Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Newsroom

Several months ago HBO had one of their free weekends, you know, the kind that are supposed to entice you to sign up for their service. I don't have any of the premium services because the cost of cable television alone is ridiculous. The only extra I get is the MLB package because I tried to do without the Red Sox games one year and found out it's impossible. There's little enough to watch on television. Take away Red Sox games and there's pretty much nothing to watch over the summer. Besides, without the MLB package, I would have missed one of the greatest turnarounds in baseball history.

But I digress.

One of the series that was featured during that free weekend was The Newsroom. The premise is a cable network news station that goes on a mission to be a real news station, to inform the public and make them better citizens. I was hooked from the first episode.

The cast includes Jeff Daniels, whom I've always liked, and Sam Waterston, who spent most of his career on Law and Order, another series I really liked. I still watch reruns of the original Law and Order most weeks. The other actors are not ones I've ever been a fan of, although I certainly recognize Jane Fonda and Dev Patel. As far as I'm concerned, everyone has brought their A game to this series.

But what really makes The Newsroom stand out is the writing. Most of the first season was written by Aaron Sorkin, whose list of movie and television credits is impressive. He's worked on A Few Good Men, The American President, The West Wing, The Social Network, and Moneyball, among others, before this latest effort. He's one of the few television writers whose name most people would recognize. Okay, maybe not most people, but those who pay attention to who writes a show.

I do. Because it makes a difference. I can pretty much always tell when Andrew Marlowe, the creator, has written a Castle script. Hint: they're not the lame ones.

It's probably time for a caveat: I have only watched the first five episodes on Netflix, so everything I'm saying here is based on that. I'm waiting for the next DVD to arrive. I'm consuming The Newsroom at about the same rate as I consumed Downton Abbey. But, if the show tanked or took a ninety-degree (or more) turn later in the season, I don't know that yet.

I like the message the show presents. I'm old. At the beginning of the show, there's a montage of journalists from the early days of television: Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley. I recognize those faces because I watched them in glorious black and white growing up. I use the term journalist on purpose. News then was different than it is now. It wasn't glitzy, stories weren't told in thirty-second teasers. You actually learned something when Walter Cronkite reported the news. He was one of the most trusted men in America.

Now, the "news" you get in prime time is who got kicked off the island or the latest bachelorette to be eliminated or who won The Biggest Loser. Really? That's news? No. Sorry. That's a commercial. Or an entertainment magazine.

I go insane when the real news, an actual story, is given in a thirty-second sound bite with the standard, "If you want to see the whole interview, log onto our website." I'm sorry, I wanted to watch the news on television. I don't want to have to get up, go to my computer, waste time searching around your website for the details on a story, and then have to watch commercials before you'll give them to me.

The Newsroom aims to bring back television journalism. The show is not about whoring after ratings (although upper management isn't on board with this concept). They stop picking their top story by what the other networks are using for their top story. They refuse to report an item without confirmation from two actual sources while everyone else is vying to be the first with the latest detail. Often wrongly, as they illustrate with the reports of Gabby Gifford's death after the shooting here in Tucson.

Which brings up the whole topic of news "sources." Since when did Twitter become an official news source? Every time a television anchor reports something that was tweeted, even if it was supposedly by the person (celebrity) themselves or not, I cringe.

I'm on Twitter. Lots of people are. They make stuff up. They create "handles" that resemble official people and organizations. Now, it's true that Twitter is often the first source for local events. But it isn't necessarily accurate. It's people talking to one another, like one big coffee klatch. And, just like a bunch of people gathered around a kitchen table or at a bar, a lot that is said is rumor or supposition.

What happened to fact-checking, to journalists who verified information with their sources, to news people who had sources to get information from? If I wanted information from the Twitterverse, I'd go on Twitter.

Same for Facebook.

I get the feeling Aaron Sorkin also would like to go back to the kind of television news we used to see. The Newsroom is his personal fantasy of what that would be like. But it probably is a fantasy. The American public doesn't want to see real news. They want to be entertained. Without the ratings, which translate to advertising dollars, no show survives.

But I wish this particular fantasy would come true. I, for one, would gladly pay for this kind of news show.
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