by Vivian Obarski
Anchorman 2 is one of those movies where I didn’t expect much out of it, to be honest. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Will Ferrell and Adam McKay are a comedic duo that I consider reliable. They may take a joke too far into the land of awkward, but then magically, it loops back to funny, which is a feat that impresses the hell out of me.
So when we settled in to watch the movie recently, I was prepared for more of the same jokes — more anchormen street fighting, more awkward jokes about sexism and racism (which didn’t quite hit the mark as well as they could have) and maybe a dog getting punted into a river. What I didn’t expect was a bit of biting commentary on the state of mainstream journalism today.
If you’re not familiar with the movie, Ron and his crew (after a weirdly surrealistic comedy bit that involves scorpions, a Winnebago, a deep fat fryer and Captain and Tennille Muskrat Love) arrive in New York City to anchor the graveyard shift of a new 24-hour cable news service. In a bet to get higher ratings than the primetime anchorman, Ron, Brick, Champ and Brian all start giving people what they want to hear, which includes low-speed car chases, cute animals, salacious stories disguised as news and the constant news scroll around the television screen.
That was probably the overarching story arc that made me wince because it was both funny and sad at the same time because of the truth inherent in it. I remember graduating with a journalism degree and feeling like Fred Willard’s character — that I’d be committed to reporting the best news that people needed to know about. Even their news director questions whether or not this is a good idea, pointing out that with the news, it’s about what informing people, not entertaining them.
That’s not surprising, given that a quick glance at CNN’s website had top headlines that include “Miley Cyrus tweets from hospital” and “How not to photograph Kim K.,” mixed in with news about Flight 370 and two brothers arrested for cannibalism. It’s easy to take shots like that at CNN, which was once considered decent journalism. But I feel like that’s always been part of journalism — Mark Twain and other writers created hoaxes back in the 19th century to get readers to buy papers. The musical Chicago centered on whipping the local newspapers into a frenzy over sensational murders, because they sold issues. Journalism’s always had an uncomfortable alliance with the salacious to get readers’ attention.
What really surprised me was the quick subplot regarding GNN’s owner (who also owns an Australian airline) who wants to squash a story that Brian Fantana did criticizing his airline. “Have you heard of synergy?” Linda Good asks Ron after a really awkward dinner with her family (the less said about that scene, the better really). That was where I wanted to sit and cheer that movie on.
Given the media conglomerates that exist today, synergy is something that is so embedded in our society we don’t even think about it. I often wonder how much of that was a weird sideways tweak by Will Ferrell as he donned the Ron Burgundy character to shill Dodge Durango’s and show up at various events in character. While that media blitz may have amused us, there’s also the unsavory realization that major news stories can be killed because of various business interests held by the major shareholders in a news business.
Not surprisingly, that subplot wasn’t heavily dealt with in Anchorman 2. It’s not exactly something that lends itself to a weirdly surrealistic, yet hilarious, comedy bit like the anchorman gang war (which also had its own pointed joke about how saturated the news business had become). But I was impressed that Ferrell and McKay were willing to go there and point at synergy for a moment as one thing that’s made mainstream news less informative than in the past. It may not have been All the President’s Men, but I appreciated the fact that they were willing to point to these things in modern broadcast journalism as problems with the system.