By Chez Pazienza: A while back, I wrote a column for this site that pondered whether Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series The Newsroom had the potential to actually change TV news for the better. While certainly not perfect, or occasionally even all that great, the show presents a hyper-idealized image of an American news program — one that looks, sounds and thinks like almost no news organization in the country currently — and the almost superhumanly principled people working to put it together.
My original point was that even if The Newsroom’s audience was small, which it actually hasn’t been, it was destined to be the kind of show that everyone who really works in the TV news business would watch religiously, if for no other reason than the fact that TV news people love to see themselves glorified as noble warriors making a difference in the world rather than portrayed as the vulturous used car salesmen they generally are. I guess that I hoped that if enough of them continued to submit weekly to Sorkin’s proselytizing and scolding that they can and should do better, they might actually take a chance on becoming the kinds of people they imagined they’d eventually be when they first entered J-school.
I’ve been giving the whole Newsroom impact thing some thought again after this week’s season finale of the show, which featured upper-management being forced to take the leash off Will McAvoy, the fictional anchor of News Night, and his staff. The result of that plot point led to one of the best-articulated summations of our current political crisis that I’ve ever seen expressed in pop culture or, really, anywhere. But something else got me thinking about the potential for the kind of supremely ethical news broadcast that this country has been sorely missing: CNN’s very serious recent ratings slide.
A couple of days ago, the L.A. Times published an interview it did with the serially insufferable Piers Morgan in which he said that his cable news home, CNN, needed to be more willing to express an opinion and take a side when it’s warranted. For the most part I consider Morgan to be a millstone around the neck of CNN’s prime time, part of the problem rather than the solution to its ongoing numbers crisis — but on this, he’s right. I certainly wouldn’t want to see the network become as blatant in its partisanship as Fox News or MSNBC — which is not to say that those two networks engage in the same sort of behavior, as they absolutely do not — but the good news is that it doesn’t have to. And that’s what brings me back to The Newsroom.
While there are those who would argue that Sorkin’s creation is a nonstop delivery system for his liberal beliefs, and it certainly reads that way sometimes, the reality is that the idea of the fictional News Night is a good one. The staff of the show, both on-air and off, are crusaders for the truth; the facts, minus any political spin or carnival antics, is all that really matters, and there’s a way to express that which isn’t tedious and it isn’t partisan, it’s simply a fierce and unshakable belief that everyone’s feet need to be held to the same fire and bullshit shouldn’t be tolerated from anyone. I truly believe that there’s an audience for that kind of “opinion,” the kind that demands true accountability and which isn’t a product of some phony, self-congratulatory obligation to appear objective by offering up false-equivalencies. You report the facts and if anyone attempts to distort the facts, you call him or her out on it — without mercy.
Believe it or not, CNN already has a network that sort of lives by this creed and which puts honest-to-God journalism well above any other petty concerns — it’s called CNNi and it’s the international sister network to CNN US. But CNN has the ability to do it, too. Not only that — it’s really the only network that could pull off the kind of principled, eminently ethical crusading for the truth that Aaron Sorkin obviously wishes were real. A few weeks back, Soledad O’Brien received a pretty good amount of press for her willingness to hammer Mitt Romney surrogate John Sununu live on the air over claims he was making that were demonstrably false. Not only was it a surprising little adrenaline rush from a network that’s inexplicably reveled in its reputation for being milquetoast, it was a moment of true adversarial reporting shining through the otherwise indecipherable cable news white noise. It was good journalism — and it also happened to be great TV.
As a network which proudly proclaims that it’s without a bias to reinforce or a partisan audience to feed, it’s in a unique position to take on everyone — to do a journalistic duty other TV news networks are unable or unwilling to. CNN can create the real-life News Night and in doing so can do television news, and the country, a very big favor.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.