In 1969 Randy Newman wrote Political Science, a song that mocked the antagonistic, jingoistic mindset of the Nixon administration.
In 1976, Paddy Chayefsky’s script for the film Network presented a sharply drawn portrait of the dangerous future of television news.
Both works inspired serious reflection, but they made their points with a dark humor that exaggerated then-current realities to their outer edges. Audiences for Newman and Network could walk away smiling, taking comfort in the fact that what they’d heard and seen might be scary, but – it wasn’t real.
Now we’re in a different world. The media culture Chayefsky satirized caught up to him by the 1990s and went on to surpass his vision several times over. And Newman’s words ring differently when heard through the megaphone of the current administration:
We give them money, but are they grateful?
No, they’re spiteful and they’re hateful
They don’t respect us, so let’s surprise them
We’ll drop the big one and pulverize them
What to do when yesterday’s satire becomes today’s reality?
There’s another layer to add: The news media’s relationship with previous presidents always incorporated a certain decorum. It was a delicate dance, based on an unspoken understanding that despite tough questions and aggressive responses, both parties shared a common respect for things like the United States constitution.
The current administration has changed that dynamic. For perhaps the first time, the news media is struggling to find a barometer for “how far is too far” when covering an American president. What’s truth? What’s bias? And more important, what’s the perception of bias – which in this context often matters more than truth?
Will there be another Edward R. Murrow who stands up and plants a flag? Maybe. But first, the public needs to hold the news media – reporters, editors and corporate ownership – accountable loudly and clearly, with voices and with pocketbooks.
And while it seems counterintuitive in times of fear and uncertainty, it’s also vitally important to keep a sense of humor. Never underestimate the power of the pen, the paintbrush, or the piano to point the way.