There are a lot of things HBO’s The Newsroom gets right about national TV news production. It’s rare that one show does all of its own research and general digging for facts, as the fictional “Newsnight” seems to do, since you have to keep in mind that you’ve got the resources of an entire network at your disposal. But a lot of the admittedly Sorkin-y interaction between producers, managers and so on is pretty spot on and both the slow drip and near-instant crash of how a story can break at a news outlet is almost flawless. Or at least it was last season. The reason for this, of course, came down to the paid consultants the show enlisted to help provide its people with a reality check whenever it was needed — one of whom was an old friend and boss of mine from out here in Los Angeles, during my days in the NBC family. She was part of the small contingent of people selected to answer any questions the show’s producers might have about how news develops, how it’s handled, what actually happens in a control room, and so on. She and those like her obviously served the show well.
Well, the list of consultants on the new season of The Newsroom, which begins next month, has just been released and I’m not sure what bothers me more: that HBO and the Sorkin consortium threw a giant bag of money at so many people who are already so bloody fucking rich, or that they chose people so far removed from the actual day-to-day process within the slaughterhouse. Nearly every consultant on the show this season is an A-lister with a name you either recognize instantly or at least understand is somebody with a corner office that features a lovely view of some part of Midtown Manhattan. The names include Chris Matthews, who I suppose will explain to The Newsroom’s producers how best to craft a scene in which Jeff Daniels’s character spits all over a guest while trying to make a reservation at Old Ebbitt Grill under the desk, my old anchor Ashleigh Banfield, CNN’s Natalie Allen, MSNBC’s Alex Wagner and S.E. Cupp and former CNN Political Reporter Jeff Greenfield.
If you can’t see the pattern here let me help you out: A substantial portion of the 13 names on the consultant list are in-house talent. And in case you’ve never worked in a newsroom, in-house talent are literally the last people you want to ask about how the hell a show comes together and how news gets brought to air without half the building collapsing or at least three members of the staff going on shooting sprees in the commissary. It’s like asking Ronald McDonald how they make the burgers or promoting Morris the Cat to head the Purina Corporation. I’m certainly not saying that having talent within the consultant ranks of The Newsroom is a bad idea because I’ve worked with a ton of on-air people who are spectacular, hard-working, ferociously dedicated journalists, Banfield among them, and a lot of these people are whip smart. But make no mistake: When half the people consulting on your show about how a newsroom operates — a show that’s called The Newsroom for Christ’s sake — now lead lives that involve working half-days and being ushered to and from work in free town cars, realism is going to suffer.
There is actually one “production side” guy on the consultant list, but unfortunately he’s been so far removed from the killing floor for so long that I can’t imagine he understands how bloody things truly get down there anymore: former CNN and MSNBC president Rick Kaplan. Yes, the former president of two cable networks. While Kaplan certainly had his hands-on moments and of course he has a long history in the business, asking him what goes on in a daily editorial meeting, or in a control room, or when the whole fucking show is about to go down in one giant fireball, just isn’t the same as asking somebody who lives in that world and deals with that nightmare every day, every night, 24/7, “we never sleep,” right now (or at least did recently). The only person who can really draw you that kind of picture is a producer. A producer, a senior producer, an executive producer even, but a producer. The name kind of says it all: you don’t manage, you’re not on-air, you produce. And there isn’t a single one of those on the list of consultants for the new season of The Newsroom.
I certainly understand that The Newsroom is a fictionalized, idealized, Sorkin-ized vision of how an honest-to-God newsroom works. But if you’re going to spend money, a hell of a lot of it, on making the show appear real, then put your money where it counts. Obviously, the show’s consultant list was tailor-made to impress the civilian population — and an upper-income bracket of it at that — and not the average poor bastard toiling away in the real world of broadcast news. But why not signal to everyone out there in TV land what anybody working his or her ass off for little more than a chance at a premature heart-attack already knows: that it’s the cogs that make the machine run; it’s the soldiers who know where the bodies are buried; it’s the people on the lower floors who know what the hell is really going on. They’re the ones in the thick of it, day in, day out.
You want the real story of how a newsroom functions and sometimes doesn’t? Talk to a writer. Talk to an editor. Talk to a desk-staffer. Talk to a producer.
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.