After watching the final episode of “The Newsroom” Sunday night, I did a Google search for the title and learned that many, many people write an awful lot about TV shows: critics and viewers, brilliant people and not so brilliant people. I had no idea.
I found that regular people into “The Newsroom” write about the characters and the subplots, the emotions, the romances and the burned out romances. The critics write more about the plots, the implausibility of some of the dialog, examples of writer Aaron Sorkin’s preachiness and how he marginalized female characters in the first of the HBO show’s three seasons.
The things I read were fine, even the critical reviews of the excellent finale, but it bothered me that most of the verbiage was about everything except the point of the series. Journalism.
The critics for the most part treated “The Newsroom” as just another series, another “The Wire” or “NCIS” that just happened to be set in a television newsroom. Many of them acted as though the show was about banter and relationships and could just as well have been set in a surgical suite or a law firm.
“Despite the virtuosity of the dialogue and the charm of the cast, ‘The Newsroom’ was quickly eclipsed by more knowing, acerbic dramas like ‘House of Cards’ and even ‘Scandal.’ ‘The Newsroom’ re-enacted the real-life battle between old media and new, and didn’t seem to interest either. It had an ardent cult following, but no matter how idealistic and cleverly written, the series shimmered outside the dome of relevance.”
As demonstrated above, even the New York Times never got the point. “The Newsroom” wasn’t about old media vs. new media. It was about good journalism vs. B.S. journalism in which celebrity breakups are treated as breaking news and tax legislation is ignored. It wasn’t just a dramatic turn for Jeff Daniels or another writing exercise for Mr. West Wing. It was Sorkin’s take on journalism, his well-researched and fully considered criticism of cable, the traditional networks and, by extension, the rest of the leading practitioners of national and international journalism as it exists in the United States today.
Over at Vanity Fair, Richard Larson says “The Newsroom” was merely about cable TV news. Who knows why he couldn’t see that Sorkin’s aim was broader, including the networks, print and even some magazines?
Some critics faulted Sorkin for focusing on real events, as covered by the staff of his fictional newsroom and others. They suggested he should made up some news events for better dramatic effect. I suppose that’s so, but I’m glad he instead focused on the superficiality of the real reporting of real events rather than the fictitious reporting of fictitious events. He could have created more “powerful TV” but I believe that what he was after was powerful criticism of the journalistic status quo, which needs a lot more of it.
Olivia Munn portrayed Sloan Sabbith, hired for her looks back in the day, but she was the smartest one in the room after everyone pointed out the error of Sorkin’s ways
A common topic, running through numerous shows, was the economy and how most real networks treated the collapse of the financial system and the pillaging of your bank account as too complex for significant coverage. How even the high-minded “Newsroom” newsroom had trouble figuring out how to cover a topic that didn’t bleed, that didn’t offer palm trees bending in a storm.
Sorkin, through anchor Will McAvoy, chided the national media for treating climate change as an open question and for taking seriously anything the Bush White House said about WMDs. It was a form of Monday-morning quarterbacking but on a subject much more important than the latest 49ers fiasco.
Aaron Sorkin with a couple of the actors from “The Network”
He didn’t always get it right. The episode before the finale was about a big current topic, campus rape, but it was almost as flawed as the Rolling Stone takeout on rape at the University of Virginia. Still it was a serious attempt at analysis and even in failure it didn’t embarrass itself like today’s Huffington Post piece on the Three Things You Need to Know about the Finale: That Will and MacKenzie are having a baby and that Jim Loves Maggie. I couldn’t read past the top two.
Sorkin attempted to demonstrate through flawed but idealistic characters that solid journalism is more important than ratings. He reflected reality by having the fake TV network fall in the ratings even as its work excelled. I wish he had gone the other direction and had let the network owner, craftily portrayed by Jane Fonda, prosper handsomely because of her support for journalism as art, a calling rather than an industry. The critics, however, would have correctly described that as fantasy.
I have a theory about the difficulties that have been encountered by journalism as an industry, particularly local franchises, but it also extends to the national level at times.
The conventional wisdom is that the Internet is what is killing newspapers and, more slowly, TV newscasts.People can get their news on the Internet, which also has pretty much eliminated one of print journalism’s traditional profit centers, classified advertising. (Local TV stations at the same time suffered from declines in advertising by car dealerships, certainly not because of any increases in aggressive reporting.)
The Internet surely is a significant part of the equation. (Some add to it the nonsense theory that newspapers undermined themselves financially by being “too liberal.”)
But the truth of it, at least to my mind, is that newspapers did undermine themselves but not by pledging allegiance to the Democrats. They did it when they decided sometime in the 1970s or 1980s that the way to protect their flanks and their insanely high profit margins was to play it safe. To dumb it down. To stir no pots. To practice he said/she said journalism that upset no one.
Jane Fonda played the network owner, rich and mean at first, rich and less mean at the end.
Newspaper executives knew as early as the 1970s that the computer age was upon them and that the means of distributing the news was about to change dramatically. Their reaction was to do nothing. As the technological and journalistic challenges mounted, they played more golf.
