Monday, June 25, 2012

HBO's "The Newsroom" - about regaining the ability to function

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. - F. Scott Fitzgerald
It says more about me than it does about the new HBO series "The Newsroom" that I can say the premise and style expressed in its premier nearly moved me to tears.

I'm old and I started my working life as a newspaper reporter.

I believed and still believe that the United States isn't the greatest country in the world because of what and how it is at any given moment, but rather because most Americans believe it could be and want it to be the greatest country in the world. We want a country that continuously attempts to achieve the impossible ideals:
  • of balancing populist governance against protecting basic rights for all individuals through formal institutions run by relatively small groups of professional and amateur politicians.
  • of a society that offers each of us equally an opportunity to be all that we can be, while protecting each of us not only against physical force from others, but against the abusive accumulation and use of government and economic power by any one or any few of us.
I shared, and still share, Edmond Burke's belief expressed in his 1787 observation to Parliament that "in the Reporters' Gallery" is "a Fourth Estate more important" to our government and society than the relatively small groups of professional and amateur politicians.

And so when a key character in Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom" states that the goal is "reclaim journalism as an honorable profession” I was moved.

Never mind the need for me to suspend disbelief at a level generally reserved for science fiction or wild car chase action hero shows.

After all, this show's first episode begins far back in time for Americans to two weeks before a historical event essentially forgotten in the day-to-day discourse of most Americans - the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. It then presents how the story should have been covered by the news media from the beginning instantly creating a newsroom full of "cape crusaders."

Aaron Sorkin was the creator and/or writer of the TV series "Sports Night","The West Wing", and  "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" and movies "A Few Good Men",  "The American President", "Charlie Wilson's War", "The Social Network", and "Moneyball". The imprint of show creator Aaron Sorkin is deep in "The Newsroom" with rapid dialog and a fast pace.

The script is tight, the direction is flawless. The principle characters, however, include two flawed heroes, one a reluctant hero played effectively by Jeff Daniels, and the other a scarred action heroine, played also effectively by Emily Mortimer. It is also populated with a number of younger actors, the most obviously winning characters in the pilot played by Alison Pill, Dev Patel, and John Gallagher Jr.

And then there is  the venerable Sam Waterston bringing wit and wisdom to the always slightly inebriated character cable channel president Charlie Skinner who, like me, thinks it's time to try to have somebody on television bringing news that's full of facts (because there is a difference between the facts and spin) and who as a fictional person, unlike me, is in a fictional position to do so.

Sorkin is an anathema to the American ideological far right and he didn't ingratiate himself with the American ideological far left by having his lead character calling them "losers." Which brings me back to the Fitzgerald quote.

It is obvious that today America does not have a collective "first-rate intelligence" the test for the existence of which is "the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

The premise underlying the show is that at one time we did have such a collective "first-rate intelligence," stimulated and maintained by the likes of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley, which if we only could bring back that commitment to "truth, justice, and the American Way" could be recovered. And the character in the show that expresses that goal is ...drum roll... the Brit with a dual citizenship Mackenzie MacHale played by Emily Mortimer.

In Action Comics #900 ...yeah #900 at 100 pages...  Superman renounces his American citizenship saying "truth, justice and the American way- it's not enough anymore."

Aaron Sorkin's two flawed heroes would disagree. Truth, justice and the American way are all that matters and there's nothing "fair and balanced" about that.

Of course, unlike "The West Wing" which informed the broad sweep of Americans from a broadcast network, because American culture today lacks the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time while still retaining the ability to function, "The Newsroom" could only be presented through HBO which has the slogan "It's not TV, It's HBO" and only reaches 29 million homes out of the 100+ million homes with TV.

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