The Newsroom: Worth Watching

The Newsroom” is a dramatic series from HBO that focuses on the evening news program of 24-hour news channel ACN (Atlantic Cable News) called “News Night” and the lives and adventures of its staff.

I will warn you now that at points I will probably sound like a gushing fanboy.  That’s because I simply love this series.

First, I’ll give a quick rundown of a few of the main characters.  The show is superbly acted, with a cast of veteran actors showing us their chops.

Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is the lead news anchor for ACN.  During a political panel discussion in the series premiere, he went on an epiphanic (and probably cathartic) rant about how America is no longer “the greatest country in the world” (after this gut-punch rant, I was hooked immediately).  Will and his new Executive Producer, MacKenzie McHale, or “Mac” were romantically involved in 2005, years before they worked together on the show, but the relationship ended when Mack revealed she had cheated on him.  The pair are still dealing with the emotional rollercoaster of that.

MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) is News Night’s Executive Producer and the engineer of a fluid conceptual redesign she promotes as “News Night 2.0” – a total shakeup in how ACN “does the news”.  As EP, she’s in the awkward position of being Will’s boss while bearing the brunt of his anger at the termination of their relationship.

Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda) is the owner of Atlantis Media Group and ACN.  Leona doesn’t appear in every episode, but she keeps things fiery when she’s on, interacting most with Charlie Skinner, and when she does, it’s rarely over good news.

Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) is the ACN Executive in charge of News Night.  A former war reporter and former marine, Charlie is never far from a glass of bourbon.  Waterston seems to relish the role and the “linguistic license” afforded to shows on HBO.

Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) is an Associate Producer at News Night.  She’s young and has an idealism that comes across as green naivety.  At the show’s start, she’s romantically linked with Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski), but the relationship fizzles when Don leaves to produce a later news show on the same network.  Maggie has a much better chemistry with Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.), the show’s Senior Producer, but she seems unable to pull her life out of a tailspin.

Most of The Newsroom cast. L-R Neal Sampat (Dev Patel), Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn), Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski), Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.), Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) and Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill)

Season one of the Newsroom took us on a linear progression as the writers fleshed out the characters and their sometimes complex lives and idiosyncracies.

Season two of The Newsroom is a lot less linear, as one major story line is restructured backwards to give us a puzzle to figure out.  It starts off with each member of the staff giving depositions to a lawyer who is investigating something.  At first we don’t know what or who she’s investigating, but as the season goes on, it’s clear that it’s inevitable that at least one News Night staffer is getting canned.  The investigation begins to focus on a story the team was pursuing called Operation Genoa in which the team suspects that the American military used sarin gas in an Afghanistan attack.  Meanwhile, the news goes on, and so does News Night.  In season two, we’re also out of the news room itself a bit more, as Jim travels around the country following the Romney bus on the election campaign, and Maggie and Gary Cooper (Chris Chalk) travel to Africa for a story.  This is a life-changing event for Maggie.  Not only does the news go on, but the staff’s personal lives and problems do as well, and the episodes are jam-packed with storylines.

Some critics panned the show in the first season, saying it’s formulaic and typical of an Aaron Sorkin show.  That “formula” brought us shows like The West Wing and movies like A Few Good Men.  I say if the principle of using what works and exploring variations is good enough for evolution, it’s good enough for entertainment.  Some of these critics have warmed up to The Newsroom in season two, as the show took a different direction in writing and tone.

Gawker.com asked Dan Rather to review the show.  They figured that a man with 55 years experience in journalism and 24 of those years spent as an anchorman (the longest tenure of anyone in American television history) would be a good person to ask for an opinion on the show’s realism.  Dan Rather liked it.  A lot.  So much so, in fact, that he continued reviewing it, sometimes with his staff contributing, writing recaps for each episode for Gawker.  The shine has not worn off.  Rather sees the show as something more than just entertaining or accurate, he sees it as something that’s “important“.  In an interview with Piers Morgan, Rather commented, “you know how hard it is to get the tone just right when you’re doing a fiction piece about reality. And I’ve been there. I know what a newsroom is like. And they have it dead in the bull’s eye, dead on the money.”

Other critics dismiss The Newsroom as an idealistic liberal crusade of the pursuit of some idea of nobility in reporting the news.  While Will is the very public face of the show, the direction comes almost exclusively from Mac.  After Will ever-so-subtly touches on it at the end of the show’s opening rant, she paraphrases Thomas Jefferson’s “informed electorate” ideals (“whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.“) as the objective behind a concept she brands “News Night 2.0”.  As we watch the news team go from major news event to major news event, the concept is polished by the News Night staff, and is quickly boiled down to a set of “best practices” that describe a simplified philosophy of responsible, fair and accurate journalism.  That philosophy is exercised in three questions:  Is this information we need in the voting booth?;  Is this the best possible form of the argument?;  Is the story in historical context?  The first question helps to quickly identify the news stories worthy of broadcast.  The second question encourages in-depth examination with a view for accuracy and conciseness, and ensures that all relevant sides of the story are represented.  The third ensures the fact-check and guards against News Night playing the role of revisionist historian or propagandist.  The “News Night 2.0” concept is a response to all media, but Fox News in particular.

The Newsroom is not all heavy news and political rhetoric, though.  There are some fun moments, too.  For example, we see a small glimpse of Harry Dunne (Daniels’ character in Dumb and Dumber) after an interrupted staff party at Will’s place.  Will gets ready to announce the killing of Osama Bin Laden on air while stoned on a combination of some industrial strength marijuana cookies and Vicodin.  We are also treated to moments of humour when bodyguard Lonny Church (Terry Crews) is assigned to Will after a death threat is made on the show’s blog.

