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Just one more thing about The Newsroom

By Meghan Murphy-Gill| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
blog Politics Reviews

Journalism!

I only saw the first episode of Aaron Sorkin’s latest television drama, The Newsroom last night, and while plenty of criticism (and some praise) has already made its rounds on the Internet, I can’t help but put my two cents in.

The series opens in a lecture hall, where a heated panel discussion, hosted by Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism (of course), on, well, it’s not clear.  It just has something to do with politics. The man and woman flanking the show’s lead, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), who appears serene and oblivious, are engaged in a heated debate. It’s obvious that Sorkin is setting up the context as well as the premise for his show: talking (babbling) heads who spew bland platitudes couched in obvious ideologies. The woman represents the liberal: She believes in arts funding! Government-funded arts! The man, who can’t stop talking over the woman to let her speak, and when he finally does, he condescendingly coos, “Let it all out.” He’s the conservative, in case you haven’t guessed, the one who loves freedom and thinks women who voice opinions are overly emotional and shrill. (Sorkin could get a job as a street artist with caricatures like these!)

When the moderator turns to McAvoy and poses a question, McAvoy is evasive, but “affable” as later refers to himself. Instead of a straight answer on whether or not he’s a liberal or a conservative and why he refuses to answer, he offers jokes. In this, Sorkin couldn’t be more heavy-handed. This is the state of journalism. With pundits dominating the 24 hour news cycle on the cable networks, there’s seemingly no room for something in between right and left shouting matches, name calling. It leaves those of us who refuse to join the circus feeling unengaged, distracted, or full to the brim with sardonic disillusion.

When finally pressed to answer the question, “What makes America the greatest country in the world?”  asked by a college sophomore, McAvoy finally says what he really thinks: It’s not. But it could be. He then diatribes and reminisces with misguided nostalgia about the days of yore. Back when America really was the greatest country in the world. Tellingly, he sticks to the 20th century, with emphasis on the mid-to late part. Of course, this creates a stir and media storm (TV NEWS ANCHOR EXPRESSES THE TRUTH!!).

Throw in some speeches by a boss who was embedded in Vietnam (Law & Order’s Sam Waters) and an award-winning war journalist back from Afghanistan and Iraq (who’s seen “too many funerals for a girl her age”), a potential love triangle, generational and racial and gendered conflicts, and that’s the show.

The Christian Century’s Steve Thorngate summarizes:

“[I]t's bad in every way Sorkin is so good at being bad. It's pompous and pedantic; it favors romanticism and snappy, Tracy-and-Hepburn dialogue to such a degree that it leaves behind not only realism (that much is intentional) but also distinct characters and well-developed plotlines. It's pretty damn sexist. And the basic premise is ludicrously arrogant: Prof. Sorkin backs the news up two years and shows us how it should have been covered, if only journalism weren't so broken...and if only journalists had two years' lead time (and hindsight) to get it right.”

An acquaintance of mine commented that Sorkin’s critically acclaimed The West Wing was good because it was Sorkin saying “THIS is important!” about something that is actually important. The Newsroom only affirms an inflated sense of importance held by many journalists, particularly those who remember the days before blogs and Twitter. Yes, yes, it’s the journalists make up the fourth estate. I’m pretty sure a journalist came up with that.

At yet, despite nearly a full hour of eye-rolling, that segment showing how the BP oil spill in the Gulf should be covered gave me the chills. I got excited and nostalgic for when I worked in a newsroom on September 11, 2001, obviously not for the news that was pouring in, but for the sense of purpose and meaning that came with covering such an enormous event with a team.

But, when we learn how “the other networks” covered the spill (McAvoy’s special broadcast bumps the importance of the story to red), we also learn that even when tasked with making sure the public is informed, there’s still a selfish goal: beating everyone else to the punch. Journalists love to break stories, because it makes them look and feel important (which isn’t entirely a bad thing—purpose-driven work is good). Their bosses love for journalists to break stories because it’s good for ratings and ad revenue. And that we should always remember, is the poison pill capital J journalists must swallow when they write under the mastheads and show names of for-profit media.

P.S. For truly entertaining actual newsroom dialogue: Overheard in the Newsroom.