Flash Over Substance

‘Broadcast News’, Redux

by Thomas Britt

21 March 2011

As in real life, the TV news industry in Broadcast News looks less like a small pond and more like shark-infested waters.
cover art

Broadcast News

Director: James L. Brooks
Cast: William Hurt, Albert Brooks

US DVD: 25 Jan 2011

In a recent Crain’s New York Business article covering the State of the News Media 2011—a report newly released by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism—television news analyst Andrew Tyndall speaks about the eroding viewership of TV news. Tyndall says, “As the Internet gets more mature and video streaming improves, there’s no reason to go to your TV set…Once digital convergence comes along, news organizations that used to be the biggest fish in their ponds don’t look so big.”

James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News looks at these fish in an earlier stage of their evolution. Released in 1987, the film presents a media unthreatened by the Internet, and not yet challenged by the purgatorial news cycle of cable. Set in a network news bureau in Washington, D.C., Broadcast News examines competition, survival, and the role of ethics in personal and professional crises. Driven producer Jane (Holly Hunter), hotshot anchor Tom (William Hurt), and skeptical reporter Aaron (Albert Brooks) form an isosceles love triangle that shape-shifts in hectic rhythm with the unpredictable fortunes and standards of a newsroom.

Writer/director Brooks’ romantic comedy is an ideal genre for the convergence of these three characters, each of whom represents a distinct role and philosophy within TV journalism. In a more straightforward dramatic take on the material, they would sound too much like mouthpieces and their entanglements would be too contrived and fussy. As Brooks says on a commentary in the Criterion Collection’s special edition DVD, he was careful to keep the film rooted in comedy and to excise moments that didn’t serve that tone. Nearly 25 years later, however, it is easy to see why audiences and critics were quick to identify a capital-S Statement in Brooks’ peek into the world of TV news.

The prologue of the film introduces each of the main characters as a child. Handsome Tom asks his father, “What can you do with yourself when all you can do is look good?” Text on screen answers the question: Future Network Anchor. Aaron, beaten up and disgraced at school, knowingly smarter than his bullies: Future Network News Reporter. Young Jane, obsessively typing and arguing her perspective with her father:  Future Network News Producer. This brilliant introduction sets the comic tone and introduces broad characters, but also observes universal truths about personality, identity, and destiny. Each character is destined to follow a certain trajectory in the TV news industry, which in Broadcast News looks less like a small pond than shark-infested waters.

In this context, the film could be viewed as a comparative analysis of different theories of ethics. The threat facing Jane and Aaron is the entertainment value of news, which is overtaking their imperative to inform. For his part, Tom is the entertainment value, the fresh new face reading the news to a trusting public. These competing values create the structure of the film, as eventually every character’s fate depends upon broadcast news’ commercial and cultural viability in an increasingly entertainment-focused media landscape. When placed under pressure, Jane, Aaron, and Tom make decisions that reveal their ethical selves. 

Early in the film, Jane states that “fun” is not news, but she recognizes how prevalent fun seems to be. That she observes this reality of the industry is ironic, because amusement and spontaneity are anathema to her. Based in part on CBS news’ Susan Zirinsky, Jane is defined by control and rigidity. Her fierce commitment to the news is second to her duty to self, and her choices at work and in romance are those of a rational egoist. She never resolves her vacillation between Aaron and Tom as professional partners and suitors because neither promises to fulfill her completely, on her terms. An unsatisfying years-later epilogue shows each character to have found some form of grown-up happiness, but the hunger of their shared experience hardly feels sated.

Aaron’s role is that of the deontologist, which sometimes puts him in Jane’s favor but just as often sets him at odds with her. He is more principled, suffering for his sense of obligation (his “ought”) that trumps his also strong competing desires (his “wants”). He’s nice, but he sweats under lights, so in a professional sense he finishes last (not getting the girl, transferring to a lesser affiliate station). Yet he upholds his duties more faithfully than other characters in the film. In contrast to Aaron, Tom is the film’s pragmatist—a Machiavellian figure whom, unlike Jane and Aaron is not burdened by intelligence or the need to consider noble standards. He admits to only partially understanding the news he delivers, but he performs the news handsomely and reaps the benefits (job security and a high-profile promotion to London).

So while Brooks insists accurately (though somewhat defensively) that his film is merely the story of a workplace, a woman, two men, and the romantic/comic possibilities within, there is no getting around the film’s continued relevance to an entertainment-saturated news media. In “Cable’s Clout”, a fall 2008 feature for the American Journalism Review, the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi wrote about the effect of cable news on coverage of the presidential campaign. Quoted in the article is Elizabeth Wilner, formerly a political director of NBC News. Wilner discusses competition between the traditional Big Three and the “immediacy” of cable and Internet news cycles: “Management and talent have taken notice. You see more evening news talent on cable, and more of what was on cable that day in the evening news. They might not admit it, but the center of gravity is shifting. Cable news is on the rise; appointment news is on the wane.”

What does this gravity shift mean for news at large? To use a phrase from Broadcast News: “flash over substance”. In one of his many standout scenes in the film, Albert Brooks’ Aaron attempts to make the case to Jane that Tom is the devil. Aaron argues that Tom’s charm, his “flash”, is insidious and allows him to ingratiate, to rise through the ranks via superficial qualities that are soft and not threatening. The result of this rise to power is a takeover that no one would see coming, one that would eliminate the “substance” of news and replace it with celebrity. In its privileging of entertainment over information, cable news has fulfilled Aaron’s prophecy.

Additionally, Farhi writes, “Sometimes cable’s coverage of an event is so disproportionate to the rest of the news media’s that it distorts the public’s perception of the media agenda.” Because the profit motive for the Big Three exists today as it did during the late-‘80s when Broadcast News gave us the vision of the cash-strapped newsroom, networks seem increasingly compelled to feed that distorted public perception of what news is. Therefore rather than acknowledge the distortion and attempt to rebut the news value of (for instance) Charlie Sheen’s descent into madness, the Big Three compete for ratings around a story that in decades past would at most be the purview of tabloids.

Meanwhile, Muammar Gaddafi (one of Aaron’s interview subjects in the 1987 film) fights back violently against a rebellion in Libya—one of a series of conflicts and uprisings that have worldwide implications. Gaddafi once again has part of the media’s attention, but one wonders what they’ll move on to when that story loses its sheen? The press and the public would be well served to mind the words of sweaty, panicked Aaron, lest we lose the news forever to handsome devils like Tom.

//Mixed media