HBO’s ‘The Newsroom’ and America: ‘It Isn’t The Best Country In The World – But It Can Be’

Last night I watched the pilot episode of HBO’s new drama, The Newsroom, which is created, written, and produced by Aaron Sorkin. Simply put, the pilot is fantastic and inspiring.

First, a bit of background: I graduated from a journalism school. More specifically, I got a BA in 2006 from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in print journalism. When I left school, I was very enthusiastic about writing and understanding the media, but at the same time, I was determined to not go into my field. I thought that the journalists who inspired me and the integrity of the medium were being overrun by opinions. Not the opinions of the journalists themselves but the predetermined opinions of the audience (and their ignorance) and the forced agendas of the owners of the major networks. It wasn’t just FOX; it was everyone. CNN was a joke looking to fill the air with anything they could find. NBC, ABC, and CBS had lost their credibility and their influential evening news hosts (save possibly Brian Williams).

Some may argue that because of these feelings, I should have pursued being a journalist, attempt to break the mold, and deliver the facts. However, to me, it was a broken system beyond repair.

Fast forward to 2012. Sadly, not much has changed in how we get our news. In fact, if anything, it has gotten worse. Anchors openly feud and strive to better their network counterparts. The news is filled with more opinion and less fact – or the facts are so buried that it’s difficult to discern the difference. It’s a sad day when I honestly feel that I get the most information from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The days of great journalism are behind us. The greats like Murrow and Cronkite, who inspired scores of future journalists (including myself), are gone, and sadly today’s new generations have never heard of or likely care to know who these great men were.

And this is essentially the same plot and reasons that drive the characters of The Newsroom. ACN’s Will McAvoy, played brilliantly by Jeff Daniels, is a begrudged and hardheaded nightly news anchor. The pilot begins with establishing his character as “The Jay Leno” of the news – that is, he doesn’t bother anyone. After being asked, “Why is America the greatest country in the world?” by an ignorant sophomore from Northwestern, Will launches a tirade against America. Dropping fact after fact about our failure to develop in the last thirty years despite the foundation built up by those before, it’s set up as one of those “this is going on YouTube” moments. Thus begins the unraveling for Will’s base back at ACN. His executive producer is out, a new one in (a former girlfriend, played by Emily Mortimer).

There’s a big cast filled with mostly new faces, but there is a lot of talent here. The pilot really takes off when playing out the drama to break the story on the Deep Horizon oil spill of 2010. It’s fascinating to see a large newsroom hustle and work as a team to deliver the news in this setting.

Like in many of his previous works, Sorkin’s dialogue clearly comes through. This is no fault by any means; Sorkin is one of the best writers out there for the screen (big and small). Naturally, like any show on TV, there’s the repressed love and romance between the main character and his closest coworker. It’s a cliché, but I won’t hold it against the show. I’m sincerely hoping that the rest of the series lives up to the foundation that it builds with the pilot.

After the pilot ended, I was inspired to write about it and the potential it brings. What really inspired me was watching people behind the scenes and in front of the camera who actually cared about delivering the facts, which means something to them about professional integrity and doing their jobs well the first time.

Sorkin is clearly inspired by Murrow and Cronkite, and his character of McAvoy fits in a similar mold, albeit he’s slightly more terse. It’s an exciting show with inspiring characters, and maybe that’s why it also disappoints me.

Not because of flaws (although there are a few – forced inner-office relationships, lengthy inspiring speeches to other characters that are perfect for film, but no one actually says this) but because I was inspired by a TV-show version of a news anchor. It’s sad to me that there’s no one in real life that drives me with that passion when he/she delivers the news. It’s a broken field filled with Nielsen Ratings, advertising, and ownership opinion.

America isn’t the greatest country in the world anymore (I don’t know what is), but we are slipping further behind every day. Most politicians and lobbyists in Washington are to blame for this slippage, which goes back for many, many years. I’m sure that reporting on America is a challenge but understanding the facts of the stories has become even harder. That’s where inspiration fails – because the open desire for reporting the news clearly and factually to help the citizens be informed and understand doesn’t currently exist.

Maybe with a bit of luck, students currently studying journalism will themselves find someone that inspires them and they can be the ones to inspire future generations by delivering the facts. But without fundamental changes to our current news structure, this is a hard realization to achieve. Here’s hoping that The Newsroom and everyone else can still see the glass half-full. I’m starting to again.

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  1. Great article, Mike. Thanks for sharing.

    My only criticism is that I disagree with your full-swooping declaration that politicians and lobbyists in Washington are the root of all of America's problems. Washington is a reflection of the American people. We (the people) don't demand accountability–in the news, in our politicians, and in ourselves. Most people in Washington (the politicians anyway–I wouldn't lump the lobbyists into this category) really do want to do what is best for the people, but the people don't demand anything of substance. If the people demanded to know what was going on and decided not to tolerate infotainment and commercials as their primary news source (especially for elections!), then the people in Washington would do a better job, I think.

    That being said–great article. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks Goose – good point. It wasn't fair to use a dramatized generalization there. I was more intending to show that policies made, funding revoked, etc. certainly are a reflection of the choices that Americans make. The blame does go both ways. By electing the politicians who vote for/ against policies that weaken America, the voting citizens are just as much to blame. The problem in Washington is too big to pinpoint ways to change quickly (I'm hoping new generations witnessing this time of political divide will inspire change – Obama certainly tried).

    What I truly hoped to express was my disappointment in the media to diffuse the facts, particularly those from Washington, and inspire the public to disseminate the facts further for themselves in order to create an educated opinion. Like you said, infotainment and commercials sadly are more influential today than the facts themselves.

  3. Well, in that case, I think you achieved your goal with your article. Great piece of writing, as is just about everything I read on CT. I'm really proud of you, man.

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