scenes from a meltdown

The Howard Beale Generation

Whether it’s CNBC’s Rick Santelli scattering his marbles on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Glenn Beck sobbing and spouting on Fox News, or even Jon Stewart staring agape at both of the above, we seem to have entered a new era of righteous indignation. Eight years of George Bush, barely two months into the Obama presidency, and now the nation’s dominant rhetorical mode is gasping outrage.

Every time a newsman goes bellowing off the prompter, dutiful comparisons are made to Howard Beale, the deranged anchor in the 1976 film Network. Beale’s “I’m mad as hell” moment is by now so iconic that it’s almost impossible to imagine any anchor not replaying it in the back of his head even while choking up with genuine emotion. Thing is, in Paddy Chayefsky’s multifaceted script, Beale’s outburst is not the career suicide it was meant to be but a star-making turn — the network profitably exploits his madness and makes him into a populist icon. This, it seems, is the completely erroneous lesson the current crop of TV screamers have imbibed from the film.

The AIG flap in particular appears to have given everyone a mandate to go Beale. What’s amazing is that the actual stance on the bonus issue is not crucial. In the crescendoing noise, it almost doesn’t matter that the populist common wisdom bristles at AIG bonuses while Glenn Beck supports them, and that Beck’s closest ally in the matter turns out to be the unusually frazzled Andrew Ross Sorkin at the Times. Rush Limbaugh is defending AIG from “a lynch mob ginned up by the Obama administration,” asserting, on March 18, that “the death threats are pouring in.” In fact, the closest thing to a death threat on the record so far is Republican senator Charles Grassley’s suggestion that AIG executives commit hara-kiri in penance. In the meantime, the GOP has been ginning up a mob of its own, in the form of supposedly spontaneous, clearly staged “tea parties” that will take place on April 15. Suddenly, the don’t-tread-on-me anti-statism and quasi-socialist anger at “fat cats” have come together to form a perfectly nonsensical package. The only thing that matters is the tone: the bellow of a cornered beast. It doesn’t solve or even address anything, but it sure feels liberating.

Seeing a clear signal, from both above and below, to start yelling, politicians have been revving up populist memes in turn. As usual, the Republicans appear better at this than Democrats, who historically haven’t quite done outrage right. (Indignation, after all, implies absolute certitude and allows no nuance; nobody has ever chanted the words “On the other hand … ” though Stewart is doing his best.) Most of all, though, this newfound addiction to anger goes squarely against the much-discussed Obamatone: It befouls the air of quiet, unshowy competence the new administration was supposed — and, by all accounts, actually tried — to usher in.

In the end, the only ones benefiting from the yelling are the yellers. Pretending to lay it all on the line is demonstrably profitable and, ironically, carries little to no operational risk. CNBC has been running ads with Santelli’s ravings, effectively turning him into the channel’s new star. Glenn Beck’s February ratings have doubled compared to the last year’s. And the Cramer interview brought The Daily Show 2.3 million viewers, its second-highest rating since Inauguration Day. Our national Howard Beale moment is coming right at the time where we could all use a dash (but just a dash) of Diana Christensen, Faye Dunaway’s icy network executive from the same film, who sees Beale’s ranting for the gimmick it is: “I don’t think I’ll listen to any protestations of high standards of journalism when you’re right down on the streets soliciting audiences like the rest of us,” she tells an indignant colleague. “If you’re going to hustle, at least do it right.”

The Howard Beale Generation