What The Newsroom makes me remember

Been watching the first few episodes of Aaron Sorkin‘s newest show, The Newsroom (between KL and here, out of sequence). As you’d expect from the guy who made The West Wing it’s pretty good and has a strong liberal bent. It’s very much my sort of show too.

I guess I fit a certain demographic, unfortunately – I hate fitting demographics – who is going to appreciate such an intelligent program with a liberal agenda like this. It doesn’t pull punches and wears its decent, humane heart on its sleeve. If that’s all it was I wouldn’t watch it though.

It’s all very well being liberally inclined, but liberal objectivity needs balance and rigour – not everything falls neatly to one side, or the other, despite those who would have us believe it is as simple as that. There two sides, or more, to every story; there are nuances, shades, different perspectives which need be exposed if we are to get the true truth. And in fact, that is one of the points this show makes.

The show is set in a newsroom funnily enough, around a current affairs program which strives to be relevant and to rise above the tabloid – and above all the pressures pushing it that way, the ratings, the politics, the economics. It’s an idealised newsroom in many ways because sadly I don’t know if news programs like that actually exist any more in reality.

There’s a riveting opening sequence to the third episode where the shows lead, Will McAvoy, nails their principles to the door:

“Good evening.  I’m Will McAvoy, this is News Night, and that was a clip of Richard Clarke, former counter-terrorism chief to George W. Bush, testifying before Congress on March 24th, 2004. 

Americans like that moment.  I like that moment.  Adults should hold themselves accountable for failure.  And so tonight, I’m beginning this newscast by joining Mr Clarke in apologising to the American people for our failure.  The failure of this program during the time I’ve been in charge of it to successfully inform and educate the American electorate. 

Let me be clear that I don’t apologise on behalf of all broadcast journalists, nor do all broadcast journalists owe an apology.  I speak for myself.  I was an accomplice to a slow and repeated and unacknowledged and unamended trainwreck of failures that have brought us to now. 

I’m a leader in an industry that miscalled election results, hyped up terror scares, ginned up controversy, and failed to report on tectonic shifts in our country; from the collapse of the financial system to the truths about how strong we are to the dangers we actually face.  I’m a leader in an industry that misdirected your attention with the dexterity of Harry Houdini, while sending hundreds of thousands of our bravest young men and women off to war without due diligence. 

The reason we failed isn’t a mystery.  We took a dive for the ratings.  In the infancy of mass communications, the Columbus and Magellan of broadcast journalism, William Paley and David Sarnoff, went down to Washington to cut a deal with Congress: Congress would allow the fledgling networks free use of tax-payer owned airwaves in exchange for one public service. 

That public service would be one hour of airtime set aside every night for informational broadcasting, or what we now call the evening news.  Congress, unable to anticipate the enormous capacity television would have to deliver consumers to advertisers, failed to include in its deal the one requirement that would have changed our national discourse immeasurably and for the better. 

Congress forgot to add that under no circumstances could there be paid advertising during informational broadcasting. 

They forgot to say that tax-payers will give you the airwaves for free, and for twenty-three hours a day you should make a profit but for one hour a night, you work for us.  And now those network newscasts, anchored through history by honest-to-God newsmen with names like Murrow, and Reasoner, and Huntley, and Brinkley, and Buckley, and Cronkite, and Rather, and Russert; now they have to compete with the likes of me – a cable anchor who’s in the exact same business as the producers of Jersey Shore. 

And that business was good to us; but News Night’s quitting that business right now. 

It might come as a surprise to you that some of history’s greatest American journalists are working right now: exceptional minds with years of experience and an unshakeable devotion to reporting the news.  These voices are a small minority now, and they don’t stand a chance against the circus when the circus comes to town; they’re overmatched. 

I’m quitting the circus.  Switching teams.  I’m going with the guys who are getting creamed.  I’m moved they still think they can win, and I hope they can teach me a thing or two. 

From this moment on, we’ll be deciding what goes on our air and how it’s presented to you based on the simple truth that nothing is more important to a democracy than a well-informed electorate. 

We’ll endeavour to put information in a broader context, because we know that very little news is born at the moment it comes across our wire.  We’ll be the champion of facts, and the mortal enemy of innuendo, speculation, hyperbole and nonsense.  We’re not waiters in a restaurant, serving you the stories you asked for just the way you like them prepared; nor are we computers, dispensing only the facts – because news is only useful in the context of humanity.  I’ll make no effort to subdue my personal opinions; I will make every effort to expose you to informed opinions that are different from my own. 

