Professor Michael Benton
Anchorman II: An Expose In Truth
Truth is subjective, and reflects personal, moral, ethical, cultural and social aspects. Truth statements contain all manner of information and perceptions, depending upon who is defining a particular truth. Perhaps the writers of Anchorman II (2013) read Immanuel Kant, a 18th century german philosopher who contends that reason, based on experiences, determines morality or Michel Foucault a 20th century French philosopher, who explores the role played by power in shaping knowledge. The low brow antics of Anchorman II mirror the premises put forth by Foucault, Kant, and other intellectuals who question the nature of truth.
Anchorman II, a comedy set in 1980, opens in New York City. After Ron Burgundy is fired by the network he worked for, he moves to San Diego, California, where he works as a master of ceremonies for Sea World. Ron is a washed up alcoholic, who, after a failed attempt to commit suicide, is offered a job as anchorman for the new upstart cable news network, called GNN. Ron takes the job and heads back to New York City to reclaim his status as a top notch news reporter.
GNN is a references to CNN. CNN was founded in 1980 and quickly established itself as an innovative news station.(CNN Launches) CNN went through a phenomenal growth period in a short 13 year period, rising from an insignificant underdog to a dominant force of network control.(Tyndell: 2004) As Anchorman II accurately depicts, reporting cable news in 1980, proves to to be ratingless.
Pitted against the entrenched major network news services of the day (ABC, CBS, NBC), GNN needs a different approach. Faced with the first days of dismal ratings, the cable news owner does not know what to do. The graveyard shift, fortunately, has the newscaster, Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), in that time slot. By stupidly blurting out, “let’s not give them what they need, let’s give them what they want” (Anchorman II), the sociopathic star of the film, inspires the network producer to use this type of new format for presenting news.
This inspiration comes from Ron’s first days at GNN. The antagonist, Jack Lime (James Marsden), confronts Ron in the crowded news office. He goads and bullies Ron, and then finally begins a chant of “cry”, “cry”, “cry” The entire staff participate in this chant. An infuriated Ron, in the heat of anger, blurts out, “I bet we make better ratings than you do today” Jack Lime takes the bet and the new programing format is conceived. This is the first catalyst in Ron’s life, and produces a negative effect in the film. Ron is willing to do anything to save face.
After the first graveyard shift broadcast, the broadcast producer rushes in and terminates the graveyard shift employees for their irresponsibility. Later, when the station owner and producers review the first day’s ratings, they find that the graveyard shift has smashed all other broadcast time slots. Ron and his team are brought back to GNN and they are given a prime time spot with a hefty pay raise. Ron is an instant success. Thus, begins the mentality of dumbing down the news content from boring, depressing real news, to creating pure valueless entertainment.
Ron begins to change the format of all the broadcasts, adding useless graphics, such as stock tickers and market evaluations that continually update. These new graphics give the viewer a perception of being smart, creating in-the-know viewers, interested in the heady concepts of stock values and market conditions. The inference is that only smart, successful people watch these types of broadcast, which, in effect, strokes the viewer’s ego, reflecting society's mentality and interest in entertainment and fantasy.
This mentality of giving people not what they need, but what they want, infers that they (the broadcast audience) are incapable of critical thinking. What the film plot shows is that the audience wants to be told fairy tales and fantasies, but not the truth. This is one of the subtexts of Anchorman II. GNN with its new programming format sets the pace for the future of the rest of the networks. Reality, unfortunately, has mirrored this film over the last couple decades in our social news media.
In this film, Ron Burgundy can do no wrong! Every aspect of his over the top broadcasts are hailed as revolutionary and cutting edge in media news. The following weeks, after Ron Burgundy’s initial phenomenal success, an interesting occurrence takes place between Ron and his co-host of the show. They decide to smoke crack cocaine on air during a live broadcast. The parallel to this is what Ron states as he smokes his first hit, “I can’t seem to get enough, I just want more and more”. This is an excellent example of what the broadcast news media does to its viewers; addicting them to valueless entertainment and leaving the viewers wanting and needing more.
Though the film is a comedy, an underlying component of the film presents itself; the idea of greed dictating the ethical concept of social responsibility. This ethical concept, shown in Anchorman II hints at a process of reinventing social truth and society as a whole, inferring that the network news media is reshaping viewers into what the media wants the viewers to be. Dumb addicts that need to have their daily fix of news (crack), becomes an integral plot of Anchorman II, with the network owners and executives of the 1980’s seeking ratings over integrity. They willingly trample social responsibility and addict generations of viewers to their type of news broadcast.
After a year as GNN’s anchorman, Ron becomes the recipient of an award. He is full of himself, prideful and arrogant. Ron accepts the award and, as part of the award presentation, he figure skates while playing the flute. Ron flawlessly performs counter turns, butterfly jumps and countless other precision figure skating moves. When Ron’s antagonist throws an electrical cable onto the ice, he trips over it and falls. The audience, who a minute ago loved him, now laughs at him, showing the fickleness of those whom he called friends and colleagues.
