I suppose it isn’t fair to criticize Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO program, “The Newsroom,” for being unrealistic. We don’t expect “Law and Order” to be a perfect reflection of American jurisprudence, nor “NCIS” to capture the nuances of military investigations, nor “Mad Men” to nail 1960s advertising culture with precision.
But as a former TV journalist, I’m having a difficult time suspending my disbelief when it comes to “The Newsroom.” The show’s central assertion rings false, the premise seems contradictory, and the program removes the true drama that often occurs in a newsroom.
If you haven’t seen it, “The Newsroom” centers on a cable news program called “News Night” and its anchor, Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels). The series begins when Mr. McAvoy, a well-regarded objective journalist, explodes during a public event by blasting a questioner’s assertion that America is the greatest country on the planet. His rare lapse into “opinion journalism” ultimately convinces McAvoy that he should abandon his objectivity to instead tell “the truth” every night.
Here are three reasons “The Newsroom” is off:
1. The concept isn’t even remotely shocking.
The show’s creators seem to believe that it would be “shocking” for a formerly objective anchor to suddenly abandon his neutrality and deliver a personal viewpoint. But that story dates back almost to the beginning of television news, when broadcasting legends Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, among many others, delivered strong personal views.
McAvoy protests the ideological nature of his cable competitors, but he’s actually not that much different. Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, and Chris Matthews all deliver strong personal views every weeknight. They, like the fictional McAvoy, believe that their interpretation of the facts is right. It’s not exactly a novel concept.
2. The “center” isn’t the center.
In one of the show’s better moments, Charlie Skinner (played by Sam Waterston), the resident of the news division at the fictional ACN cable network, insists that “facts are the center.” I agree. So why, in an episode about the rise of the Tea Party, did the show present two sides: the heroic people who opposed the Tea Party, and the buffoonish and ignorant characters who were part of it?
Here’s an alternative view of the center: Most Americans want our nation’s most vulnerable citizens—the impoverished, the sick, the elderly—to benefit from a safety net that allows them access to basic health care, safe housing, and nutritious food. Most of us want basic regulations that prevent businesses from abusing the law and endangering public safety, but don’t want those regulations to squelch innovation and unnecessarily cost jobs. But most people also recognize that he United States is almost $16 trillion in debt, meaning we’re going to have to make tough choices. That is the struggle that defines our times.
But you won’t find that fundamental question about “the center” anywhere on the show. Why present a truly challenging intellectual argument when you can show old video of failed Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle saying something stupid instead?
3. The show removes the real drama of a newsroom.
The show’s premiere episode is set on the first day of the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill. Within minutes—yes, minutes—the program’s staff already knows the cause, the amount of oil that’s gushing from the seafloor, and how long it could last.
The show’s most knowledgeable staffer on spill-related matters? It’s the program’s blogger, Neal Sampat (played by Dev Patel), who implausibly says he learned everything he needed to about deep-water geology from a grade school assignment.
Drama in a newsroom rarely comes in the form of all-knowing characters who almost instantaneously have all of the answers. It comes in the form of teams of smart people working together—through a combination of contacting the right sources, doing the right research, and asking the right questions—to nail a story. When that unfolds before your eyes, it’s a whole lot more dramatic than watching people who seem to magically have all of the answers.
The show improved on that score in its fourth episode regarding the Gabrielle Giffords story; hopefully, more of the same will follow.