Aaron Sorkin’s new show, The Newsroom, has hit the screens both sides of the pond to some polarised reviews. Let me briefly set out the synopsis before telling you why it is so damned important in this day and age – why the message is crucial.
Here is a positive review of the show if you have not seen it:
Imagine, for a moment, what our lives would look like if scripted by Aaron Sorkin.
We’d all be witty, golden-tongued literates who spout verbal symphonies. We’d aspire to big, high-minded goals and refuse to be slaves to The Man. Moreover, we’d firmly believe that arcane data points and policy issues are sexy, not nerdy, and we’d routinely espouse the virtues of Mom, Dad and apple pie while racing through office hallways as dramatic music swells in the background.
That’s a roundabout way of saying that the mighty Sorkin, who spent some time flirting with the big screen (“The Social Network” and “Moneyball”) has, at last, returned to television with his utopian world views, and he’s looking for a few (or many) starry-eyed dreamers to come along for the ride.
Nearly 13 years after Sorkin’s “The West Wing” arrived on the scene to portrayWashingtonpolitics as a noble pursuit instead of the ugly mud-wrestling matches they actually seem to be, he’s bringing a similarly idealistic approach to TV journalism. In HBO’s “The Newsroom,” he envisions a swashbuckling band of reporters committed to so-called serious news in an era of political polarization and celebrity obsession. To which we say, good luck with that.
At the center of this compelling, timely and vital drama is veteran anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels). He’s considered the “Jay Leno” of newsmen — a play-it-safe kind of guy who found a cushy niche with solid ratings by delivering the news down the middle of the road, all the better to avoid alienating anyone.
Whatever fire remains in Will’s belly is reserved for launching sarcastic insults at his newsroom minions and generally being a pain-in-the-butt blowhard. No wonder, then, that most of his frazzled staff is poised to jump ship.
But Will experiences a major reality check after having a very public, mad-as-hell meltdown and a subsequent management-enforced vacation. When he returns from his break, he’s stunned to discover that his old-school boss (Sam Waterston) has hired former war correspondent, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), to executive produce his show.
For Will, this new arrangement is a nightmare, because he and MacKenzie once dated, and their relationship apparently ended disastrously. On the other hand, she’s the one person who can jolt the apathy right out of him.
She wants to do it by producing a newscast that is more concerned about integrity than ratings and attempts to reclaim “journalism as an honorable profession.” Sure, it’s a noble goal, but will it work when so many viewers seem more concerned about the latest travails of Lindsay Lohan? And can the damaged Will actually risk losing his only “friends,” the audience?
Sorkin clearly is attracted to the behind-the-scenes frenzy of live TV, having embraced the conceit twice before with the highly acclaimed “Sports Night” and the Nielsen misfire, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” But “The Newsroom” comes with an intriguing twist: It’s set in the recent past, which allows his fictional reporters to cover real-life events. Sunday’s opening episode, for example, focuses on the horrific BP oil spill of 2010.
Otherwise, most of the familiar trademarks are in place: the gale-force blasts of Sorkinese banter, which sometimes feel like congressional filibusters, only more articulate; the dizzying rush of workplace scenes; the occasional doses of wry humor; the thorny workplace romances and, of course, the seductive aura of wish-fulfillment.
As usual, Sorkin has an exceptional cast to deliver the goods. It’s great to see the underrated Daniels, who has languished in marginal roles recently, get something meaty to sink his teeth into. And longtime “Law & Order” fans might be surprised at just how funny — and profanely feisty — Waterston can be.
Mortimer, too, has a wonderfully engaging presence, as does Alison Pill as a razor-sharp, but less-than-confident newsroom newbie, and John Gallagher as a gung-ho senior producer. The third episode brings on Jane Fonda in a recurring role, for which she essentially plays a female Ted Turner.
Sorkin, who was accused of being too liberal with “The West Wing,” deploys these characters as equal-opportunity bashers. They rip into Democrats, Republicans and the tea party as well as lazy journalists, callous corporations and the uninformed audience. As for the latter, he points out via McAvoy thatAmericaonce “… aspired to intelligence. We didn’t belittle it.”
And unlike much of television, this is a show that aspires to great heights. From what we know about Sorkin, it won’t always succeed. There will be times when “The Newsroom” will get too overwrought and ponderous, too earnest and even sanctimonious. And there will be times when some viewers will find themselves rolling their eyes.
But just as someone who prefers Conan to Leno, I’d rather spend time with an edgy show that aims high and sometimes falls short, than one that doesn’t. And I’d rather be in the company of a great screenwriter than a run-of-the-mill one.
So welcome back, Mr. Sorkin. It’s a pleasure to have you.
