Critics have had a field day with The Newsroom. Ever since Aaron Sorkin’s new TV show launched, it’s been the object of near-universal, often-withering condemnation. Some of the criticisms are fair (the show’s casting is less liberal than its content), others aren’t (it’s an unsubtle TV show!). But amid everything the media have to say about The Newsroom, there’s been precious little attention to what The Newsroom has to say about the media.
As you’ve likely heard, Newsroom stars Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, a cable TV anchor who decides to stop being nice and start getting real, trading in amiable inoffensiveness for a newfound commitment to telling the truth. McAvoy, his executive producer and their staff reboot their program. Their new News Night features tough, substantive cross-examination of guests, hard-hitting investigative reporting and honest assessments of who’s to blame and who’s telling the truth.
Rather than passively sharing the NRA’s fear-mongering about Obama taking away your guns, McAvoy contrasts it with a leading gun control group’s all-F report card for the president. Rather than reporting Gabby Giffords dead just to look up-to-speed, the show holds out for true confirmation. Rather than being soothed by industry flaks, the staff ferret out the terrible truth about the BP oil spill.
But perhaps the most interesting and important drama comes when Newsroom peels back the curtain on the Koch brothers’ role in funding and fomenting so-called grassroots protests. No disrespect to Jeff Daniels, but the show’s best scene so far was between Sam Waterston and Jane Fonda, playing network’s news division president and the parent company’s CEO. Fonda orders Waterston to back off the Kochs and their newly elected allies in Congress.
“I thought you got where you are by being fearless,” Waterston tells Fonda. “No,” she retorts, “I got where I am by knowing who to fear.” “Our cable news division accounts for less than 3 percent of AWM’s annual revenue,” she lectures him. “You don’t make money for stockholders, which I have a fiduciary responsibility to do.” “News organizations are a public trust with the ability to inform and influence the national conversation,” he lectures back. “I know,” she responds, “That’s why I bought one.”
The scene is classic Sorkin: everyone is more clever, more articulate and more honest than real-life human beings. But the underlying point is all too realistic: our supposedly independent, allegedly liberal media are compromised. Their coverage is narrowed by the interests of the advertisers they woo, the politicians they defer to and the corporate owners they serve. In making this point, we shouldn’t romanticize the past, as Sorkin sometimes does. But to make this case, you don’t have to.
Indeed, watching Waterston and Fonda square off reminded me of The Nation’s most famous (well, its first) centerfold, one that might make both characters blush. In 1996, we graphically diagrammed the four corporate powerhouses controlling TV news—and their vast and varied conflicts of interest.
As Mark Crispin Miller wrote in a prescient companion piece, “Thus we are the subjects of a national entertainment state, in which the news and much of our amusement come to us directly from the two most powerful industries in the United States…. see why, say, Tom Brokaw might find it difficult to introduce stories critical of nuclear power. Or why it is unlikely ABC News will ever again do an exposé of Disney’s practices…or, indeed, why CNN—or any of the others—does not touch the biggest story of them all, i.e., the media monopoly itself.”
A decade later, we reprised the map; four years from now, perhaps we will again. The details are different, but—contra the Internet utopians—the story is much the same (though The Nation’s own Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry are admirably and exhilaratingly bucking the trend). And it’s a story urgently in need of telling.
That’s why I so value The Newsroom. And it’s also why I’m unpersuaded by a frequent claim of its critics: that the show, and its characters, are too earnest—or, in the words of The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, “it’s so naïve it’s cynical.” Sure, the show indulges in melodrama (and its romantic dramas aren’t as engaging as its professional ones), and in some sense it’s a morality play. But amid cautious “he said, she said” mindless partisan strategist cage matches, and silent censorship by corporate sponsors, isn’t some moralizing in order? And couldn’t we use a stirring example of what a better journalism would look like?
“Nobody uses the word lie anymore,” Sorkin told New York magazine in June. (Indeed, Greg Mitchell noted a particularly egregious example of this on Monday.) “If the entire House Republican caucus were to walk onto the floor one day and say ‘The Earth is flat,’ the headline on the New York Times the next day would read ‘Democrats and Republicans Can’t Agree on Shape of Earth.’ I don’t believe the truth always lies in the middle…. I think the facts are the center.”
Say what you will about The Newsroom. But spare a moment for what it says about us.