosted the entire cast of Hewitt’s show for a full hour interview with Phil Donahue.
The widespread media coverage of 60 Minutes was a measure of how fully CBS was maintaining its prestige as broadcast leader in the area of reputable news journalism, securing its reputation for investigative reporting as established by the benchmark example of Edward E. Morrow back in the late 1940s and forwarded now by lead anchor Mike Wallace, (we have already sketched the careers in Chapter Three of both Wallace and, particularly Hewitt, who had himself been instrumental in CBS news successes since 1948). Despite the lineage that rhetorically finds its locus in the reputation of Murrow, however,
“Like innumerable local TV station managers, “60 Minutes” producer Don Hewitt dreaded boring viewers. He preferred what’s got good pictures, what’s got sex appeal,” he told TV Guide in 1973. Personality was paramount. “I hate issues per se”, Hewitt told Kahn. “I’m not interested in the issue of the environment but I’m interested in somebody who is dealing with the environment”. Hewitt carefully edited investigative pieces to have the dramatic storybook structure of a beginning, middle, and end. Closely choreographed correspondents became in effect performers delivering lines.” (Baughman, 1992, p. 165-166)
A measure of Hewitt’s 60 Minutes market strength over the years is gained from Dunnett (1990) who records that the programme was continually amongst the highest rated network programmes – in the 1982-3 season, for example, it was the most popular network television programme, coming ahead of even Dallas, Magnum, P.I., and MASH (Dunnett, 1990, p. 64).
On the occasion of its 25th anniversary, therefore, much national attention was especially focused on the real thing – the CBS anniversary show itself that was transmitted on 7th November 1993. Notably, the programme featured mini-vignettes – packaged video sequences covering the reporter’s professional working lives and, of interest, insights into their ‘private’ lives as well. In the case of Mike Wallace himself this last element focused predominantly on the weighty revelation that he had lost a son, Peter, thirty years before at a time when he, Wallace, was forging a successful career, not as a journalist, but in the sullied world of commercials. As shown in the ‘documentary’ and as detailed below by Stein (2001), this turning event in his life forced upon him,
“… a pledge to quit his lucrative work in commercials and, as he told it, “…quit all the things I was not proud of and see if I can’t go back to work in news, doing something that is useful. And if I have to take a big cut in salary, fine. But I’m going to do something that would make Peter proud”.” (Stein, 2001, p. 257)
According to script, then, the noble and selfless rise to professional success and national Everyman began, Phoenix-like, with a devastating personal loss in the 1950s that turned into a determination to right social injustices in a form that would become 60 Minutes in the late 1960s with Don Hewitt as producer. The programme insert then proceeded to figure Wallace as crusading tough investigative reporter now approaching mythical paternal status as the “national district attorney”.
With individual and professional histories merged as a personable corporate asset, the vignette then proceeded to narratively fuse both within a potent patriotic context that extended the motif of pained loss across both personal and national biographies from the 1950s and into the 1970s.
Our chapter ends on a paused consideration from Stein (2001) of a single shot that made authentic pains to render Mike Wallace,
“…even more the mythic, paternal hero and consequently even less subject to criticism. Kuralt informs us that, “to those who know him best, Mike Wallace has a reputation for kindness and generosity when others are suffering”. This narration is read over footage of Wallace at the Vietnam memorial, ending with a close-up of a tear rolling down Wallace’s cheek.” (Stein, 2001, p. 257)”.
Where To Now?
We, the media, Pedagogic Intrusions into U.S. Mainstream Film and Television News Broadcasting Rhetorics
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2005. 418 pp., 24 fig, 8 tables
ISBN 978-3-631-51852-6 pb.