What If “The Newsroom” Really Can Make a Difference?
By Chez Pazienza: A few weeks back I banged out a column for this site that took issue with what I called the misguided, “pipe-dreamy idealism” of Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO show, The Newsroom. After watching only the season premiere I didn’t necessarily claim to know whether the show would eventually wind up being genuinely good TV, but I did think that it had all the necessary ingredients to be cloying and obnoxious as hell. From Sorkin’s at times insufferably overbearing sanctimony, to characters I didn’t really care much about, to, yes, a lack of foundation in anything approaching the real world when it came to how the show portrayed the world of television news, I just wasn’t sure it would keep my attention for long let alone have the kind of impact it was obvious Sorkin was hoping it would on the industry I’d devoted almost two decades of my life to. In that original piece, I said that TV newspeople on the whole simply aren’t idealistic enough these days to be affected by anything that tries so blatantly to both lecture them and appeal to their sense of dignity.
Well, three episodes later I have to admit that I’m kind of hooked by the show — and I actually do wonder if it’s possible that it might be able to have some kind of positive effect on the way news is done in this country. Let me explain why: Other than the ones currently overseas dodging sniper fire and possibly the phalanx of Kool-Aid-drinking dolts at Fox News, there isn’t an American television journalist alive who isn’t paying at least some attention to this damn show. TV people are self-obsessed creatures who traditionally love reading, seeing and hearing stories about themselves, particularly ones that make them appear noble and principled. Everybody loves feeling like a star, like they’re worthy of the attention and of being portrayed as the hero — people in the TV news industry more so than many simply because they want so badly to believe that what they do makes a difference, that it matters. And in Sorkin’s admittedly fairy tale world, television journalists matter very much, or at least they can. And that might be why the show has some small potential to succeed at changing television news for the better.
Two nights ago, on his show on CNN, Anderson Cooper tore into bug-fuck crazy national disgrace Michele Bachmann over the recent, very public nervous breakdown which caused her to claim that the United States government is being infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. For those mercifully born deaf, Bachmann has been haranguing anyone who’ll listen with hysterical warnings about certain U.S. officials — among them Huma Abedin, the Deputy Chief of Staff to Hillary Clinton — whom she believes might actually be secret warriors in the service of jihad, or some such horseshit. The only “evidence” she has to go on when it comes to this supposed conspiracy involves the discredited rantings of Frank Gaffney — a guy whose theories are so fucking divorced from reality that even the GOP doesn’t want anything to do with him — but that of course isn’t stopping Bachmann from making herself look not only foolish but dangerously unhinged by belting this crap out like a town crier to anyone who’ll listen.
It goes without saying that Bachmann is a liar and a loon, but, in keeping with tradition, it’s rare that anyone in the mainstream, “objective” media calls her out for it. Granted, Cooper has in the past been willing to put his foot down when it comes to specious arguments and general political shenanigans, but he was especially pointed and brutal on Bachmann the other night, essentially coming right out and saying that she doesn’t have a shred of evidence to back up any of her ludicrous claims and that her conduct was thoroughly unbecoming of a member of Congress. Now remember that while you and I understand fully that the responsibility of the fourth estate is to call a lie a lie when it sees one, most journalists are reluctant these days to do just that — and that’s something The Newsroom has taken aim at since its debut. In fact, last Sunday’s episode dealt specifically with that unfortunate fact about the modern news media.
In an episode entitled I’ll Try To Fix You, fictional news anchor Will McAvoy and his producing team label several governmental figures, as well as political pundits, flat-out liars. Among them: lo and behold, Michele Bachmann, who within the context of the show had just called for an investigation into whether some of the views of her fellow members of Congress were “anti-American” (something she actually did four years ago). The crew of the fictional show News Night weren’t having any of it and demanded evidence, labeling her claims irresponsible and McCarthy-like and having no basis in fact. As is typical on the show, it’s the kind of thing you wish you’d see a non-partisan national news department actually do but which almost never happens.
I’m certainly not saying that Cooper watched Sunday’s episode of The Newsroom and decided suddenly that he’d seen the light and that it was his ethical obligation to pin Bachmann to the mat. Coop’s good at his job and he doesn’t necessarily need a TV show to remind him of his duties. But all those young journalists working behind the scenes on his show and at other national media outlets, the ones who likely have their DVRs programmed to record HBO every Sunday night — is it possible that they can be influenced by the kind of clarion call to a higher purpose the show hopes to represent? If you watch the show and try to see yourself as one of the admittedly paper-thin characters simply because your life somewhat resembles his or hers from a professional standpoint, can that push you to imagine that their ideals can be yours?
I’m not sure if The Newsroom really has the power to overhaul television news from the ground up or if it can change many of the cynical minds within the business, but if it manages to light a fire under even a few asses of the people who once believed that the news matters, who knows what that might lead to. What if TV journalists started looking at the fictional News Night and thinking, “Why the hell can’t we do that?”