The wrong way to do the news

William Bornhoft

If Aaron Sorkin produced the news, America would be a better country. That’s the message presented by the first season of HBO’s “The Newsroom,” a series in which anchor Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels), producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) and a young, hardworking staff try to bring the candor of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow to their cable news show “News Night.” The ultimate objective: to do the news right.

            For news junkies, the series is as exciting as the name promises, as each episode covers real-life events that occurred at most only a couple of years prior. The series is particularly satisfying if you’re a news junkie who happens to agree with Sorkin’s liberal worldview.

            However, the series does a poor job in displaying a news program that is superior to or significantly different from the ratings-driven shows Americans are actually presented with on Fox News and MSNBC. McAvoy and company are good at making loud arrogant speeches at each other about how the news ought to be run, but when it comes to actual reporting and opinion journalism, McAvoy becomes exactly what his news program set out to destroy.

            During the debut of “News Night 2.0” (when the show’s producers decided it needed to become the savior of cable news) McAvoy tells his viewers that he and his staff will be “the champion of facts” and, among other things, “the mortal enemy” of hyperbole and nonsense. But hyperbole and nonsense are exactly the words to describe when McAvoy dubs the Tea Party “the American Taliban” on air.  

            Sorkin could get away with his liberal bias in “The West Wing” because the show was centered around the Democratic Bartlet Administration. But the rhetoric in a newsroom is very different from that in the White House, or at least it should be.

            But it’s not just biased writing that damages “The Newsroom,” it’s also lazy and inconsistent. Early in the season it’s revealed that McAvoy is a registered and supposedly proud Republican. But the writers fail to make any real attempt at shaping McAvoy’s views to be anything close to an actual Republican’s. The one exception is when it’s mentioned in passing that McAvoy is “pro-life.” But then it seems the writers either forget about that or don’t actually know what “pro-life” means, because some of what he says while on air suggests he is rather liberal on the issue of abortion.

For example, when a guest on News Night insists that Rick Santorum’s number one issue is “sanctity of life,” McAvoy retorts with “we’ll get to purposely vague words like ‘sanctity’ in a moment.” Later in the season, he attacks Tea Partiers for wanting to “control women’s bodies” (a liberal talking point apparently less vague than “sanctity”).

            The sloppiest part of the season came when McAvoy, while berating the Tea Party on air yet again, interprets Jesus Christ’s teaching on the sick and poor as an endorsement of federal government social programs and thus incompatible with Tea Party views. The merit of this interpretation is up for debate, but it’s extremely unlikely that any serious Republican would use the Bible to justify the federal government’s redistribution of wealth. And regardless, it’s terrible journalism and seems more like taunting than anything. The differences between “News Night with Will McAvoy” and “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” get smaller with each episode.  

            In the end, “The Newsroom” demonstrates precisely what is wrong with American politics today. In the age of bitter partisanship in Washington and the divisive rhetoric on cable news (problems almost everyone agrees need to be addressed) the most common solutions tend to be both arrogant and naive: “if only my side had more power in government” or “if only my views were covered more in the media.” Indeed, Sorkin’s remedy to the very real problem of cynical and polarized media coverage is media coverage that is cynical and polarized in a way that he approves of.

            The best real life news programs are often the ones that aren’t all that exciting to watch but are thorough and balanced. These are shows like the “PBS NewsHour”, which features humble but knowledgeable guests that never yell or make snarky remarks.

            The second season of “The Newsroom” premiers July 14, and if the trailers are any indication, it will be filled with just as much hyperbole and nonsense as the first.

 

William Bornhoft

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