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Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Newsroom and the collapse of civilization

To those of you (the vast majority) who don't know me, I have moved to Watertown, Massachusetts. Posting those pictures on the blog was the quickest way to make them available to friends and family. I did not mean to cause a distraction. Now back to business.

I just watched what was, I believe, the fourth episode of The Newsroom, the Aaron Sorkin-created HBO series in which Jeff Daniels plays anchorman Will McAvoy, who with his boss Sam Waterston and producer Emily Mortimer decides to revive the Ed Murrow/Walter Cronkhite tradition on cable news in 2010. The best moments of the show are the actual broadcasts, which move quickly and entertainingly. The content is dyed-in-the-wool liberal, and McAvoy has spent the last few episodes taking on the Tea Party and Fox News. Tonight we saw Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachmann repeating an unsourced lie about the cost of a presidential trip to India, one piece of right wing claptrap that I had missed. Yet the show is, alas, part of the problem as well as part of the solution, and thus proof, I am sorry to say, that the general approach and values it claims to be promoting are going nowhere anytime soon, and maybe not for decades or even centuries.

The show, oddly, enough, reminds me of Marx Brothers movies. Nearly all of them--the exception being the funniest one, Duck Soup--featured a crooning, star-crossed young couple whose problems had nothing to do with the plot and who contributed nothing to the humor. Groucho, Chico and Harpo apparently resented them, but the studio said they helped at the box office, and they came back again and again. Even then, appealing to the young demographic was important--and it's even more important now. So, each week about 20 minutes are devoted to the love lives of the producers and assistant producers of the newscast. Not only that, the role of Margaret Dumont is played by Emily Mortimer, who we have learned was the great love of Will's life some years ago before she cheated on him, and their non-relationship is taking up even more air time, as are their other love interests. I know there was some of this on West Wing, which I never watched religiously, but it seems to me it was kept far more tightly under control then. In short, HBO does not trust the drama of reporting the news to carry the series. The irony cannot be lost on Sorkin and the rest of his staff, since one of tonight's running jokes was about the Real Housewives of New Jersey. Their own show could be subtitled Real Singles of New York.

It occurs to me that HBO has run two of the greatest series in the history of television, The Sopranos and The Wire, without pandering to convention in this way. Breaking Bad on AMC, which in some ways has been the best of all, has seen no reason to do so either. (Jesse, played brilliantly by Aaron Paul, is a twenty-something, but his relationships have hardly been designed to appeal to a mass audience, to put it mildly.) Those shows, perhaps, relied on the threat of violence to hold the viewers' interest in a way that a retrospective news show cannot. The iconic images of Murrow and Cronkhite at the beginning of The Newsroom are, alas, an artifact of another time. Will McAvoy says he's on a "civilizing mission," an apt phrase indeed, but he isn't allowed to spend a whole hour on it. Sorkin has gone as far as he could, apparently, to be serious. It isn't nearly far enough.


Bozon said...


Many thanks for this post.

I had spent some time at BU, back in the late 70s.

With the career and all, I had never bothered to watch the Sopranos or the other apparently good TV shows of the past decade or so.

Re The Newsroom and the collapse of civilization, I am fully on board with that thesis.

I also have even talked about it, at times, on my blog, re selective media coverage,

and the tendencies of the media to disintegrate, and to degenerate, in the service of the sales effort, rather than to edify, its society.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

Who cares if part of the show is devoted to romance? If you want the message to be spread to as many people as possible, that's exactly what you'll need. So long as their message stays on point, do whatever you can to get the superficial, mindless American to start thinking again. This is exactly the kind of message we need to be spread and I commend HBO for doing it on exactly the kind of scale we need.

Secondly, this is the biggest unsupported non-sequitur I've seen in a while:

"Yet the show is, alas, part of the problem as well as part of the solution, and thus proof, I am sorry to say, that the general approach and values it claims to be promoting are going nowhere anytime soon, and maybe not for decades or even centuries"

What is it a part of the problem for? Just because it uses some of the same mechanisms mainstream media uses to grab our attention, like sex and romance, doesn't mean that the message behind the show is lost. I think your reaction to this aspect of the show was more of an emotional one solicited by a bias and you didn't put much reasoning into it. If you had, you would have realized that. Keep your mind open, don't just passively dismiss something in such undisciplined way. If anything, your post, and the uncritical, ossified method of thinking it represents, is more of the "problem" than this show.

