What The Newsroom says about journalism

The Newsroom's Will McAvoy (HBO)

The Newsroom‘s Will McAvoy (HBO)

HBO’s The Newsroom has battled troubled ratings over its three-year period, reflecting its own storyline in which fictional news broadcast News Night tackles the deep question of what the news should look like while facing adversity on many fronts.

If the series finale of The Newsroom is any indication, there is still hope for traditional journalists.

The episode, aired on December 14th, offered a surprisingly thoughtful conclusion that gives much to think about as the media landscape continues to evolve in response to a technologically connected world.

The show was full of Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant dialogue, always driving forward at breakneck speed. But the subpar acting or predictable storylines often took away from the show’s main message, and The Newsroom had its fair share of critics.

This last episode was Sorkin’s final chance to describe his vision of what the news should be. Just like The West Wing, which humanized the president and his senior staff, The Newsroom succeeded in pushing back against contempt of reporters. (Only 20 percent of Americans believe TV reporters have high or very high ethical standards.)

Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), the anchor of News Night and the show’s protagonist, completes his transformation from the worst boss imaginable to a loving, inspirational role model for the other characters. Along the way, he becomes an anchor who cares about honesty, challenging his guests to defend their arguments and fighting to include important stories that might be seen as boring.

Toward the end of the series, main characters of the show battle against a new owner who wants to move the network toward a model of “citizen journalists” and fast-paced tidbits of news including everything from celebrity sightings to Twitter mishaps.

Most of the show’s finale involves the funeral of Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), the president of the media company that airs News Night, frequently punctuated with flashbacks to his quotes about the news.

How to describe Charlie to those who haven’t seen the show? Perhaps Will does it best, comparing Charlie to Don Quixote – “An old man with dementia who thought he could save the world from an epidemic of incivility simply by acting like a knight. His religion was decency.”

These people exist in Washington, D.C., New York, and other places of power. I’ve met them. If there is any central truth to take away from Sorkin’s shows, it is that there are good, honest, responsible people everywhere – even in the news – though it is temptingly easy to think otherwise.

It’s time for us to decide. Do we want the news to turn into glorified gossip, treating politicians as celebrities and celebrities as political experts? Or do we want to tackle ideas, pushing back against even those we agree with to make the television, the newspaper, and the Internet a place of informed debate?

It’s hard, some may say. No one will be interested, others will protest. But perhaps the best advice comes from Charlie, in a flashback that occurs right before the conclusion of The Newsroom’s last episode: “We did the news well. You know how? We just decided to.”

It’s easy to see how “crowd-sourcing journalism” can go wrong. One of the most infamous examples is Reddit falsely identifying innocent people as suspects in the Boston marathon. This was alluded to in an earlier episode of The Newsroom, prompting McAvoy to respond, “Two times in 24 hours, law enforcement officials had to publicly disclose information before they wanted to because either a paper or Web site put someone’s life in danger. So I’m not so easily surrendering to citizen journalists or citizen detectives.”

But that’s not to say traditional journalism isn’t immune from factual errors, either. Ironically, a New York Times article about the failures of Reddit misstated a year in the article and had to issue a correction.

So, clearly, nobody is perfect. But though the world of journalism may be changing, The Newsroom suggests that mainstream outlets may not be overcome just yet.

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One response to “What The Newsroom says about journalism

  1. Sorkin is a master of wiki-speak. His characters spit out factoids faster than I can process them… which does not make them right, but makes it hard to argue. What’s not to love about the idealism of “The Newsroom?” But, as even Sorkin found, there’s the real world getting in the way all the time. As a 30-year veteran of numerous newsrooms, the debates that block McAvoy’s team from going on the air (especially the debate over whether the Boston Marathon bombing was a real thing, AFTER they had video of people on the ground) baffles me. Some of the other ethical debates are so arcane as to make me wish someone would toss a coin. The REAL debate is whether you let social media dictate content (the people get what they want when they want it, even if it’s empty calories and mob-bating) or whether journalists have a real duty to act as filters of the day’s events based on experience and a genuine concern for informing the public. It’s an old fight. Right now, the pendulum is swinging towards least and dumbest, in the name of ratings. I think this will change, but I don’t think we’ve seen the turn-around just yet.

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