“We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore!”
Journalism doesn’t receive the Hollywood treatment nearly as often as doctors, lawyers, cops and other overly glamorized professions do. So when I heard that the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s (Royal MTC) latest production of the 1970s newsroom satire Network would be taking the stage, I reserved a seat without hesitation.
Network tells the story of the UBS newsroom and its veteran anchor, Howard Beale. On opening night, the theatre centre’s mainstage had been converted into a 1970s news studio, complete with an oak backdrop and a wall of glass television screens.
It all starts when Beale spontaneously goes off script during his evening newscast. He announces his intention to kill himself on live television. Initially, Beale is kicked out of the newsroom for his blasphemous acts. But soon enough, Beale is enthusiastically brought back because of one simple fact: viewership and ratings had gone off the charts.
Predictably, the station’s commitment to hard news slowly erodes throughout the play. Pushing a sensationalist agenda, Diana Christiansen, an ambitious, 1970s career woman working in the programming department, foreshadows the future of UBS – one that puts engagement over integrity.
Following the intermission, the entire theatre is converted into a studio audience. We are told when to applaud. We are told, by an illuminating sign, when to shout the play’s (in)famous chant: “we’re mad as hell, and we’re not gonna take it anymore!” We become a part of the story.
It’s easy to love Beale at some points and despise him at others. Equipped with a populist flare and oozing charisma, his transition embodies the shift from news anchor to news personality – one that has become increasingly blurred in today’s news environment.
Perhaps the most harrowing aspect of Network is the fact that Beale’s ultra-sensationalized segments feel eerily similar to the bulk of American newscasts today. It’s highly probable that most Fox News segments now contain more moral panic and even downright hatred than any of Beale’s evening specials.
And while some may argue that journalistic objectivity is a sham, journalism is a public service. We need to feel we can trust those who deliver the news.
Yet, it’s a trust that’s sadly eroding. According to research conducted by Reuters, only 42 per cent of Canadians trust the news – a 13 per cent drop from 2015.
One can joke that the news industry in Canada is really just a few monopolies in a trench coat – but they aren’t entirely wrong. The top five media conglomerates (Bell, Rogers, Postmedia, Corus and Torstar) own more than 80 per cent of Canada’s media landscape.
What was once a satire in the ’70s feels a bit too close to home when Postmedia has gulped down hundreds of papers in Canada while mercilessly shuttering small-town dailies.
Network is more pressing then ever. Its sharp social commentary lays bare the dangers of media convergence and profit over the public good. It’s no longer a sign of what’s to come, but what’s already here.
It’s a satire that has become all too real.
Network plays at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre from now until Nov. 12. Reserve tickets by visiting royalmtc.ca.
Published in Volume 77, Number 07 of The Uniter (October 27, 2022)