8 September 2013 | teaguetod
Entertaining Documentary That Offers Insight Into Today's Media
Morton Downey, Jr. was a kind of real-life Howard Beale (the mad-as-hell crazy anchorman from the 1976 classic "Network"), and his meteoric rise and fall parallels that of another fictional populist TV personality: "Lonesome" Rhodes, played by Andy Griffith in Elia Kazan's under-rated 1957 movie "A Face in the Crowd." But this story really happened, and Mort really existed.
Downey's New Jersey-based talk show was only on the air for two years, from 1988 to 1989. So why is he important? Why watch a documentary about a talk show that ran for just two years, 25 years ago? Understanding this story can help us understand how we got the media we have today.
Journalist William Greider called it Rancid Populism. This was the appeal of the Republican Party starting as far back as Nixon. The party posed as the voice of the "Silent Majority," the disaffected common man, while in reality it appealed to the angry, white working class who jumped ship from the Democratic Party following the Civil Rights movement.
White working-class people felt "their" country was going down the tubes, and they were partly right. There was a lot to be unhappy about: de-industrialization leading to the decline of manufacturing and the rise of the Rust Belt (go watch "Detropia" for that); the decline of working peoples' wages and the rapid growth of inequality and creation of a new Gilded Age in America. Politicians like Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Sr. were all better at tapping into this anger than the Democrats, making Republicans seem like the party of Joe Sixpack and Joe the Plumber -- instead of the party of Big Business, Big Money, and Wall Street (which is ultimately what both major parties became).
The Republicans also understood the marketing of this message better than the Democrats: tap into people's hatred of "the Government" and make the Dems synonymous with Big Government. (How many times already have we heard conservative politicians running for office who say they hate government? Then why run?)
The early 90s was when the right-wing Big Media really started up in earnest (what former conservative pundit David Brock has called "The Republican Noise Machine"). Rush Limbaugh, for example, got his start during the Clinton presidency. The Fox News Channel itself also started during the Clinton years, in 1996. Both were part of a generalized conservative backlash against a Democrat in the White House.
And this tactic of right-wing populism continues to work today (especially with another Democratic president to attack), and is bigger business than ever -- with billionaire Rupert Murdoch's Fox News channel going strong, the Koch brothers' successful Tea Party movement, and all those TV and radio hosts like Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity who are paid tens of millions of dollars to tell us they're speaking up for the "little guy."
Morton Downey, Jr. helped lead the way to this kind of TV "news" or "journalism," even if his show appears obvious and amateurish compared to the slick format and presentation we see today. But a figure like Bill O'Reilly, in particular, owes a tremendous debt to Downey's confrontational, damn-the-torpedoes style of doing "news" and interviews. At the same time trash-talk-show hosts like Jerry Springer and Maury Povich also partly owe their style of crazed three-ring-circuses to Mort. Even the Reverend Al Sharpton, perpetual African-American leader and professional racial ambulance-chaser, owes a debt to Mort, appearing on his show frequently during its short run.
The friendship between Sharpton and Downey (briefly shown in the film) offers a clue to the truth behind the image: Mort didn't really believe what he said on the air. Or maybe he did. Anyway, it really didn't matter: it was all just for ratings. Working the crowd into a frenzy, yelling at his guests, having a fight break out in the middle of the show -- Downey knew this was what made for great TV . . . or, at least, it got people's attention. (Most certainly, this is also the case of Bill O'Reilly today: he's a showman who stumbled onto a sure thing; about as authentic as a TV preacher.)
At the time, Downey was hated and judged by the "respectable" media. But give 'em a few years, and they'll come around: trash-talk-shows, "reality" shows like "Jersey Shore," Rush, Billy-O, "To Catch a Predator," etc. It's the race to the bottom, the lowest-common denominator, anything in the name of ratings. Entertainment, Infotainment, "News." Who cares if we believe it? Who cares if it's true? He who yells the loudest wins.
Mort's show was like an (un-)controlled experiment in pushing the TV talk-show format to its absolute limit, right up to the breaking point -- supposedly in the name of some Archie-Bunker, knee-jerk reactionary-conservative populism that Mort himself didn't even really believe in. Yet, people ate it up, it made him a star and a working-class "hero" almost overnight, and it set the stage for a lot what came later in TV "news" and opinion shows. That's why you should watch this movie.