Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Newsroom: Episode 2 "News Night 2.0"

Let's begin with a look at real life. Back in August 2010 CNN’s DC bureau chief David Bohrman and CNN political director Sam Feist produced the following memo:
From David Bohrman and Sam Feist:

We are thrilled to announce that today, Patricia DiCarlo becomes the Executive Producer of The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer. In her three years at CNN, Patricia has demonstrated that not only is she an outstanding journalist, she has also emerged as an important leader at CNN.

Patricia’s 15 years in broadcast journalism have spanned important producing positions from WFLA and WTVT in Tampa all the way to the Oprah Winfrey show in Chicago. Under the leadership of CNN’s own Katherine Green, Patricia ran one of the largest newsrooms in Washington, DC as Executive Producer at WTTG-TV. Everyone who has worked with Patricia DiCarlo will agree that she is tenacious, full of ideas, full of energy, and a virtual force of nature. The energy and enthusiasm Patricia brings to everything she does will be a perfect fit as she takes the helm of the Sitroom. And we couldn’t be more pleased to have found our new executive producer within our own ranks.

Please join us in congratulating Patricia, Wolf, and the whole Situation Room team.

David and Sam
What bugs me about this memo is that sentence "Patricia’s 15 years in broadcast journalism have spanned important producing positions from WFLA and WTVT in Tampa all the way to the Oprah Winfrey show in Chicago." So the "Oprah Winfrey Show" is considered "journalism"???

Watching episode 2 Sunday evening I realized that "The Newsroom" accurately reflects the reality of 21st Century American television news which is worse than the worst possible nightmare scenarios imagined by Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. The meaning of "journalism" as they knew it is dead.

As I watched the first 33 seconds of the opening credits/intro sequence of "The Newsroom" last night...

...I realized that the show reflects a nostalgic Aaron Sorkin writing a fantasy where the male characters are simultaneously bigger than life and run things, like in the 1950's.

Other than the men being "bigger than life", is it a fantasy? The cable news channel news-prime-time (6-7 pm) anchors are CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Fox's Shepard Smith, MSNBC's Chris Matthews.

Last night's episode is taking hits among reviewers because of its portrayal of women. Hey, folks, let's back up a notch. This is Sorkin's fantasy, we've only seen two episodes, and over at CNN the male honchos see "The Oprah Winfrey Show" as journalism in the context of a woman producer's experience, even though she stayed there only 1 year and 1 month before returning to real news.

I'm not so sure Sorkin is that far off.

As seen by Sorkin, there are three critical sources of philosophical conflict in early 21st Century television news. Two were presented in this episode by the character Mackenzie MacHale (well-portrayed by Emily Mortimer) as keys to the main story arc of the series:

In an argument with News Night's anchor Will McAvoy she states the first element of Sorkin's belief's about what the television news should be:
MacHale: "We don't do good television we do the news."
The second is an exchange between MacHale and the other members of the newsroom, mostly younger people who grew up with the current news style. In the exchange we hear the second element of Sorkin's belief's about television news, this time about bias:
MacHale: "The media's biased towards success and the media's biased towards fairness.

Maggie Jordan: "How can you be biased towards fairness?"

MacHale: "There aren't two sides to every story. Some stories have five sides, some only have one."

In response to the obvious skepticism of the younger staff, McAvoy elaborates: "Bias towards fairness means that if the entire Republican Congressional Caucus were to walk into the House and propose a resolution stating that the Earth was flat, the Times would lead with Democracts and Republicans can't agree on shape of Earth."
The third critical philosophical conflict is the issue of ratings and popularity versus integrity of content and informing the viewer.

Sorkin seems to be framing this last conflict as an economic issue, which it is. But he isn't clearly presenting the reality of cable news networks. If no one watches, you aren't informing anyone. And, if your "integrity" is so great you don't tend to reflect a political ideology, no one will watch because cable news is mostly background noise, except for the believers who "pay the bills" in the cable news competition.

McAvoy's speech in the first episode is about what's wrong with Americans - not what's wrong with America. In it he said about the past: "And we were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed."

In this episode Sorkin is saying in his fantasy is that we cannot become an informed people if all we're looking for is entertainment. But what several characters in the story are saying is what the larger audience is looking for in television news is entertainment.

Which brings us to this show which is supposed to be entertainment.

Other than the ideologues who hate Sorkin for his political views, the show is getting the most criticism for what the first two episodes have not been. They have not been the representation of the well-written soap opera. Sorkin has not focused on creating believable characters.

What's most worrisome about this is the fact that Sorkin is writing this series without a "writers room" where others can expand his horizon regarding people, particularly women at the beginning of the 21st Century. This means that while the show is powerful with solid "production values" it is similar to "Mad Men" in that it is primarily the sole creation of one fifty-ish man. The female characters are not accurately represented according to their female contemporaries.

In "The Newsroom" the focus on the two women important to the story so far has been painted with a fog about relationships with the men they work with and even men they dated in college. That probably was a bad idea, at least for the first few episodes.

But, it's classic Sorkin. There were people who did not watch "West Wing" because of the sometimes frenetic verbal pace.

With that said, in terms of story arc, this episode combined with the first episode demonstrated that the new "retro" approach to the news sometimes will work and sometimes will fail. And it can be because of the unexpected. Last episode, one staffer had a solid connection to the story. This week the other staffer had a connection that should have been avoided.

These two episodes were "the pilot." The problem is if you missed some of the chatter you may have missed something you need to know. Or not.

I'm hoping we're going to get more quiet character interaction. It happened a lot in "West Wing." In an interview with Jane Fonda we learn that:

...[Jane] Fonda plays the recurring role of Leona Lansing, the CEO of the fictional network parent company Atlantic World Media that is, as Fonda explains, somewhere in between Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch.

In the interview Fonda explains:

...Aaron says that it's mostly about the relationships -- and they are fascinating relationships -- about the characters that are in the newsroom. With Emily Mortimer and... well, you know who's in it. It's very interesting. The newsroom, to me -- and I play the head of the whole parent company -- the newsroom is less than three percent of my bottom line. But, because it's the newsroom, it can create a lot of trouble for me. So, I can rattle a lot of cages. But, my dilemma in this first season is what's happening because of what happens to Jeff Daniels in the course of the series. I don't feel like I'm in a position to say, you know, what the core of the story is....

So I have great hopes that the story will develop well.

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