A couple of quick thoughts about last night’s episode of The Newsroom from a news production perspective (obviously spoilers abound and none of this will make any sense if you haven’t yet seen the episode, entitled “Unintended Consequences”):
First off, overall it seems like the show is finally starting to truly come together and be worthwhile viewing, not just as something TV people can’t help but find themselves watching out of fascination. Sorkin’s insistence on mining recent real-world news items and relitigating them through the prism of how they supposedly should’ve been covered by the press is still mostly obnoxious, but it’s now effectively been overridden by this season’s entirely fictional story arcs, the “Genoa story” being the most prominent. This is a good thing. Also, I’ve finally settled into really kind of liking quite a few of these characters, particularly Mac, who’s gone from being a frazzled ditz last season — someone whose supposed genius as an EP was related almost entirely through bad exposition — to being a strong, take-no-bullshit leader with the trench skills to match this season.
What’s really worth getting into about the Genoa storyline, particularly after last night’s episode, is how powerfully it illustrates something I’ve written about quite a bit recently concerning a real-world story that’s been botched from the very beginning. The lawsuit which frames most of this season is apparently a wrongful termination suit filed by Jerry Dantana, whom we have to assume will take the fall for Genoa once it explodes in everybody’s face. Last night was the first time we heard anyone mention the necessity of having a “red team” on reserve within a newsroom, that is, a group of people who have no prior knowledge of a story and can therefore eventually come to it with fresh eyes and a perspective not potentially clouded by months of having lived and breathed the pursuit of it. The idea is to have someone within your organization ready to approach an item with skepticism — a skepticism that may have understandably been lost by those who’ve come to believe that their efforts were entirely worthwhile — and who will therefore try to shoot holes in it. In other words, you need somebody who will play scientist and test your theory for signs of oversight and bias. That’s how a story is made legitimate and bulletproof.
We’ve been able to see Dantana’s unquestioning belief in the veracity of Genoa getting the better of him and the “News Night” staff, drawing them into his vortex of absolute certainty, all season so far — and we know ahead of time that it’s going to be his downfall. (Alas, I have a bad feeling Sorkin may also be setting us up for a heartbreaking end-of-season firing of Neal as well.) Not to specifically blame him, because at some point there will likely be massive systemic failures that we’ll see, but his assuredness that the story he’s following is legit and the hubris he displays in the pursuit of it are examples of both a journalist’s greatest strength and his or her most crippling weakness. Dantana is sure he’s got something and almost nothing will convince him otherwise; maybe his complete faith comes from a political or personal bias, maybe it’s simply self-serving and careerist, but either way he’s a pit bull who’s now latched on and won’t let go. The fact that he thinks this way — and that he’s the one steering the story — is precisely why an institutional check is needed to ensure objectivity. This is why you have “red teams” or something like them. A truly exceptional journalist should constantly be providing his or her own checks on bias, but sometimes human nature can only be what it is.
For a while now I’ve been complaining that the biggest problem with the reporting of Glenn Greenwald is that, as Jonathan Chait stated brilliantly, he approaches journalism not as a journalist but as a litigator. He doesn’t care about the facts that discount his already well-established biases or the conclusion he’s determined to reach by working backward. He has a viewpoint and he argues in favor of that viewpoint at all times. The problem with this is that it’s not fair — and I don’t mean fair in the sense of the “phony objectivity” that a lot of news organizations now engage in and which so many of us rightly despise. Greenwald refuses to consider contradictory evidence, often snidely dismissing those who dare to bring it up, and you’ll never find him testing his theories for signs of bias. In Greenwald’s thinking, it’s that very bias that makes him such a fearless crusader for the truth, because as he sees it the viewpoints he’s biased toward are the truth.
Normally, there would be an organization behind him that would push back against his selectively edited arguments, wildly misleading statements, and flimsy conclusions, but either The Guardian won’t take on that responsibility or has done so and is simply really lousy at it. That’s the issue, though: Since Greenwald has no internal “red team,” he needs to be subjected to one from within a larger organization. I have no doubt, however, that if you were to bring this up to him or any of his subservient acolytes, what you’d hear back are cries about the dangers of trampling on “journalistic independence,” or how much it sucks that the mainstream media make decisions by committee or some other such horseshit.
Greenwald isn’t a good journalist. So his work needs to be thoroughly vetted by sources other than himself. It’s obvious that that’s not going to happen with the organization he works for, the one which continues to simply pat him on the back and give him an “atta boy” every time he writes something questionable. Hence, why there are now those who dedicate a decent amount of time to being the “red team” Greenwald has likely never been willing to submit to. Outside sources now provide that very necessary skeptical eye.
In The Newsroom, Dantana’s blind determination is apparently going to get him fired by his superiors. In Greenwald’s case, it seems to earn him applause from his.
One more thing about last night’s Newsroom: While I’m typically not a fan of Sorkin’s sermonizing, I really did enjoy Don Keefer stepping up and making the argument that if you’re a news organization discussing or reporting on the very offensive word “nigger,” you should damn well not censor yourself by “playing a game of hangman with the audience,” as Keefer says, and saying merely “the n-word.”
As I’ve said before, there’s a difference between discussion and dehumanization and news outlets need to have the guts not to put the ball in the audience’s court when it comes to reporting on the incendiary.
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.