So we have the superlative Jeff Daniels in the form of his life delivering a character who takes on the role of moral arbiter in the murky and biased world of news coverage. Sorkin has made the character a moderate Republican, but I think this is only to appease Republicans and centrists. Admittedly, I have only seen the first 5 episodes, but there is no doubting his liberal views. I will return to this later.
The problem that many have with the show is
1) It is unrealistic in that these people just wouldn’t exist in the reality of the cutthroat business induced news culture
2) It is unremittingly left-wing
The first point – that is the point. It is a statement, I feel, on how things should be, or a what the world would be like if this did happen scenario.
The second point is what is more interesting. Sorkin’s central point is about truth. It is about the obligation of news providers to provide unbiased news that is as close to truth as possible. The Newsroom at ACN (the network news channel invented for the show), led by the mind of McHale, throws out this set of rules for dictating the quality of the news:
1) Is this information we need in the voting booth?
2) Is this the best possible form of the argument?
3) Is the story in historical context?
4) Are there really two sides to this story?
This is the mantra that they declare they should adhere to, that they should questions their news and sources against, in order to inform their audience as well as possible. And this is a noble outlook. They spend some quality time dedicated to the problem of fairness.
Fairness is a problem that pervades all newscasters from FOX to the BBC. What I mean by this is if a news item is presented concerning evolution or global warming, the news dedicates a portion of time to the proponents of these consensus views. However, because the networks feel they must in the BBC’s case) present a fair case (and for more sinister reasons with FOX), they dedicate the same amount of air time to the alternate views. Thus evolution denial and AGW denial receive the same airtime as the proponents of these views, even though they are defended by less than 1% of relevant experts in the relevant fields! As this piece says, using Sorkin’s own words:
Sorkin echoes Will McAvoy, the “News Night” anchor he created, when he says, “The news isn’t biased toward the left or toward the right, it’s biased toward fairness. If the Republican congressional caucus were to walk onto the floor of the House and offer a resolution saying the world is flat,” the next day’s headlines would likely read: “Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on shape of Earth.”
What are the chances that the real-world media might get with Sorkin’s program?
In researching “The Newsroom,” Sorkin says he spoke with numerous executives and producers at news outlets, and asked them two questions on how to get better: “What would a utopian news broadcast be? And, what’s stopping you from doing it?”
The responses to the first question varied only slightly, he says, and had to do with narrowing the definition of “news” to mean more relevant, necessary and useful information.
But what was the answer to that all-important second question? According to Sorkin, “It was almost uniformly some version of the word ‘guts.'”
So an appeal to a greater sense of proportional representation of established fact is one aspect of Sorkin’s message which I absolutely condone.
Another facet revolves around the commercialisation of news with regards to the notion that commercial bodies, corporations whose primary concern is profit making for the benefit of shareholders, can influence what news is and isn’t. In other words, corporations can determine what is deemed as truth and disseminate it to the masses. If you have not seen the excellent documentary called “The Corporation” then I advise you do so. There is a segment in it dealing with how Monsanto threatened to pull all their advertising when two investigative journalists for a new show found out a devastating story about how cows’ milk was being infected due to pharmaceuticals being given to the cows (created by Monsanto). This meant infected milk was being fed to school children and general public alike. See this link here to see the relevant segment. Actually, it is so important, I will embed it:
The quote to the journalist who was going to run the story was, in recounting what the News execs said to him, “We paid 3 billion dollars for these television stations . We’ll tell YOU what the news is, the news is what we say it is… If you refuse to present this story as we think it should be presented, you will be fired for insubordination.” Incredible. This was clearly in the public interest, as masses of milk was contminated.
What this means is that in a scary reversal of Animal Farm, it is the corporations who control information and can thus easily misinform and disinform the public.
The Newsroom deals with this when Jeff Daniels’ character and his team investigate the Koch brothers (very, very rich and powerful magnates who also have strong Republican political clout) and find them funding grass roots Tea Party activism, supposedly self-funded by the activists etc. The ramifications of this being that the Koch bothers pull out of interests in the network and the bosses have to fight pecuniary interests over and above the desire to present ‘real’ and truthful news. It is a mirror of the story in The Corporation in many respects.
I have always been a fan of the BBC in, Britain, as the most prominent news network. This is because they are state funded, not commercially funded, but are independent of the state at the same time, not answering to the government. As a result, I think we have the best news production in the world, I really do. The documentaries on the BBC, from Panorama to the science show Horizon are not afraid of pissing anyone off and reporting the news. Good news, not sensationalist, entertainment rubbish that is left to the commercial channels. It ain’t prefect, but it gives it a damned good go. I cannot tell you how much of a privilege this is. And this is what Sorkin is aiming for in his utopian view of how news should be.
This is not a case of bashing the right wing, but of exposing what really happens in the world of news broadcasting. Could it be that the right wing, being better bedfellows with corporations, is more prone to blurring the line between commerce and news?
In the next post, I will be talking about truth with regards to left and right leaning politics.