HBO's newest series, Newsroom, which debuted on Sunday, is written and produced by Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote West Wing, Sports Night, and the movie The Social Network. The show is written from an idealist perspective -- how the news ought to be and could be in a best of all worlds - rather than a materialist one -- how and why news media have degenerated so far and what could be done about that.
What is most interesting about Newsroom, which drew a large opening audience for its Sunday debut of 2.1 million viewers, just behind HBO's lineup of Game of Thrones (my choice for the best show ever : )) which had an opening audience of 2.2 million, and Martin Scorsese's Boardwalk Empire of 4 million plus, and twice the excellent, but unlucky, Luck's opening of 1.1 million, is the reaction of the real media to it.
In general the media strongly dislike the show.
Imagine that. A show that criticizes the media as being tawdry, superficial, money driven and stupefyingly misinforming, provokes the real media to say that they do not like the show!
Washington Post's former ombudsman Howard Kurtz -- as Ombudsman he was supposed to watch out for missteps of the Post, a job he did not do very well - panned it at the Daily Beast (the successor to Newsweek) as "bad satire," preachy and overblown:
"Naturally, Will [anchor Will McAvoy played by Jeff Daniels] delivers a boffo NewsNight, running roughshod over government and corporate flacks, and at this point the audience is supposed to cheer. Except the characters have taken turns acting like such jerks that it's more exhausting than uplifting."
As someone who is in and has been in the media, Kurtz does not know journalists who are jerks? Where have you been Mistah Kurtz? Are you dead to what real journalists can be like? Having been a journalist myself, and having been around a good number of them, I'd say the characters in Newsroom are a lot more appealing than their real counterparts generally are.
Over at The New York Times, Alessandra Stanley, while acknowledging Sorkin's cracking good dialogue, pans it as
"Railing against the shallow, ratings-driven discourse on cable news shows, Mr. Sorkin has created his own newsroom -- a Brigadoon version -- where high-minded journalists pursue accuracy and excellence by, as one character puts it, 'speaking truth to stupid.'
"Yet oddly enough 'The Newsroom' suffers from the same flaw that it decries on real cable shows on MSNBC or Fox News. Cable television would be a lot better if anchors pontificated less and went back to reporting. 'The Newsroom' would be a lot better if the main characters preached less and went back to reporting."
News to Stanley: Sorkin's targets are not just other TV cable news shows. His target is the whole of the mainstream media industry, including newspapers like the Times itself. When idealistic executive producer MacKenzie McHale (an excellent and appealing Emily Mortimer) tells McAvoy that the country is at a "tipping point" and that democracy can't survive if the people are being systematically misinformed, despite the excesses of this speech (she actually quotes from Don Quixote, or, as McAvoy corrects her, from The Man of LaMancha which was based upon Cervante's Don Quixote tilting at windmills character), what she's decrying is right on target.
To be fair, one of the criticisms aimed at the show is that it does more telling than showing than it should, with characters like McHale launching into speeches. But what I would criticize about this show is not that it does that but that it idealizes and thus falsifies the situation, thereby obscuring what would be an actual solution. The station's news director, played by Sam Waterson, tells McAvoy that he "f*cking loved" McAvoy's take down of a smug, right-wing know nothing student at Northwestern (who described America as the greatest country on earth), and Waterson's character recounts a falsified history of what American news media used to be, claiming that they used to do real news because "they decided to" do so. As if this is all about individual decisions of whether to be good or bad news people.
Consider in contrast to this absurdly benign and well-intentioned portrayal of a News Director, these two actual stories, the first about NBC and the second about Viacom/CBS:
"In the 2000 Presidential race, when the major TV networks retracted their earlier and correct projection that Florida was going to Gore, thus making him President, Bush's cousin John Ellis, who was brought into Fox's studios to act as the head of their 'decision desk,' called Florida for Bush. Jack Welch, head of NBC/GE, who was in the NBC studios while this unfolded, asked the NBC elections desk chief why NBC was not also calling Florida for Bush. NBC listened to their boss and put Florida in Bush's column; they later retracted it, but they had nevertheless helped to set into motion the impression that Bush was the winner and that Gore's subsequent insistence that all the votes be counted were the actions of a sore loser. [i] The rest of the major networks then followed suit, again without any new data about the actual vote count. [ii] As David Podvin and Carolyn Kay describe it:
'Shortly after George W. Bush declared his candidacy for president in June of 1999, General Electric Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jack Welch was contacted by Bush political advisor Karl Rove. Welch later informed associates that Rove told him a Bush administration would initiate comprehensive deregulation of the broadcast industry. Rove guaranteed that deregulation would be implemented in a way that would create phenomenal profits for conglomerates with significant media holdings, like GE. Rove forcefully argued that General Electric and the other media giants had a compelling financial interest to see Bush become president.
'Welch told several people at GE that the conversation with Rove convinced him that a Bush presidency would ultimately result in billions of dollars of additional profits for General Electric. Welch believed that it was his responsibility to operate in the best interest of GE shareholders, and that now meant using the full power of the world's biggest corporation to get Bush into the White House.