It’s all one big carnival.
While media sensationalism can be traced back further, it certainly came into its own at the end of the 19th century and reached a crescendo over the next 100 years. In an ideal world, the news media and journalism act as a fourth estate, keeping the populace well-informed in an honest and objective manner. But we don’t always live an ideal world and as the news and media industries ballooned in size and power and the need to build and sustain a larger audience grew… well, what’s the old saying?
“There’s gold in them hills.”
These three pieces of cinema rang the warning bell and, sadly, now work as a kind of signpost of where we were headed.
The carnival must go on.
Ace in the Hole (1951) dir. Billy Wilder
A disquieting statement about sensationalist journalism, it’s no surprise that this film flopped upon release in 1951. Dark and cynical, audiences just weren’t ready to accept it (released a decade or so later, this may have been a different story). Desperate to find employment at a legitimate newspaper, Kirk Douglas’ Chuck Tatum manipulates the rescue effort of a man stuck in a cave collapse, exploiting the story to such a degree that soon thousands of people flock to the area. After all, what’s the cost of the life of one man against the profits of a hot newspaper? When the crowd grows so large that they set up a literal carnival with rides and entertainment you almost have to laugh to keep yourself from crying. 60 years later we’re living in this reality with the break of every new story. And that’s the scary part. Who is the film really indicting, the media sensationalists or the poor suckers who fall for it every time? After all, there’s no circus, no carnival, without a willing audience.
Sweet Smell of Success (1957) dir. Alexander Mackendrick
First of all, it must be said that this film is damn entertaining. The dialogue crackles. The direction and cinematography is fantastic (the seediness of this world is evident in every frame). And the two lead performances of Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis are– well, let’s just say they are two of my favorite film performances for fear I may go off on a three paragraph tangent. A film about the morally repugnant men behind the scenes of the media world, one an unctuous press agent, the other an imposing and malevolent newspaper columnist, who will stop at nothing to secure what they want– most of the time at the expense and suffering of others. Cynical, yes, but in its delicate study of the two leads we understand why they make their choices… even as we shake our heads in disgust at the audacity. Similar to Hunsucker’s sister at the end of this film, we don’t hate these men, we pity them.
Network (1976) dir. Sidney Lumet
Here’s the most unsettling thing about “Network” almost 40 years later. It’s not that far off. No, we’re not offing our newscasters when the ratings dip too low, but the sensationalist reporting to keep those ratings up and the cult of personality surrounding these television hosts certainly seems part and parcel in todays 24 hour cable news world. It’s as if we’re realizing now that the nightmare was real and there’s no way to wake up. 40 years later we’re still mad as hell, but not only do we take it, we allow ourselves to be continually manipulated… I was going to write more but I think CNN has yet another story about Malaysia Flight 370. Have to go.