You may ask, who are we to make these decisions?  We are MacKenzie McHale and myself.  Ms McHale is our Executive Producer.  She marshalls the resources of over a hundred reporters, producers, analysts and technicians and her credentials are readily available.  I’m News Night’s Managing Editor and make the final decision on everything seen and heard on this program. 

Who are we to make these decisions?  We’re the media elite. 

We’ll be back after this with the news.”

It’s an impressive, grandiloquent speech that roused me – this is what I want, what I believe. This is what the news should be about. Of course, I know it’s nothing near as easy as that, and real life is no cable TV series. It made me think though.

The world is fractured into all sorts of different slivers. Too many to keep up with. In much of the western world, we can broadly define them into the left and the right, though there are gradations and variations between. My demographic, the demographic I wrote of earlier, is broadly the audience for both a program like this and the cheer squad for the kind of speech I’ve copied out above. To others, the story is very different.

It’s a show I’m sure will divide many. My experience of the States is that the split between one side and the other is more bitter than it is here in Oz, and with the likes of the Tea Party, a lot more kooky too. Others, like me, might be described as a bleeding heart liberal, or else some smug fanboy, or a softcock traitor to my tribe. And so on.

Sort of sad in a pathetic way. I say I don’t know why it has to be like that. Except that I do really. So much of it is politics and the general erosion of genuine belief and integrity. And it’s the sort of media not celebrated in this program – the inflammatory tabloid who care for nothing but a fat rating figure, and the hard-line, one-eyed ideologues. And, ultimately, so much of it is ignorance and apathy.

The show made me think about America too. As someone who lives far away the idea of America has been long time a myth. I don’t think it always was. Economically America is not the promised land it once appeared, but the idea was always bigger than that. America represented hope and opportunity and sold that with a smile. This program, that speech, is to me what that America was. It was honest words, integrity, a belief in being fair and true, in sharing the bounty because it was God-given, and there was more than enough to go around.

We used to be the same. I think we always had a harder edge here in Oz, suspicious always of the smooth rhetoric Americans were always so good at. It was true in smaller ways with us, with a nod and a wink, howya goin’ mate, give ya a hand? Push came to shove that’s who we were, just an earthy acceptance that in the end, we’re all the same and if we’ve been lucky enough to have more, well, it wasn’t right to keep it to ourselves. It was in our nature to be generous.

Is America like that now? Not really. In parts, in the higher aspirations of many, in the Aaron Sorkin‘s of this world and those who watch his programs. But it’s no longer general, and the truth is there are large segments of America bitterly opposed to the spirit and generosity that once were the norm. Always insular, America has become more so, protective of its interests, fearful of so many outside, paranoid to an almost twisted degree about things the rest of us see as being normal, and much too prone to beat their chest, point to the constitution, and imagine reds/gays/illegal aliens under the bed.

Australia is different because we are different people and culture, because we are smaller and because for now, we have survived these latest economic downturns so much better. Still, there are commonalities. Similar fears, the same rabid press in parts, and similarly so often important debates hijacked by the superficial, the corrupt and the vested interests.

I’m like a lot of American’s – I want us to get back to where we were. Which is where I return to a program like the newsroom. In the end, it’s highbrow entertainment, but it espouses something innately decent and aspirational in the drama both in the newsroom, and what it puts on screen. It’s the best of America. It reminds me of what I believe in. For a moment I’m proud to believe such things and to share them with these other good people, wherever they are. It reminds me of how glad I am that I believe and that these are things worth fighting for. As if I had a choice. You have to believe that those times will come again; have to believe that ultimately human decency must win out. I know, sounds bleeding heart liberal, but I guess I’ll wear that.

One response to “What The Newsroom makes me remember

  1. A few weeks on and I want to qualify my comments a tad. While much of what I wrote remains true, I find some of the sentimental excesses of this show – and shows like it – hard to swallow from an Australian sensibilty. It’s very American in that regard, and generally un-Australian, which is why I find it difficult. I’ve had others say the same. There’s a lot of things I like about the states, but of the things I like least it is the almost saccharine sentimentality often on public display, a reverence for ceremony, a naive sense of exceptionalism, a cornball respect for authority, and mealy-mouthed words and ideas – rhetoric – which so often passes for public comment.

    Not all of these criticisms apply to this show, and indeed the show actively seeks to overturn some of them. In a way it’s not really a criticism, but more a reflection of different national traits. Australians are suspicious of high sounding rhetoric, have an attitude that respect must be individually earned, and are a lot tougher and less sentimental about things in general – perhaps too much so. So, what seems fine, even standard, to an American viewer is just a little sickly to an Aussie audience. I think that’s probably true for a lot of non-American audiences.


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