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The Newsroom: Season 1 (Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)
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HBO presents the new one-hour drama series from the fertile mind of Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and executive produced by Sorkin, Scott Rudin and Alan Poul. Smart, topical, humorous and highly entertaining, The Newsroom takes a behind-the-scenes look at a high-rated cable-news program at the fictional ACN Network, focusing on the on- and off-camera lives of its acerbic anchor (Jeff Daniels), new executive producer (Emily Mortimer), their newsroom staff (John Gallagher, Jr., Alison Pill, Thomas Sadoski, Olivia Munn, Dev Patel and others) and their news-division boss (Sam Waterston). Overcoming a tumultuous first day together – climaxing in a newsflash that a BP oil rig has just exploded in the Gulf of Mexico – the team sets out on a patriotic if quixotic mission to “do the news well” in the face of corporate and commercial obstacles, and their own personal entanglements.
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Having said that (and there are a lot of criticisms that can be and have been leveled at Newsroom fairly and perhaps not as fairly), it is an absorbing show. I think there are two reasons for that. First of all, while it definitely has a liberal bias, it is not a blindly liberal bias. There are several characters (Will is a good example) of conservative points of view. The show side-steps the whole GOP infighting by having Will bemoan how his party is being hijacked by the Tea Party (and who thereby lower news standards) but he does express what are legitimate conservative concerns about the GOP and the world at large. But more than that, the characters on the show are all to a greater or lesser degree deeply flawed and deeply committed. And as a result, they both exemplify the forces that are tearing us apart right now and, at the same time, because they are forced to work together (and hence talk to one another) in order to produce this one show, they somehow find exactly the right response to any story as it happens.
Their responses to the oil spill and Osama bin Laden perhaps encapsulates this better than anything. That, and the really good acting made me sit and root for the characters. And it kept me watching.
And yes I know all the criticisms. It’s liberal; in real life they would have gone off air in a heartbeat because really who watches actual news anymore? Etc. But a part of me rejects that. Because wouldn’t it be nice if I could turn on the news and get the Newsroom?
And until we do… well, there’s the show.
Having spent more than two decades at CNN Center in Atlanta, until two years ago, as a writer and producer, the show is a brilliant success in conveying what it feels like to be in a newsroom like that, especially when there is breaking news.
In particular, the episode with the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford was absolutely true to life. Another reviewer criticized the dilema the team felt as other networks were reporting that she was dead and they were under pressure from network executives not to fall behind on the story. At the climactic moment, the anchor Will McAvoy makes the call on air and offers only the information about the shooting: "Here's what we know so far..." Which, of course, we know to have been the right call.
The factual context is right. NPR did report that Gifford had been killed; CNN, among others, repeated the misinformation, albeit attributing the report to NPR.
I don't know exactly what happened around Congresswoman Gifford's shooting, it was on a Saturday and I was working M-F, but I was there in the CNN Headline News newsroom in a similar situation: we came within seconds of airing a false report that the first president Bush had died during a visit to Japan in 1992 (where he had taken ill the night before, throwing up on the Japanese Prime Minister).
How close? The anchor --Chuck Roberts, I think it was--, said on the air "We have some very tragic news about president Bush" and you can hear in the background the supervising producer shouting "No, No, No" and then the anchor saying no, we don't have that, followed by something very close to "Here's what we know so far. President Bush fell ill last night ..." and so on.
At that time CNN set up a much more stringent system for confirming information and vetting what got on the air. Over the years, the formalities have remained ... but not the rigor. The argument is that it is already out there, all over the Internet. But you'd think a CNN would see as its job to run the reports through a fact-checking wringer and then tell its viewers the results.
The sets are absolutely true to life, not just the newsroom but also the studio and control room. I told my son as we were watching one episode that it looked like it had been filmed in the CNN International control room. Of course, this is a TV drama not a documentary, which means the writers take any number of shortcuts to telescope events into an episode's time frame and to present conflicts and issues sharply. But that is what art is supposed to do: to illuminate by selectively highlighting and focusing. I think they have done a wonderful job of distilling the life and feel of a newsroom.
And there's something else.
My favorite definition of journalism is that journalism is making public something that someone doesn't want to come out. Everything else is propagabda.
My generation of journalists had some great contemporary role models as we were learning out craft in the reporting around the Pentagon Papers and then Watergate (not just the presidential "dirty tricks" but everything that came to light as a result, from CIA financing of political campaigns in other countries and assassination plots against Fidel Castro).
Unfortunately, today it seems those sorts of models can only be found in fiction.