In the 1980s, the “libel chill” played a part of the decline. It became fashionable to sue the local rag when it dared to report that you had been caught bribing a judge or pilfering your employees’ pension fund. The timing was important because that was when the powers that be within the industry were starting to think about how to respond to the Internet threat. It helped persuade them to hunker down and plan for retirement rather than invest in the product.
In the newsrooms where I toiled in a previous life, investigative reporting was viewed as a dangerous subset of journalism, something for risky characters to practice in dark alleys while the regular reporters sharpened their stenographic skills at zoning board meetings.
Investigative reporters, the few of them, were always being called into the bosses’ offices, where yelling often ensued. Fledgling journalists got the message.
Sometime in the last half century, I’m not sure exactly when, it became the industry standard to cover “controversial” topics by giving voice to representatives of “both sides,” which usually meant someone who was being paid to present a position. The theory was that somehow the truth would emerge from such an exchange, but we all knew that we got dueling bromides rather than enlightenment. Everyone covered abortion issues by interviewing the heads of right to life and abortion rights groups and dutifully reporting their talking points. It would have been more revealing to interview physicians and pregnant women.
Sam Waterson portrayed Charlie Skinner, the gruff but noble news director, who, ironically, died of a heart attack he suffered while arguing for something he didn’t believe in
I watched for decades as young journalists took jobs with newspapers and assumed, right from the start, that the editors wanted safe stories, tepid journalism. We heard that a generation of activists journalists inspired by Watergate coverage had stormed the newsrooms intent on ripping the cover off corruption and chicanery wherever they existed. It turned out that it wasn’t a generation of activist journalists. It was a couple of years worth of journalism-school graduates who lost their fire the first time their work led to a retraction demand.
To this day, the best stories in most newsrooms are the ones the reporters tell each other when they return from an assignment. These are not the things they write about. They are the stories about which government official they saw going into a bar with a lobbyist, or the politician who bought a new house even though he was broke. Those stories aren’t written. For the most part, they’re not even pursued. “Too hard,” or “they’d never print it.”
I once covered the arrest of a fellow who had been planting pipe bombs around federal buildings. I talked to his neighbors and learned that they all feared him, that the kids called him “Mean Dean” and that he flipped everyone off when he took out the garbage. That’s what I wrote. My editor hated it. This is a true story. He wanted the stereotypical story of the suspect being “a quiet man” who kept to himself. He wanted me to have essentially failed in my effort to find out about the fellow because that would have been the safe story, the one that doesn’t get anyone sued or subpoenaed.
Why has newspaper circulation declined so dramatically? Not because you can place classified ads online for free. Not because newspapers are too liberal. It’s because they allowed themselves to become dull purveyors of yesterday’s news, chroniclers of predictable events that you already knew about anyway. When is the last time your local paper really surprised you?
To survive beyond this decade, newspapers and other forms of local journalism must start telling readers why things happen and what they mean. They need to share the intriguing but problematic information that reporters and editors pick up on their rounds.
Recently when incoming sheriff Steve Bernal agreed to have Monterey PR man David Armanasco give him public relations advice through the transition, I wrote about who Armanasco is, about his connections to the community power structure. Some suggested I was somehow “going after” Armanasco and writing things that everyone already knew. I wasn’t going after anyone. I was simply trying to take information that government and business insiders know all about and share it with everyone else so they would have a better understanding of subsequent events. It isn’t only government and business insiders who need to understand how things work. Connecting the dots has become rare in journalism outside the big metro papers. It needs to be the norm.
Allison Pill played Maggie, the ditzy intern of Season 1 who grew into the smart and tough producer by Season 3 despite the best efforts of the boys in the newsroom
Can newspapers be saved or, better question, can local journalism be saved? As ad revenues and circulation have declined, newspaper owners have done the worst and easiest thing. Rather than rise to the fight, they have routinely and systematically cut expenses in order to artificially keep profit margins high. For much of the last half century, small to medium newspapers have enjoyed returns on investment of over 20 percent. In the last half decade, they have maintained such margins by cutting staffs and making papers smaller. In a system that rewards quarterly profit increases and provides little incentive for re-investment or long-term thinking, they started eating the seed corn.
I’m afraid I’m beginning to sound more than a little preachy, too Sorkinesque, and I apologize. But I am passionate about journalism and I applaud Sorkin for taking all sorts of creative risks and bringing an inside baseball approach to a topic that has received far too little examination. Mass journalism’s acceptance of the official line, its reliance on spokespeople rather than facts, has shortchanged the public even as it has diminished the industry’s bottom line. I join Sorkin and a frustrated collection of risky characters in believing that journalists need to shrug off the last half century of complacency and dig for hidden truths while there is some chance of becoming relevant again.
I guess, bottom line, that this is what the Monterey Bay Partisan is about here in the bargain basement of journalism’s boondocks. It’s a clumsy attempt to cover the news, or at least augment the daily report, without worrying about offending advertisers or hearing that the Chamber of Commerce and Cal Am want a word with the publisher. When I watched “The Newsroom,” it wasn’t just for entertainment. I did care a little about Maggie’s latest crush, but I watched for the encouragement. I wanted to be reminded that what we’re used to is not the right way to go about this and that it is worth searching for, even fighting for, a better way.