HBO’s The Newsroom is a paint-by-numbers peep into How the News Should Work, and this makes it a compelling series. This, despite the heavy dollop of cheese and the worst title sequence ever.*
In his book Flat Earth News, journalist Nick Davies bemoans the “falsehood, distortion and propaganda” that drives modern journalism. Importantly, he assigns the problem not to political or editorial bias, but to commercial factors. The drive of modern newspapers and channels to maximise profits, and the need to churn out constant scoops, has led to a drastic reduction of journalist staff on the one hand, and a lot more shoddily rehashed, AP-fed news on the other.
The result? A look at any spread in the Sun will show you: company-sponsored surveys of people’s eating and dressing habits; celebrity blunders; political backbiting; Twitter wars. In short, we are becoming more fixated with news that is cheap to produce and easy to digest – which does not the best diet make.
This is the issue at the heart of The Newsroom, set in fictional Atlantis Cable News studio. Grizzled millionaire news anchor Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) has his office turned upside down by the arrival of Mackenzie (Emily Mortimer), an executive producer who spurs the department on to broadcast ‘real’ news. Her mission is nothing less than “the death of bitchiness; the death of gossip and voyeurism; speaking truth to stupid.” It’s an obvious poke in the eye for MSNBC and Fox, America’s famously sensationalist news rivals.
The path to righteousness is a surprisingly simple one. Important scoops are left on the back burner so as not to appear sensationalist; Tea Party rhetoric is torn apart; more ‘boring’ stories take precedence over death and courtroom trials for their political importance to American viewers.
This is great TV: slick, fast and far funnier than Leveson could ever hope to be. The (inevitably) rabid reaction by ACN’s Murdochite top dogs is as important as it is entertaining, and the use of real news stories – including bin Laden’s death and the Japanese nuclear crisis – lends a sense of urgency to each episode. There is real relevance to journalism here.
What a shame, then, that all this genuinely interesting stuff is just grist in script writer Aaron Sorkin’s mill for the REAL ISSUES of the show, namely: do Will and Mackenzie get back together? Is Jim going to end up with Maggie? Can someone (anyone, please) kill Dom? The tension is about as limp as McAvoy’s hair. And then there’s Mackenzie herself, the high-flying top producer who, despite her accolades from time spent reporting abroad, can only count using her fingers and is incapable of sending emails. In one episode, we learn she knows nothing about economics. Nothing. It is a frustratingly obvious ‘clever but ditsy’ cliché that dogs successful women in popular shows like this one.
At worst, then, the first series of Newsroom is a hyperactive drama which hauls itself along on its sucker-punching dialogue and wobbly character development. At best, it can be taken as a serious critique of the way broadcasting operates. Ink splodges aside, I for one look forward to the second series.
*The less said about this the better. To be fast-forwarded at all costs.