Commentary

Is Roger McNamee The Howard Beale Of Our Time?

So I went to see “Network” on Broadway last night. Getting in a time machine,  Bryan Cranston’s performance is electrifying — the stage is a throbbing beat of video screens and 1976 breaking-news headlines.  And  Paddy Chayefsky’s words remain searing.

There’s only one problem: the “mad as hell” part. When the actors tried to get the theater audience to shout “We’re mad as hell!” it just didn’t happen. We tried to play along, but the call-and-response echo was halfhearted at best.

I wondered why. Best I can figure, nostalgia works when you’re going to hear your favorite college New Wave band or an artist who broke out years earlier — but outrage doesn’t age well. In fact, angry words from 1976 seem painfully out of date.

“I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust . . . We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had 15 homicides and 63 violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be, “ Beale implored his viewers, his hands held in the air in that iconic gesture, trying to wake us up.

But flash-forward as I did sitting in the majestic Belasco Theatre, I couldn’t help but wonder if the director and the cast wanted to have the message of “Network” transported — or transposed — onto the issues and main stage villains of our time.

And strangely, Cranston broke the fourth wall for me.  I found myself thinking about Roger McNamee.

Just a few nights earlier, McNamee had been in New York telling the story of his new nonfiction book “Zucked: Waking Up to the  Facebook Catastrophe.”

Much like Beale, McNamee seems less a prophet, and more an unlikely bystander. He’s a banker, an investor, and a guitarist in a Grateful-Dead-style “jam” band. And for a number of years, he was a mentor to the young Mark Zuckerberg.

So when McNamee started to see signs that Facebook was being used for harm, he went from being a bystander to being an early clarion. He credits his “spidey” sense — but he's being modest.

And the book makes a darkly compelling argument that "Facebook is bad for America." First quietly, then publicly, he made his case. But even with his book in hand, he still seems a bit like a bystander drawn into a fight not by choice, but more by obligation.  "This is a story about power" he writes. "About how people even with good intentions can go terribly wrong."

Back when the film of “Network” was released, Paddy Chayefsky’s words were a searing, powerful and prophetic clarion cry. Television was a symptom of a society spiraling downward. And had we heeded his warning, we perhaps could have stopped the media deconstruction that makes “The Network News Hour with Sybil: The Soothsayer,” and “Vox Populi” seem charmingly tame in today's Fox News and InfoWars.

Today, McNamee’s book reads with the same power. Facebook isn’t innocent. The mistakes aren’t in need of tweaks. McNamee has raised deep-rooted, out-of-control policies, and platform decisions that have already had tremendously dangerous social effects. He doesn’t mince words. He’s called for change, and he’s mad as hell.

Back at the theater, the performance ends. The audience applauds the actors. Then the director tips his hat. The large screen on the stage plays, in sequence, the swearing-in of each U.S. president from Gerald Ford onward.

Finally we see Donald J. Trump. The audience is torn. There are some jeers and boos, and some muted applause.

This was an attempt to transform our nostalgic anger into a modern target. And, in the end, it fell flat.

McNamee has no such problem. At his book reading, his warning about the dangers of Facebook reach their intended target. McNamee may be an unlikely prophet, but his warnings deserve the attention they’re gaining.

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