The Newsroom is not the best show on television, but it can be.
Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom depicts the lives of journalists at a fictional major news outlet called Atlantis Cable News, (ACN). Most episodes center around the production of its flagship broadcast, News Night, hosted by republican pundit Will McAvoy.
I watched both seasons in two days and absolutely loved it, but found that critics hated it.The New Yorker said it was “artificially intelligent.” Huffington Post and Salon said that the female characters are ditsy, hysterical, and borderline sexist. The Daily Beast said the plot was too “soapy.” I was shocked. But upon reflection, all of those criticisms seemed pretty accurate. Taking a second look, I realized that The Newsroom is a compelling hot mess, with the compelling aspect being the spot-on commentary on the changing, flawed, and endangered state of American journalism.
The Newsroom finds its strength and voice in making poignant observations about how party politics, snark, ire, spin and innuendo have taken the place of actual news on cable television. The unfortunate reality of news today is that it’s rare to flip to a cable news channel and find anything other than a flashy arena for the right and left to duke it out in the obvious interest of ratings and party loyalties.
The Newsroom is both a cautionary tale and an idealistic fantasy about the state of the industry, and what it could become if anchors, producers and network heads refused to be enslaved by ratings, in bed with advertisers and on the leash of “corporate.”
The first episode opens with popular news anchor Will McAvoy participating in a Journalism School panel and responding to a student question, “Why is America the greatest country in the world?” He answers with a rousing stream of conscience. “We used to be, but we’re not anymore.” He recalls America’s history of major news events illustrating, in his opinion, how far we’ve fallen in science, education, technology, political ideology, and ultimately, the world. Meanwhile in the back of the auditorium, Will’s executive producer and love interest MacKenzie McHale is holding up cue cards that read, “It’s Not. But It Can Be,” in response to the student’s question. It’s a provocative bit of television, and a running start out of the gate for the hour-long show.
Sorkin has found smart and compelling ways to address other major issues with the media industry through the lens of News Night plotlines. He takes on sensationalism, and the practice of using “tragedy porn” such as the Casey Anthony trial as viewer bait to spike ratings.
The Newsroom takes on the issue of party-politics, portraying “liberal” and “conservative” news networks as the dangerous slippery slopes that they are. Will McAvoy is known as a conservative republican anchor, so when he takes on the Tea Party, he is chastised by a network executive who fears that ACN’s republican viewership will not want to hear any anti-right sentiment. I think this storyline accurately points out the inherent problem of networks catering to the perceived sensibilities of their viewers, while viewers form sensibilities based on what they’re watching on TV, making for a stagnant and vicious cycle of political disinformation.
In one episode, Will loses the chance to host a republican debate because party leaders feel as though he will be too harsh on candidates. This brings up issues of whether or not journalists are still able to be working members of the 4th estate, or whether party politics and network interests have reduced news anchors and reporters to the position of right or left lapdogs. Additionally, The Newsroom addresses the fact that the Internet has made the necessary timeline for breaking news much faster, sometimes at the expense of accuracy.
Finally, and perhaps most compellingly, The Newsroom makes the case for reporters being advocates for, and allies of, the viewers, the readers and the voters, rather than the politicians, the executives and the moneymen. In the first season, an executive explains why Will makes a good anchor. He says, “He was a prosecutor. Before he was an anchor, before he was a reporter, before he was a speechwriter, he was a prosecutor. He graduated college at 19, law school at 21, and signed up for the Brooklyn district attorney’s office where he racked up a 94% conviction record. And the newsroom turned into a courtroom, because I made the decision that American voters need a fucking lawyer.”
I hope that for the 3rd and final season of The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin ignores all of the bad reviews, the noise, and the network pressure and does what his characters have been trying to do for two seasons already: create a show that’s worthy of being called the best.