I just finished watching Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series “The Newsroom” and all I can do is paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, “I knew the West Wing…The West Wing was a great show…The Newsroom, you’re no “West Wing.” Despite is glaring weaknesses, notably the rather hoary nature of the dialogue, “The Newsroom” reveals important issues regarding the nature of television news and the media today.
Jeff Daniels plays Will McAvoy, a news anchor successfully appealing to a mass audience, an increasingly difficult prospect in a media age where people consume news through sources aimed at ideological niches. To do so, however, his show is extremely careful not to offend, and he is twice mocked for being the newsman equivalent of Jay Leno. Paired with a typical liberal and conservative at a college discussion panel reminiscent of so many cable programs today, he first tries to avoid making any comments that would draw any controversy. After being pushed by a moderator to answer a student who asked, “Why is America the greatest country in the world? “ McAvoy lists all the ways the U.S. is behind other countries in various indices, declaring that we are no longer the greatest nation on the planet, even though we were at one point, listing all of the country’s previous accomplishments. Many reviewers have compared this speech to Howard Beale’s famous meltdown in “Network,” (1976) where Beale declares “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” To me, however, it was more reminiscent of similar progressive calls to arms by Sorkin characters such as Michael Douglas’ President Andrew Shepard in “The American President” (1995) and Martin Sheen’s President Jed Bartlett in the “West Wing” (1999-2006).
After taking a vacation following his outburst, McAvoy’s boss (Sam Waterston) hires a new producer for his show, who also happens to be his ex-girlfriend. When she tells McAvoy they can deliver a high quality program that will attain strong ratings even though “people choose the news they want now,” McAvoy disagrees, responding that “people choose the facts they want now,” citing studies suggesting the country is as divided as it has been since the Civil War. She imagines a broadcast that doesn’t aim for a “demographic sweet spot,” but is instead “a place where we all come together,” reflecting nostalgia for the time when the Big Three networks dominated the landscape.
Of course, the two of them are discussing the rise of partisan media in recent years, notably MSNBC and Fox News. No doubt the emergence of these networks reflects and sustains some of the political divisions in our society, as many Americans have their views reinforced rather than challenged. But this is not the first time in our history that we have faced this situation. In fact, our era is very similar to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, when Americans read party newspapers rather than independent journalism. This period, like our own, was also marked by strong partisan attachments and a series of close elections between Democrats and Republicans, including 1888, when incumbent Grover Cleveland won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College and the presidency to Benjamin Harrison (sound familiar?) Incidentally, there was also a yawning gap between rich and poor during this time as well.
The show glorifies a bygone age of television journalism, starting with images of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite during the opening credits. One of the few delights of “The Newsroom” is Waterston’s performance (nice to see him in something besides “Law and Order”!). In one of several long soliloquies during the show, Waterston sermonizes, ”Anchors having an opinion isn’t a new phenomenon. Murrow had one and that was the end of McCarthy. Cronkite had one and that was the end of Vietnam.” I realize Sorkin is not aiming for historical accuracy, but this exaggerates the media’s role in history. Murrow’s “See It Now“ programs on McCarthy came as “Tailgunner Joe’s” influence was already on the wane while Cronkite’s editorial against Vietnam reflected declining public support for the war rather than precipitating a turn against the conflict. See http://popculturemeetshistory.blogspot.com/2012/05/0-0-1-741-4229-university-of.html
The pilot takes place during the 2010 BP oil spill and McAvoy’s new staff does a heroic job of exposing the inadequate government regulation that created the conditions for the disaster. Similar to a scene from “Broadcast News” (1987) where William Hurt’s character adroitly covers breaking news with help from producer Holly Hunter, McAvoy explains the spill to the country with help from his ex. In this sense, “The Newsroom” comes across as a bit anachronistic. The move to opinion programing has come because the audience already knows what happened by the time the evening news airs. As David Carr wrote in today’s New York Times (6-25-2102), this is a primary reason for CNN’s declining ratings.
Perhaps the show will improve in the coming episodes, but the premiere was very weak. I usually enjoy Sorkin’s highly intelligent dialogue, but it seemed extremely forced in this episode. Unlike the great chemistry between the actors on the “West Wing,” the interactions among the “The Newsroom” cast appear awkward. I’m afraid that’s the way it is.