ABOUT A month ago, I flipped on the one of the local Washington, D.C., TV news programs, and realized once again why I do this so rarely.
The lead story was about how a large colony of bees had nestled itself into the masonry of a private residence on Capitol Hill. They spent what seemed like an eternity for TV news (maybe five minutes) interviewing the homeowner (who sounded concerned but not hysterical), talking to a professional beekeeper (who said she would be able to neutralize it without much trouble), and showing footage of bees -- and not really that many -- buzzing around the site of the hive.
It was, I repeat, the lead story of a broadcast to a metro area that probably had more consequential things happening that day. But, by some calculation, the program's producers decided a bee infestation deserved more attention than, say, important legislative debates in nearby city councils or state legislatures, the persistent poverty across the D.C. area, new opportunities for local business, and so on. Maybe they’d be interested in a long feature about the bird’s nest on my porch.
I suspect no one (at least in the U.S.) reading this will think I'm making this up. Nor will they be especially surprised. It's what we've become accustomed to, and not just at the local level but among the national TV networks as well. When the content isn't something as innocuous as a bee infestation, it is too often driven by celebrity news, sensational stories of tragedy and vituperative (and frequently uninformed) commentary. Again, you all know what I'm talking about.
While the rest of us wring our hands about this problem or just tune out, Aaron Sorkin has taken to the bully pulpit to rail against the sorry state of America's TV news landscape via his new show on HBO called "Newsroom." If you haven't seen it, give it a try; you've only missed the first episode. Try it not only because Sorkin is on to something socially important but also because the show combines his brilliant drama with some astounding performances.
The show revolves a seasoned and tempestuous cable network news (not CNN) anchor, Will McEvoy (played by Jeff Daniels. It’s probably way too soon to say this, but his portrayal could end up being as colorful and compelling as Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano). His new Executive Producer (Emily Mortimer) is brought in by the president of the news division (Sam Waterston, who once again gives an acting lesson) to put aside the usual silly fare and do some serious journalism.
There are lots of romantic and rather sanctimonious speeches about the importance of news media to the health of a democratic society, so romantic they get you (well, my wife, at least) a little misty eyed about what could and should be. It’s very Frank Capra, which is to say a bit preachy.
Actually, the better word is prophetic, for the prophets have always been those who have held a mirror up to the rest of us to point out the blemishes we’d like to ignore. Prophets can be pretty annoying and their admonishment’s uncomfortable. But they are the antidote to inertia and cynicism. To them (some of them), attention must be paid.
This first episode of “Newsroom” takes you through the news events of April 20, 2010, the day the BP oil well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, and it reported the story in a way that I seem to recall few news organizations did. That's Sorkin's point. Most of the coverage that day was about an explosion that left a number of workers missing and presumed dead. It took a while before it became and lead news item, as few, if any, news organizations questioned that first day whether the explosion would lead to a major oil spill.
One of Sorkin’s characters – his template for, shall we say, “establishment” executive producer – deliberately played down the environmental story because it wasn’t the way they do things around there. The new upstart EP pushes her team to look for the “real” story, and she eggs on McEvoy to ask the truly penetrating questions. The newsroom and story were transformed, and Sorkin "proves" that good TV journalism is not a relic of the past.
It's only fair to say that there’s something a bit manipulative and misleading about this narrative.
Manipulative because Sorkin creates this “bad” news vs. “good” news dynamic that emotionally obligates you to take the side of the hard-charging anti-establishment EP and her team.
And misleading because, though I’m no expert on this, it may be unfair of Sorkin to condemn our major media for not reporting the environmental disaster story early on (though experts like The Washington Post's Joel Achenbach, who wrote a book on the BP oil spill, would know the chronology much better than I). Many news organizations (or even BP) may not have had access to the facts on the first day of the crisis (a producer on “Newsroom” just happens to have some inside sources that enable them to break the story). So it’s a bit unfair to beat up on them now, as I think Sorkin is.
Misleading also because, I should stress, there are many, many serious and talented journalists, doing real journalism, for TV news. I know many personally and professionally, so I see it up close. They’re doing what they should and really know their stuff, digging out hard-to-find information, challenging sources who try to evade tough questions and sometimes putting their lives on the line in war zones. The problem is there are fewer and fewer places for them as TV newsrooms (and this is true across American media) get smaller, even if the news doesn’t, and as so much of what ultimately appears on the air reflects little of the seriousness these journalists bring to their jobs. Many of them would probably agree, but I’ll leave them to say.
So, okay, there are flaws with “Newsroom.” But the point of the show is still too important to cast aside. It inveighs against the programs that have really sullied and trivialized our national discourse. Like the one that McEvoy presided over in recent years (he apologizes that “we took a dive for our ratings”). And it rejects the argument many news programs have made that they’re just giving the viewers what they want, and that when the networks offer more consequential (read: tedious) news, they lose viewers and money. But then, many of us viewers are saying that if only our TV news programs would report “real” news, we’d watch more. Chicken and egg?
In an interview with New York Times media writer David Carr, Sorkin pretty much concedes that his vision is romantic.
“I think the reason it’s been reviewed as far-fetched is that it’s far-fetched," he wrote in an e-mail. "Every bit as far-fetched as a Democratic administration that gets stuff done," he added, referring to the accomplished — and entirely fictional — Bartlet administration in "The West Wing,” which he also wrote.
Then he added, "I don’t know anything about ratings (and I’ve had the ratings to back that up) but if I were the president of CNN I would put the smartest news people I know in a room and ask, ‘What would a utopian news show look like?’ and then I’d ask ‘What’s stopping us from doing that?’ ”
Sorkin’s fictional news division president makes it all sound so easy. “We just decided to do it” -- to do good journalism, that is -- he says near the end of the first episode. I suspect that at real-life TV news networks, it’s far more complicated than that. But that doesn’t mean we can’t, along with Sorkin, dream of such a scenario.
I hope the rest of the series lives up to the freneticism and intelligence of the first episode of “Newsroom”. If so, watch it, not only because its message is good for you (and the country) but also for the same reason many of us watch the footage of police car chases, celebrity gossip and shouting political partisans on the TV news (not to mention bee infestations): because it’s good TV.