WASHINGTON -- I often wonder what Paddy would think.
I wish I could have a pastrami on wry with the late writer and satirist at the Carnegie Deli and get an exhilarating blast of truth about “the atomic, subatomic and galactic structure of things today.”
What would Paddy Chayefsky make of Kim Kardashian?
What would he think of Diane Sawyer showing cat videos on the ABC evening news?
What would he say about Brian Williams broadcasting on the Huntley-Brinkley network a video of a pig saving a baby goat while admitting he had no idea if it was phony? (It was.)
What would Paddy rant about the viral, often venomous world of the Internet, Twitter and cable news, where fake rage is all the rage all the time, bleeding over into a Congress that chooses antagonism over accomplishment, no over yes?
What would he think of ominous corporate “synergy” run amok, where “news” seamlessly blends into promotion, where it’s frighteningly easy for corporate commercial interests to dictate editorial content?
What would Paddy say about the Murdochization of the news, where a network slants its perspective because it sells and sells big?
What would he make of former Time Inc. Editor-in-Chief Norman Pearlstine returning in a new position as Time Inc.’s chief content officer, breaking the firewall between editorial and business as he works “with business and edit teams to drive the development of new content experiences and products throughout our portfolio that will fuel future revenue growth,” as CEO Joe Ripp put it?
What would Paddy think of American corporations skipping out on taxes by earning nearly half of their profits in tax-haven countries?
What would he think of the unholy alliance between Internet giants like Google and Facebook and the U.S. national security apparatus?
Chayefsky’s dazzling satire “Network,” with its unforgettable mad prophet of the airwaves, Howard Beale, blossomed from the writer’s curdled feelings about TV. What wouldn’t the network suits do for ratings, he would ask lunch companions like Mel Brooks and Bob Fosse at the Carnegie Deli.
But now America runs on clicks. Chayefsky’s nightmare has been multiplied many times over, with the total media-ization and monetization of everything, the supremacy of ratings and market share, the commercialization of all editorial decisions.
Now that they’re armed with big data and science, corporate bosses are able to figure out how many people are watching which minute of which segment.
An analytics service called Chartbeat gives webmasters instantaneous access to those on the other side of the screen by providing real-time data on their mouse clicks, time spent reading or watching and even their location.
In his fun upcoming book, “Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies,” Dave Itzkoff, a culture reporter at The Times, offers a vivid portrait of the charming and depressed curmudgeon.
Mr. Itzkoff has great anecdotes about Faye Dunaway’s prima donna paranoia about the most brilliant love-work sex scene in movie history. And he dishes up fun factoids, like how Howard Beale got his name from the mother-daughter duo, “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale, and how Peter Finch flubbed and added an extra “as” to one of the most famous lines in movie history, which Chayefsky wrote this way: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.”
The Bronx-born writer, who died of cancer in 1981, was bedraggled and “built like an office safe,” as the director Joshua Logan put it. He did exhaustive research into networks in New York but then had to film the movie at a Toronto TV station once the American networks realized the piece was a Strangelovey dirge.
Chayefsky said his 1976 masterpiece was “a rage against the dehumanization of people” addicted to “boredom-killing” devices — a dehumanization that has gone to warp speed as we have entered the cloud. He said it was about “how to protect ourselves” from “the illusion we sell as truth.”
That illusion is ever more pervasive as people believe and spread wacky viral content like snow-covered Pyramids, a half-toilet in Sochi and a story about Samsung paying Apple a billion-dollar fine in nickels.
Chayefsky warned against “comicalizing the news,” noting, “To make a gag out of the news is disreputable and extremely destructive.” But real news became so diminished that young people turned to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to learn about what was going on in the world.
Mr. Colbert told Mr. Itzkoff that “Network” is his favorite movie. Although Howard Beale is not an inspiration for his bombastic TV alter ego, Mr. Colbert said that the Beale character anticipated an attitude those types of broadcasters share, which is “I will tell you what to think.” Beale’s approach, the comic said, was more “quasi-benevolent,” as in “I’m going to remind you that you’re being anesthetized right now.”
If Paddy, who used to say “truth is truth,” could see how far beyond “Network” we’ve gone, he would not only be mad as hell. He’d be scared as hell.
Maureen Dowd is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.