Bruce Wilder said...

My smarter self doesn't regard the news broadcasts as the "best part" of the show -- no, the best part are the deeply shadowed moments, when we, the audience, can glimpse how the characters are frustrated in the pursuit of their idealized vision.

The sexy soap opera is as essential a background for that frustration as the news broadcasts and bits of politics are foreground. The Newsroom is an unfolding tragedy, after all -- Oedipus Rex dressed up as Don Quixote, destined to not just fail, but to enact the very fate foretold, which he is trying to evade.

So, yes, the characters are striving amidst the impedimenta and imperatives of their ephemeral, trivial lives, and their striving is turned backed on them -- they don't just fail; they end up doing exactly what they intend to not do.

So, yes, Will McAvoy's narcissism channels righteousness -- his mission to civilize -- into just another rant on television, and into embarrassing personal behavior.

Their integrity buys them frequently boring broadcasts, without dramatic footage of rescues and fires, or "late" news, which is right, but after excited viewers have changed the channel. The producers try to recruit newsmakers to appear, but the newsmakers don't want to be made to look bad, and ditch the program, and McAvoy ends up interviewing nutcases. And, so on.

The West Wing came while we still had some hope for a redemptive Presidency and a responsive politics. Post-Obama, it would be unwatcheable.

The Newsroom is coming entirely after: after Ashleigh Banfield got fired for telling the truth to university students, after Keith Olbermann tried articulate rants, amidst the "Countdown" circus, after Dylan Ratigan tried telling the truth about the economics of plutocracy, after Wikileaks foundered on a rape investigation.

The only actual cable news channel in the Cronkite mode is funded by an eccentric oil sultan. The most consistent challenge on economics comes from a cable channel funded by the Russian dictator. The genuine liberal media in the English-speaking world is pretty much limited to the tiny Guardian.

Amidst the cacophany, telling the truth has no apparent power; it may not even be possible to participate in the Media, even with the best intentions, and maintain one's judgment long enough to reliably find truth to tell. The obsession of one staffer on The Newsroom with "Big Foot" is a joke that falls flat for me, but I think he's trying to show us that even idealistic, passionate people are not individually capable of simply discerning "truth". Think of the self-appointed "independent" "fact checkers" in the Media, who, predictably, end up incapable of sorting lies from truth, because they find out it takes discipline and resources and critical method, and not righteous "independence" navigated by equi-distant dead reckoning.

Inevitably, I imagine Sorkin will go for the hot flame of a whistleblower tragedy, to illustrate the inability of 21st century Media to sustain the kind of forest fire scandal, like Watergate, which once brought about course correction in our politics. The igniting spark of a whistleblower lighting himself on fire just goes out, extinguished in the daily flood. The Guardian, proud of igniting the wiretapping scandal that shook the House of Mordor, I mean Murdoch, scarcely arched an eyebrow, when police murdered their best inside whistleblower. When the BBC walked back their criticism of Blair lying Britain into Iraq, the suicide of their whistleblower just confirmed them in their cowardice. I'd hate to write up a fictionalized version of that, or of Obama torturing Manning or persecuting some other whistleblower.

I don't blame Sorkin for spreading some thick frosting on his cake. The reality of this cake sucks, and if he remains true to his topic, it will get worse.

Unknown said...

I agree with you that Sorkin’s portrayal of predictable love triangles and forced sexual tensions around the office is very overdone and takes away from the show. That being said, at least The Newsroom is making a valiant attempt past any other drama currently on TV to address the inherent problems that our society faces with our bias media institutions. I think the insignificant love plotlines play a very unsubstantial role in the entire makeup of the show and are only there to appeal to the small audience that is not looking for an educated story but, more so, for shallow entertainment. For the rest of us, The Newsroom creates intellectually based commentary on our society, which gives my brain something to gnaw on with each episode and sparks a world of debates around the office at Dish the next day. Because the show makes me think is the reason it has and will maintain in the top spot on my DVR recording list. Luckily, I have the Hopper DVR with loads of recording space so, if The Newsroom decides to become a regular TV show by focusing on venial love dramas, then at least I didn’t waste precious memory on it. Till then, I’m excited to see what other thought-provoking messages Sorkin has in store for us.