I had read the ghastly review in the New Yorker, and I was expecting the worst. Maybe it’s the low expectation, but I’m finding “The Newsroom” very entertaining. A word of warning: if you believe Fox News is truly “fair and balanced,” as they advertise, you will not like Aaron Sorkin’s take on how a news organization fights to speak the truth.
While this fictional news show reinvents itself to report only honest, important news, eschewing ratings-seeking sensationalism, it comes out sounding a lot more like the “truth” as MSNBC sees it, than Fox. If you believe the progressive take on the world is accurate, that’s fine; if you are on the conservative side, not so much.
But this isn’t a documentary, it’s entertainment. Whether you believe it succeeds as such, is based on how you like Sorkin’s distinctly preachy style. Particularly in the first episodes, the characters have tended to go off on long screeds about various problems/solutions that advance the story but hardly replicate how anyone talks to each other in a normal business situation, let alone the fast-paced world of TV news.
If you haven’t bailed on “The Newsroom” based on these two caveats, you will like it. The main anchor, Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, is cranky and domineering, but you root for him to succeed and speak the truth to power that is so lacking in our real life media/political discourse. He is driven to this change by his Executive Producer, Mackenzie MacHale (the charming Emily Mortimer.) They have a romantic history that livens up the dry exchanges about the responsibility of a news show. She is “fiercely bright,” while showing a softer side that makes her character more interesting but detracts from her credibility.
The shows follow an interesting format: the news show recreates the coverage of actual events, an idealization of how the event should have been covered. The first show deals with hurricane Katrina and posits that the emphasis should have been on the failings of the oil rig, rather than the damage to the Gulf Coast.
The character I enjoy the most is Charlie Skinner, the head of the News Division, played very tongue-in-cheek (and mouth-on-glass!) by Sam Waterston. When Charlie tells Will how relaxed he is, Will retorts “It helps that you’re drunk most of the time.” Waterston is having lots of fun with Charlie and so will you.
Last week saw the first appearance of the owner of the network, Leona Lansing, played by Jane Fonda, herself the former wife of network founder Ted Turner, who sold his company to Time Warner, the owners of HBO and my ultimate employer as well. I’m looking forward to more duels between Waterson and Fonda, as he defends the new integrity, and she insists that they are running a business. This argument is as old as the printed word, but it’s still relevant.
A friend who works in an actual TV newsroom rightly points out that there is no place for overt romances in a real news operation. He’s right, but if all you had left was Sorkin’s dialectics, this would be very thin fare, indeed. Like I said, and I know Leona/Jane agrees with me, this is entertainment and you have to get people to watch. If you change a couple of minds along the way, all the better.
What’s good to see here is a picture of professionals making actual judgments, based on news values, not just on ratings, while the company bosses fret over the bottom-line. I’ve never believed in the so-called vast left-wing media conspiracy, because editorial choices are based on these two things - truth and profits. There isn’t any time left over to devise a conspiracy.