You remember the movie Network, don’t you? Peter Finch as veteran UBS anchorman Howard Beale, growling into a TV camera, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” That was a potent declaration of independence and non-conformance that Beale made. The only problem is that he shrunk away from it not that much later, in the face of billionaire mogul Arthur Jensen. Jensen’s sole purpose was to use Beale as a Pied Piper to mollify the peasantry, the better to pursue his own plans, expand his wealth, empire, and power without interference.
But what if the mad maven of the airwaves didn’t back down? What if he was fully committed not just to that “special spirit” that had inspired him in the first place, but also dedicated to his art as a journalist, having no intentions of being co-opted by Jensen or any other greed-driven schmuck who figures that everyone has his price? How might that have gone?
Maybe something like this:
Jensen’s tone softened a bit from its mega-preacher staccato beginning as he approached the end of his peroration. “And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that... perfect world... in which there's no war or famine, oppression or brutality. One vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock. All necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused. And I have chosen you, Mr. Beale, to preach this evangel.”
Howard’s eyes narrowed as Jensen finished. “Why me?”
The response was as obvious as it was perfunctory. “Because you're on television, dummy. Sixty million people watch you every night of the week, Monday through Friday.”
“Yes, they do,” Beale answered. He had expected two possible approaches that Jensen might take and admitted privately to himself that he was a bit surprised that his adversary hadn’t fully thought through the tactic he had chosen. Very well. “Do you know why they watch me, Mr. Jensen? Because I have earned their trust. With that, they have reason to believe that I’m telling them the truth, that I’m giving them information which is critical to their lives and their livelihoods. I taught them about the CCA deal, how it and other transactions like it could impact them and the country they love. Most importantly, I reminded them that they could stop it, that they could stop you and your cronies, though you yourself haven’t come up in the conversation just yet.”
Howard stood up out of his chair to confront Jensen and at least in part to remind him of the two-inch advantage in height he held on the other man. “Do you think I haven’t seen the money race you and your kind have created, Arthur? Hell, I’ve reported on it for a while, though not fully realizing what it was early on. It took me a while to recognize that it wasn’t just about cash or power, but about the influence that could be bought with it, particularly influence in government, loosening of regulations, relaxing anti-trust and monopoly rulings, potentially to the point where multi-millionaires like you would have more control of the nation than the government would. I cannot imagine the harm that would do to the vast majority of the world or its people, Arthur, I cannot countenance it, and I cannot be silent about it.”
It was time seal the deal, Howard thought, and reached into his suit pocket, withdrawing an object the size of a small paperback. He was grateful that his old friend and long-time sound man, Jeff Sorenson could spare the tiny yet high-performance Nagra SN tape recorder for this use. He would have to find an appropriate way to thank Jeff properly for the critical loan of it. Beale showed the still-running device to his opponent. “I mean to share our conversation with the American people next Monday, Arthur. I’m also going to share it with friends of mine – friends named Smith and Cronkite and Chancellor – so that they can report on it as well and give their own points of view on just what this attempt at coercion of the Fourth Estate is about.”
Howard paused a second. “Your money and your power have left you with the impression that the world is your toy to play with, that you can do as you please and not fear having to answer to someone above you. In that regard, you are mistaken, Mr. Jensen.” Beale walked to the door to the conference room, opened it, then turned.
“I’m still mad as hell, Arthur, and I’m not going to take this … or you … anymore.”
Yes, I know that Network was supposed to be a black comedy about the foibles of human beings, especially as expressed in television media and in business. The problem is that, as has often been observed, a great number of the activities described within that piece of cinema amount to predictions come true, and as a result, Network is no longer something to laugh at, but something to be acknowledged and understood ... and counteracted. All I'm doing here is indulging in a bit of wishful thinking, while wondering who will bell the cat or notice that the Emperor isn't wearing so much as a stitch on him.