HBO and Aaron Sorkin’s new series The Newsroom is all too explicitly about truth, justice and the posited nadir of the American way. News is just the excuse. My guess is its tendency to pontificate on these subjects will do it little good with audiences. Like most televised dramas, it will rise or fall on whether audiences care about its characters. But this is not what I was asked to write about.
I was asked to write about The Newsroom’s representation of newsrooms, news, and the news industry. Here, I am afraid, the news is not good. What’s notably absent from The Newsroom’s newsroom is news; you know, the daily events that exemplify life in our times. Once an episode, News with a capital N is invoked, in the actual brand-name of a “real” mega-news story, but this is mere exploitation.
The Newsroom is not about news but how news is presented. This focus allows Sorkin, through his anchorman character Will McAvoy, to sermonize not on the news but on its Meaning, an example of what his Executive Producer Mackenzie McHale so tellingly puts it, “Telling the Truth to Stupid.” Beware those who choose to pontificate to the “stupid.”
Real newsrooms are filled with news, stories that lead the show, make it into the show, never make it into any show but are of interest to somebody in the newsroom. This is what gives newsrooms their energy. Both these stories and that energy are unrepresented here. Only The Big Stories are worth The Newsroom’s notice. Everything else is contemptible “human interest.” Those stupid humans, who cares what’s news to them?
Also missing is all the news work done outside the newsroom. This is called reporting. And reporting rarely involves (spoiler alert) fielding calls from your sister and college roommate who happen to be “inside sources” on the biggest story in the world. Reporting means going outside the newsroom, with open eyes and no agenda, to see what’s actually happening where the story intersects with life. No one does that in The Newsroom.
Ironically, this is where The Newsroom tells the truth. Today’s television news is almost wholly made inside the newsroom. What’s “out there” is just used to fill in the blanks in someone’s preconception of the story, and is gathered as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Thus it is especially cynical that in The Newsroom both the Executive Producer and the President of the News Division are presented as ex-reporters (who covered Afghanistan and Vietnam, no less). To this one can only say, “Hahahaha.” Executives in the news industry do not reflect the values of grunts from the field.
Today’s news industry, like so many industries, devalues its raw materials in favor of their processing. Thus, reforming it depends on much more than what Newsroom proposes: if its workers “have the will.” This is the stuff of fairy tales, and The Newsroom, for all its “real stories” and “big issues,” is as real about news as Jack and the Beanstalk.