What a 1970s Movie Has to Say About the Virginia TV Shooting Spectacle

There is, of course, a world of difference between movie Network and gruesome TV-within-TV events – but some quotes from film which predicted today's media world ring too many ominous bells.

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This undated composite photograph made available by WDBJ-TV shows reporter Alison Parker, left, and cameraman Adam Ward.
This undated composite photograph made available by WDBJ-TV shows reporter Alison Parker, left, and cameraman Adam Ward.Credit: AP

We consider ourselves to be – still – a civilized society. In our western-oriented, liberal-minded views, it is a world of law and order. Killing is wrong in general, even if grudgingly accepted in “extenuating” circumstances such as wars (the just ones, i.e., ours), and showing it as it happens, blood and all, on TV, is something that is usually “not done,” for the sake of lofty words such as propriety and decency. Furthermore, in our enlightened view, journalists in general and TV newscasts in particular are there to serve as a sort of conduit, a channel that provides us with “a view of the world out there,” without their own axe to grind.

Being aware of the ways of the world, we allow for exceptions, of course, and accept the fact that there are different (different from us) parts of the world out there, and civilizations different from our own. There – okay, one has to say it, where Islamic extremism seems to be the guiding light – they do kill as a matter-of-fact, everyday thing. Not merely by bombing (as terrorists or armies do) with devastation and rubble, but by beheading, with blood and all. And even more than that, they make a spectator sport out of it, which we detest and deplore and screen the footage (again and again) on our TV newscasts when, if, and as it happens. With a pained grimace on the anchors’ faces, of course, a caveat about “scenes of a distressing nature,” and a brief debate about the impropriety and yet inevitability of showing it. After all, we should not behave like ostriches hiding our heads in the sand so as not to see the ugliness of the world.

That order of things got badly jumbled early last Wednesday morning, when reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward were shot and killed while delivering a live report at about 6:45 a.m. EDT. The two were employees of CBS affiliate WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Va. That, in itself, was just the nucleus of the story: a live, unexpected occurrence that happens live, with the camera on air, breaking news at its purest, an unmediated media event, not planned or scripted for effect or ratings, as TV people are wont to do.

The fascinating thing was what happened next. First, most TV stations around the world reported the event, running and rerunning the gruesome footage (and shrieks). Then, slowly, the background began to emerge: It turned out that the “executioner,” who had managed to manipulate the world’s TV stations to broadcast his act live (and then repeatedly) was not an Islamic warrior, but a disgruntled, possibly deranged journalist, “one of our own,” one Vester Lee Flanagan. He barged into a live broadcast with a gun and a camera, and shortly afterward uploaded his own footage (By the way, very inferior footage by reporting standards) of the event on social media. It went viral before the administrators of social networks had a chance to do anything about it.

People, it turned out, were sharing and retweeting the clip without giving it a second thought, let alone a first. The TV newscast, in turn, aired part of this gruesome footage, disseminating it still further. That is how we saw people being shot at point blank range, again and again and from a variety of angles. Those who complain that the media pursue an agenda, instead of reporting things as they are, learned from Flanagan (who later took his own life) what it really means when a reporter has an axe to grind (i.e., a gun to shoot).

While all this was happening, a voice in my head was telling me that I had seen something like this before – a person being shot dead, in a live broadcast, an act that turned out to be preplanned for a particular effect by the very TV people who are supposed only to report to or entertain us. So I rummaged in my jumbled brain some more, and came up with an answer: the last moments of “Network,” when the mad TV prophet Howard Beale is shot dead while opening his daily show, with the narrator explaining in a voice-over “This was the story of Howard Beale: The first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.”

Ominous bells

There is, of course, a world of difference between the fictional – many would say prophetic – plot of the 1976 movie (written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet) and current gruesome TV-within-TV events. Beale (the last film role of Peter Finch, who received a posthumous Oscar for it) is caught in the crossfire between the network owner and its managers. Flanagan did not do his bloody deed because of ratings, but some quotes from that movie, which 40 years ago predicted (pre-dictated?) the world of media we live in today, still ring too many ominous bells.

Here are some quotes from “Network” that I offer you to ponder today, all of them delivered by Howard Beale, who gets killed on air by the end of the movie. As usual, the messenger gets the axe:

“So, you listen to me. Listen to me: Television is not the truth! Television is a God-damned amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business! So if you want the truth... Go to God! Go to your gurus! Go to yourselves! Because that’s the only place you’re ever going to find any real truth

“You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here, you’re beginning to believe that the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal. You do. Why, whatever the tube tells you: you dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube. This is mass madness, you maniacs. In God’s name, you people are the real thing, WE are the illusion

“What is finished... is the idea that this great country is dedicated to the freedom and flourishing of every individual in it. It’s the individual that’s finished. It’s the single, solitary human being that’s finished. It’s every single one of you out there that’s finished, because this is no longer a nation of independent individuals. It’s a nation of some 200-odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter-that-white, steel-belted bodies, totally unnecessary as human beings, and as replaceable as piston rods... Well, the time has come to say, is dehumanization such a bad word. Because good or bad, that’s what it is. The whole world is becoming humanoid – creatures that look human but aren’t. The whole world, not just us. We’re just the most advanced country, so we’re getting there first. The whole world’s people are becoming mass-produced, programmed, numbered, insensate things...”

As Ed Murrow used to sign off his broadcasts: Good night, and good luck.