Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Newsroom (Why I Love How It Dares To Dream)

"The Newsroom is a romantic, idealistic and swashbuckling look at a fictional cable news show." - series creator Aaron Sorkin

The minute I saw the trailer for Aaron Sorkin’s latest gem, I was hooked. Heck, the minute I heard Sorkin’s name, I was hooked. The genius of The Social Network and The West Wing was taking his talents to cable TV to write a show about the inner workings of a cable news show.

Then I watched the opening minutes and opening monologue from Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels). It was ballsy, in your face and spoke to a lot of truth about how America has fallen from grace.

Three episodes in, I’m seeing why I was hooked from the jump. "The Newsroom" is smart and ambitious. It shines a light on the media and aims to raise the standard of journalism. You feel like you’re watching an actual cable network instead of a show about one.

It relates to me directly, as someone who’s been involved in the media since 2006 and studied it in college.

Growing up, I believed in old school media ethics after watching Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Brian Williams and Anderson Cooper.  I believe the news should report the news yet I’m also modern enough to know you need some personality to sell it as well. I believe in getting it right more than being first and I believe in educating the public more than dumbing them down.

"Newsroom" isn't the first show to try to tackle the media but in this era where reality TV, shouting matches and everything but the news is selling, it's taking a hard look behind the scenes of a cable news network. 

So far, McAvoy has delivered two powerful monologues that sent chills up my spine. The second, not as profane but no less bold, was in Episode 3 where he apologized for his show contributing to the decline of news shows by chasing ratings and not upholding the legacy of great newsmen before him. He details the history of what evening news shows were supposed to be and how advertising indirectly corrupted that goal from the start.

Both were passionate and sincere without coming off as preachy. To me, they summarize the intent of this show. Tell the truth and find a way to make it relatable instead of wild ambition and big words.

Sorkin, who's become as recent an inspiration of mine as much as Christopher Nolan, has a gift of capturing the fast pace of a situation while creating compelling characters. The snappy dialogue and quick camera cuts suit the newsroom’s energy and yet it slows down enough make you care about the people you watch. It all feels believable; even the relational issues between the characters.

The professional and personal relationship between news anchor Will McAvoy, right, and his producer Mackenzie McHale is part fun, part agonizing but 100% intriguing because at their core, they represent the same thing. Putting on a great show devoted to the truth with no bluster.

So far the show has tackled the Gulf Coast Oil Spill, SB 1070 and the rise of the Tea Party. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention it’s going back in time to discuss events still fresh on our minds but far back enough to analyze them the same way we’d do it today.

It also highlights the balance between commerce and information. Episode 3 showed that with a tense dialogue between ACN News Division President Charlie Skinner, who’s proud of the show’s new direction and Atlantis World Media CEO Leona Lansing, who’s worried about pleasing her backers and alienating friends in Congress with the show attacking the Tea Party. Excerpts from their conversation follow.

“Balance is irrelevant to me. It has nothing to do with truth, logic or reality.” Charlie Skinner

“I have business before this Congress, Charlie, and whatever you may think of them, they hold the keys to the future of AWM” – Leona Lansing

“News organizations are public trusts with an ability to inform and influence the national conversation.” – Skinner

“I know. That’s why I bought one.” – Lansing.

It’s a battle playing out in newsrooms around the country. Since 2006, newspaper ad revenue has sharply declined (while online revenue has increased) and papers have tried frantically to readjust – often at the expense of their staff or their readers. Cable news has also tried to deal with the change as well as viewers have more fighting for their attention.

I saw it firsthand. Our weekly staff meetings consisted more about advertising than generating actual news content besides political connections. After my managing editor left, I felt like our journalistic direction lost a key voice and things were more done to appeal to advertisers than our readers.

It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles this as the season progresses. But for me, I love the fact that it humanizes something that we take for granted – how we get our information.

Cable news today has devolved into analysis and experts who lack context and often shout each other down. Are there good stories? Yes. But personalities/opinions are driving the news as much as how they deliver it, how they dig for a story. There's also more fluff on the news that makes me wonder why it's even on the air (course I know why - money and ratings).

It explains why most of my generation prefers The Daily Show to CNN, Fox News or MSNBC. A comedy show does a better job telling the news by mocking it than folks actually telling the news straight.

I’ve spoken to a friend on Twitter who mentioned how idealistic the show is. Some have said it’s a problem cause it doesn’t seem real but he made a good point. What’s wrong with idealism every now and then? What’s wrong with dreaming of something better than what we’re getting?

Why not imagine a newsroom where news values matter just as much commerce and news anchors informed the viewers and didn’t allow BS to fly in the name of neutrality? Maybe it can't happen but at the expense of the viewers who aren't getting any smarter from a news cycle, maybe we can at least try to raise the bar on the dialogue.

That’s why this show works for me. That plus great acting from a solid cast and Sorkin’s brilliant touch guiding it as a challenge for us to demand better.

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