The Pipe-Dreamy Idealism of “The Newsroom”
By Chez Pazienza: Like just about anybody who’s spent a good portion of his or her career in the TV news industry, I watched Aaron Sorkin’s new show, The Newsroom, on HBO a couple of nights ago. I did this because, like anybody who’s spent a good portion of his or her career in the TV news industry, I desperately seek the validation of strangers, love talking and hearing about myself and especially enjoy anything that paints the profession I chose years ago in a light other than thoroughly, hostilely negative.
Critics have famously savaged the show so far and I can certainly see why: It has Sorkin’s inky fingerprints all over it, which can be a very good but also a very bad thing. Yeah, the dialogue is spectacular, but that becomes a problem when you realize — and you realize immediately — that everybody on the show is wittier and better with words than you or anyone you’ve ever met and certainly anyone currently working in cable news. I appreciate Sorkin’s desire to “reclaim” TV journalism as a respectable profession and to portray those who practice it as noble creatures fighting the good fight in the name of truth, justice and the erstwhile American way, but there are two problems with The Newsroom that kneecap its good intentions.
First of all, it takes Sorkin’s generally preachy nature to entirely new levels of sanctimony, with almost every character on the show acting at all times as, as one critic put it, a “Sorkin Belief Delivery System.” Second, and most importantly, TV news people on the whole just ain’t that idealistic — not anymore. It’s tough to make anybody in a cable newsroom heroic and for that conceit to not be met with outright laughter. We’ve all got TVs. We have the internet. We know who the hell these people are who are bringing us the news every day and night, and while I really appreciated the show drawing a nice little line between the committed, borderline-crazy journalists who actually go out and get shot at in the field and the pampered management pussies back in the climate controlled office with the Nespresso machines and clean toilets every 50 feet, the fact is that there’s a systemic problem within the industry that’s insurmountable. It involves corporate control, the abiding requirements of shareholders and the consequent drive for ratings at all costs. It involves the need to turn a profit, the largest one possible. It’s a fine little pipe dream to imagine that these realities can be overcome by sheer force of moral will, but in the end it’s just that: a pipe dream.
Take, for example, NBC News’s latest galactic high-profile fuck-up. I realize that by this point I should just stop writing about NBC Universal since the company’s special brand of journalistic and ethical bankruptcy might legitimately be able to be blamed on institutional sociopathy. That’s the only explanation I can come up with anymore. Everything NBC Uni touches turns to shit and whenever the suits at the top try to correct a mess they’ve made they only wind up making it much, much worse. We all remember the Conan/Leno debacle, and now, with the headlines only recently dry on that, comes NBC’s decision to push Ann Curry out of the Today show after 15-years on the air and a mere one year as co-host of the now-vulnerable morning news juggernaut. What’s more, as with Conan, the network will reportedly throw a massive sum of money at Curry in exchange for her getting lost: $10 million.
Given that ABC’s Good Morning America has been making strides in its eternal death-struggle against Today lately, and that the person in the co-anchor chair is the one thing to noticeably change about the show in the past couple of years, it’s completely expected that NBC Uni execs would knee-jerk and blame the sudden ratings “crisis” on poor Curry. I mean, she’s the only thing different — it’s gotta be her fault. Screw the fickle nature of audiences and the intrinsically cyclical nature of ratings popularity — it’s all Ann. Get rid of her and everything should go back to normal, right? Problem solved! High-five! Let’s go get a martini for lunch and pretend we’re on Mad Men.
Like a lot of people, I’ve never been a huge fan of Curry’s on-air talents. She’s a fine news-reader and her fill-in host skills are up to par, but it should’ve been clear from the beginning not only that she wasn’t cut out for the full-time hosting gig but that co-host Matt Lauer couldn’t hide his condescension toward her. Why should it have been clear? Because Ann Curry had been on the air on the Today show for 14-fucking-years. It’s not like she was some nobody plucked from obscurity out of market 293, the Sarah Palin of TV personalities; she had a decade-and-a-half to show NBC and the audience everything each needed to see. They both knew exactly who they were getting and while it’s genuinely admirable for NBC to promote a long-time, loyal employee, you don’t “try out” a long-time, loyal employee at the very substantial risk of having to publicly shit-can that person after — in keeping with NBC tradition — a very short amount of time because you decide he or she just isn’t cutting it. That leads to a PR disaster, which is exactly what NBC now has on its hands. Again. It’s made Ann Curry into a martyr, another sacrifice on the altar of corporate arrogance, soullessness and stupidity — someone blithely being paid an obscene amount of money not to work while millions of Americans struggle, and yet someone who will still come off looking like a victim that average folks can identify with because she’s getting screwed so royally.
This is reality. This is what television news is these days. And it’s like that everywhere — at least at every major media outlet. NBC Uni Comcast is especially egregious, correlating to the fact that it’s the largest and most vertically integrated media conglomerate in the known universe, but the basic principles — or lack thereof — are the same across the board.
That high-minded idealism and genuflection to the ghosts of Murrow and Sevareid still exists among a very select group of journalists in the television news industry, but those journalists don’t have the power to push back against the pervading culture that keeps them and everyone else in TV news cranking out crap — and even if they do, they’re likely too cynical to make the effort.
Like most of what Sorkin does, The Newsroom is decent fiction. But that’s all it is: fiction.