This is Ron’s second catalyst in the film and it produces a positive effect in his life. Humiliated, Ron has an epiphany of what is truly important to him. Now, he has to make a decision about what direction his life is going to go in. Ron’s new direction, has him fighting to get free from the network that controls his life. He has to battle the spin off shows produced by cable news network. This battle, ultimately, is about Ron’s awakening to the importance of his life. The dilemma he now faces involves his choosing career and success over his family.
Ron Burgundy makes his choice and, because he chooses what is diametrically opposed to the networks philosophies, he is forced to battle his way out of the sinuous monster he helped create. Ultimately, what is shown in this part of the film, is the redefining of social values of family and truths by the networks. The network’s only agenda is, of course, ratings.
The networks, as depicted in Anchorman II, become the bearers of societal truths, and the understanding of physical reality, much as have our own present day news entertainment media. The network entertainment and news media promote the norms about life and how to live them correctly, reporting what behaviors are normal and expected from the members of our society.
Removing critical thinking skills and telling everyone in society what they must think to conform to society's expectations encourages them to obey authority and never question what is presented as truth. Ultimately, the meaning of social truth is this: Truth equates to power. Those who have power control society’s truth, and “[e]ach society according to Foucault’s view, develops a conception of truth that is determined variously by the economic forces that are prevalent in that society, the political and ideological influences that prevail”. (Oliver: pg 142)
To some extent, the media’s influence, as depicted by Anchorman II, illustrates an aspect of our modern culture. The phenomenal ratings, satirized in the film, accurately reflects what our society wants; entertainment, not the relevant social issues of our culture. In essence, the door of social control has been opened by society’s drugged up, sleeping masses, leaving those who want to define and reshape the perception of societal truth an opportunity to confine society’s reasoning ability.
Anchorman II, illustrates the cause and effects of a culture that is no longer enlightened by socially responsible truths, a society that wants distraction from the realities of the truths that surround it. Interestingly, Immanuel Kant pondered this very question in an essay published in a Berlin newspaper in 1784, “Was ist Aufklarung? (What is Enlightenment?)”. Kant was interested in postulating this question to his culture: What is a person’s personal responsibility to his or her own self reasoning? “Enlightenment is man's release from his self incurred tutelage.” (Foucault: pg 31) In other words, a person who was enlightened did not need someone else to reason for them, or define their personal truths. This is part of the satire of Anchorman II, and is how the viewing audience of GNN is portrayed.
Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a portion of mankind, after nature has long since discharged them from eternal direction, nevertheless remains under the lifelong tutelage, and why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. For this enlightenment nothing is required but freedom, and indeed the most harmless among all things to which this term can be properly applied (Kant, quoted from The Politics Of Truth: pg 29).
Anchorman II illustrates a new society, shaped by the sociopathic nature of the films protagonist. It is then capitalized upon by the ruthless network owner, showing the sociopathic nature of human greed and the willingness to exploit every aspect of decency, including twisting truth to fit the networks agenda. The film accurately portrays a contemporary phenomenon in today's social media news, the quest for ratings at any cost.
Posited with the information of how the mass media is manipulating and redefining societal truths, Kalle Lasn and Bruce Grierson published an interesting cultural hypothesis: Long ago, originality, thought and inspiration sprouted, blossomed and withered away, “leaving mankind in a permanent crisis of meaning. A dark room, [where no enlightenment remains and] from which we can never escape.” (Lasn & Grierson: pg 37)
Faced with the reality of living in a “dark room [where no enlightenment remains and] from which we can never escape”, society might, if they were aware, resist those who have the power to addict with drugs and lies and who dumb down society's perception of the truth, as presented in the comedy Anchorman II. If the population were ever to awaken to the prison in which it exists, it would realize that relief from that prison would be society's demand for freedom.
Having had an epiphany to this truth of social news entertainment, because of Anchorman II, has unfettered me from the concepts of how and why society’s truths have been reinvented and often diluted. After spending my life chained to these social concepts of constraint and expectation, I find it difficult to comprehend the meaning of this new freedom and how one is to live free. I surmise that this is a problem for all newly freed prisoners, resisting the need for the institutional comforts provided by the regimented social norms of the prison.
Anchorman II depicts the way truth can be dumbed down and ultimately manipulated. Ideally, an understanding of truth should be easier in this age of information. However, searching for truth, or the multifaceted presentation of subjective truth, can be overwhelming. It seems that everyone has an opinion, and the opinion that seems to count the most in our society comes from sources that present themselves as social media authorities. I find it ironic that a film, as obviously low brow as Anchorman II, conveys such relevant truths. The plot line was filled with over the top antics. However, I honestly believe that this film could not have been made any other way. The depiction of such truths would not allow for an accurate portrayal of their lies and deceptions. Even though the film was dismal at best, once the main plot line became apparent, I was hooked.
CNN Launches (Googloe Document: June 1, 1980)
Foucault, Michel. The Politics Of Truth. Los Angeles, CA, Semiotext(e): 2007.
Lasn, Kalle & Grierson, Bruce. "Malignant Sadness." Adbusters (June/July, 2000)
Oliver, Paul. Foucault: The Key Ideas New York, NY, McGraw-Hill: 2010.
Tyndall Andrew, et. al. "Network TV Audience." State of the Media (2004)
Anchorman II (USA: Adam McKay, 2013: 119 mins)