If there’s one thing I find annoying about this series, it’s that every character is a slave to various crippling neuroses.  Each character is mostly competent in what they do professionally, but equally incompetent in just about everything else.  Yes, an Achilles Heel lets the viewer relate to a hero, but there are so many basket cases at work in this office that the network really should consider hiring a battery of full time shrinks.

There are people who hate The Newsroom with a passion.  They tend to be the hard right-wingers, Republicans, and anybody on Fox News.  Frankly, I’m very glad that they hate it.  They hate it because the show calls them out on their blatant dishonesty, and they have no defense against it.  The Newsroom doesn’t even attempt to disguise its scorn for Fox News and their style of news coverage.

In “real life”, Fox’s resident tree stump Greg Gutfeld called The Newsroom a “Left-Wing Loonbin” in a mini-rant of his own, based on a 5-second clip from the TRAILER for Season 2 of the show, in which Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) excitedly pitches coverage of the fledgling “Occupy Wall Street” movement to Mac.  Gutfeld claims he has watched the show, but a smug-looking Gutfeld asks the question, “WHEN was this series written?!?” as his co-hosts giggle and cluck off-camera.  Anyone who watched the show knows that the show is SET two years in the past, in 2011.  Gutfeld claims that the show puts the Occupy movement “up on a pedestal”.  Neal gets equally excited about pitching Bigfoot stories, and so Mac is very reluctant to bite on his pitch to cover Occupy.  Even Neal is routinely critical of the movement with one of the organizers.  Later, that same organizer negotiates an appearance on News Night where she is roundly shredded on air by Will.  …Pedestal?  Since I don’t have enough irony in my life, I Googled Fox News opinion pieces from 2011, and, well, Fox News was all gushy over Occupy just like all the rest of the news media at the time.  And finally, Gutfeld’s cohorts ridicule the show as “unrealistic”, claiming no news room operates like that.  Dan Rather already addressed the accuracy issue, but I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that Fox News would be unable to recognize a proper news room.

Stop it.  You promised you wouldn’t rant in this one.  Take deep breaths, find your happy place.  I hate Fox News I hate Fox News I hate Fox News ommmmmmmmm…

Okay, I’m calm.  Gutfeld probably doesn’t even know that the character of news anchor Will McAvoy is a dyed-in-the-wool old-school Republican, even though it’s brought up repeatedly in the show and is a fact that can’t be missed.  McAvoy is one of those Republicans who wants to see the Republican party returned to a position of relevance and despises the Tea Party and won’t forgive them for what they’ve done to his party.  He hides this fact from his audience, in the interest of the appearance of impartiality, but his staff are soon made aware of this, and Will does reveal to his audience in a broadcast that he is a Republican in another fine rant at the end of season one where he makes a compelling case that the Tea Party are the American Taliban.  At the start of the second season, Will is pulled from the anchor position on the 9/11 10th anniversary show for his “American Taliban” rant.

Yes, the show might be a little idealistic, but in my opinion, that does not make it unrealistic.  I’m a news and political junkie.  The Newsroom allows me to believe something can be done about the state of the news media in America.  Even if it’s only for the hour that I’m watching this show, it’s a great feeling to have.  I’ll admit that I often feel a rush of endorphin-laden optimism as I watch the show.  I want to stand up, applaud and shout, “See??  THAT’s how you do it!!“.

Yes, The Newsroom is a show about a fictional newsroom, and that allows them to take license with certain things – like, acting with principles – that the real news media thinks it cannot always afford to do.  Also, the fact that the show is set two years in the past allows the show’s writers to tackle events like the Gabby Giffords shooting and the Gulf oil spill with a hindsight that is not afforded “real-time” and “real-world” newsrooms.  At least, that’s the theory.

With that said, is The Newsroom really just a salve?  Is the show a sugar pill for those who don’t see the world in black and white to comfortably dream that maybe, just maybe, somebody can start reporting the news right?

No, I don’t think the show is a placebo.  I’m already seeing The Newsroom’s impact here in the real world.  One of the points made with all the subtlety of a Chautauqua Tent preacher is that presenting two opinions and calling that “fair and balanced” reporting is false, foolish, irresponsible, misleading, ridiculous, and above all, it’s not journalism.  Sometimes there simply are NOT two sides to a story.  Sometimes proper journalism discovers there really is just one, or maybe as many as seven sides to a story.  The other news media outlets have seemed completely inept at countering the Fox approach, but I’ve heard echoed twice recently in prominent news coverage that there aren’t always two sides to a story.  It seems the news media is starting to get it.  I just wish I could recall what the news stories were so I could include the links here.

Dan Rather has it right.  This show is more than drama, and it’s more than entertainment.  It’s important because it is a vehicle for promoting Thomas Jefferson’s ideal that the single most sure way to guarantee the proper governance of America as it advances and changes is to have a properly educated and properly informed public, so that they may be entrusted to make decisions on their own governance.  It’s about a news organization having the courage to embrace their responsibility and properly inform the public, instead of being enslaved to advertisers or ratings, or pandering to political extremism.  I discovered Jefferson’s writings on his educated electorate doctrine shortly before I watched The Newsroom for the first time, and as I read it, I choked up.  Now, I’m not one to get all weepy over the American founding fathers, but Jefferson’s vision at the founding of America is a sure remedy for much of what I and others see as what most deeply ails America right now.

…And that’s why I like The Newsroom.

One thought on “The Newsroom: Worth Watching

  1. Thank you, Dileas, for an interesting article. I had seen the “greatest country in the world” clip (and absolutely loved it) but never knew it was from a TV series. I thought it was from a movie. Now that I know, and after watching several more clips from the show, I think I'll have to look The Newsroom up and give it a try.

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