Mostly whimsical reflections on life
Carole and I finished watching over the weekend the final episodes of HBO’s “The Newsroom,” the Aaron Sorkin exploration of what goes on behind the camera at a major U.S. television network.
Amid the chaos of assembling the news like a chef making a made-to-order omelette, there are deeper strains of what the news itself is all about. The entire series in many ways centered on the question of what network television news should be.
Will McAvoy, deftly played by Jeff Daniels, began the series in 2012 with a profanity-laced tirade that sparked his transformation from a lump behind a desk with an earpiece into a news anchor willing to challenge big issues and ask tough questions.
Through three seasons, we watched senior producers wrestle with questions about what to report and when. One of the most searching questions in the newsroom was running with a story before the facts were confirmed. For example, the ACN team resisted pressure to go public with unconfirmed information following the Boston Marathon bombings – and ultimately their restraint proved wise because the information was untrue.
But reporters on the show also were duped and forced to retract a major investigative piece. Getting the news right every night is a lot harder than it may appear sitting on your couch at home watching it unfold.
Season three pivoted on a whistleblower who stole and shared classified documents about a bungled covert operation that wound up in the deaths of 38 civilians. Amid all the dramatic twists and terms, the audience got a bird’s eye view of how a newsroom vets information like this and how it goes about deciding whether to report the story.
Over several episodes, viewers saw journalists defend their First Amendment rights and keep their professional pledge not to disclose a confidential news source. We saw the FBI enter a newsroom and seize computers and folders. We watched as McAvoy spent 52 days in a jail cell for refusing to name the source of a story his network never wound up running.
Discounting for the theatrics of newsroom romances and an awkward ownership transition, “The Newsroom” did a decent job showing the real-life stresses journalists and news directors face, maybe not everyday, but often enough to matter.
What we see finally distilled into 30 minutes, minus commercials, is the product of considerable reflection and a fair amount of angst by people whose faces never appear on screen. What we see depends on what they put on the teleprompter. It involves a lot more than typing.
Even if there is less drama and fewer cliches in most TV newsrooms than the show depicted, the dramatic consequences of what networks and local TV stations air cannot be understated. Network news is about as close as we get to a national conversation these days.
“The Newsroom” touched on another uneasy topic – the blurred lines between electronic media and digital media. The character played by Dev Patel is in charge of ACN’s website and social media presence. In the first two seasons, Patel’s character is portrayed as a nerd trying to explain a tweet to people still trying to figure how to make a call on a cell phone.
In season three, Patel is the media target for the whistleblower with the stolen classified documents. He goes along, ultimately helping the whistleblower obtain more stolen records. Sought by the FBI for violating the Espionage Act, he slips out of the country to Venezuela to avoid extradition.
All engrossing stuff, but the most interesting thing occurs in the final episode when Patel returns after charges are dropped and discovers a misshapen version of the network’s website. He rebukes his young, arrogant replacements for “embarrassing” the network with insipid viewer polls and lowest-common-denominator posts. Then Patel stuns his colleagues by closing down the website so it can be reconstructed as something more worthy of a national TV news network, something more closely resembling the news.
Without question, “The Newsroom” is an exaggeration of real newsrooms, but it may not exaggerate the pressures on deciding what is news and reporting it. The tensions that go into news decisions mirror the tensions politicians face in deciding policy questions.
As “The Newsroom” shows, however, politicians can dither and stall. The newscast always starts on time.