On December 14, 2014, I watched the final “Newsroom” episode, the HBO series starring Jeff Daniels and written by Aaron Sorkin ( “The West Wing”) with an interesting casting: Sam Waterston, Jane Fonda and a number of actors whom I did not know, except Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”). The “newsroom” is ACN’s, an important (and fictional) News Network in New York. Third or fourth in the country. The closest would be MSNBC sans the liberal excesses.
The series revolves around the star segment: The Night with Will McAvoy (Daniels), one of America’s most respected anchors. Daniels excels in the role without overacting, with a class sometimes condescending, but impeccable at the end. I remember that last year Daniels won an Emmy for best actor before a stunned audience expecting the award to Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston.
A whole team (researchers, executive producers, senior and junior editors and journalists, analysts, “über-webmaster-community-managers”, other anchors) works exclusively for McAvoy segment . The pace is frantic, as certainly must be in a newsroom of this kind. Between 2012 and 2014, it shows real events like the protests in Egypt, the #OcuppyWallStreet movement, the bombing in Boston. You have to build a story, an account, a report about something that just happened or is happening now, with as verified and accurate data as possible and clearly establishing what we do not know; with audiovisual support and always-ready contact with reporters or commentators and experts. If someone over-stresses with these, he should not work in a place like this.
After a promising first season; the second one was confusing and weak. Too bad journalistic dynamic is intertwined with romantic relationships between some team members, including Will with his ex-girlfriend and current Executive Producer. This swing of romance encounters bugged me in general and took away much of the second season. But the third and final made it.
Sorkin, of course, had an advantage: the events in the series are real, live, but for the series writers they are past, so they could accommodate the subplots so history “proves them right”. Not withstanding, I see a successful attempt not to impose a too liberal an agenda. The show deliver bipartisan punches to both sides of the aisle.
The Bottom Line
What interested me in “Newsroom” is the (adaptation, coexistence, confrontation) between journalism and the digital world. The so called “old vs. new media”. Charlie Skinner (Waterston) has imposed an old-school standard (or let’s call it “timeless”): serious journalism, without sensationalism, verified by at least two balanced and neutral sources. This is why ACN is the least profitable unit of the group owned by Jane Fonda’s character. In the end, they do not care to make much money as long as the network maintains a high standard, especially away from the “tabloid” press.
However, there are moments of crisis when Skinner and McAvoy feel they have lost to complacency, to a lack of aggressiveness and innovation that spell death for a space like this.
Sorkin points his missiles to the Internet, where chaos reigns and user-generated content is usually confused with “citizen journalism”. You know, the belief that the picture of a protest with a long opinion text is essentially journalism. Sorkin denounces misinformation, dullness and triviality abounding in “new media”. In the Sorkinan world, “old school” is good school, providing credibility to the fictional venue.
In “Newsroom” there are many conflicts and arguments about how far professional journalism can leverage user-generated content (UGC). Can it be done without adversely affecting accuracy, verification, fact-checking? For example, there is a veiled criticism of the news portals living for web traffic, the so called “page views” rather than creating audience using the venerable and substantial journalistic investigations or analysis.
Excessive aggregation of third-party content is also criticized, opposite of home grown creations. This shock, or transition as I prefer to call it, reaches its apotheosis in the last season, when the company is hostilely bought out by young billionaire Lucas Pruit (BJ Novak), with radical ideas such as direct user-content-to-portal, aggregations of aggregations, a celebrities geo-tagging app… this would be (if I interpeter Sorkin) a desire to reach the avant-garde without passing through the classic. And that means accuracy, forensic science (which is not that fast) and resistance to rumor and/or tabloidism.
Anyway, as I derive, transition from “old” to “new” media news is temporary, a generational, technological and social reshuffling. It’s us who are in the middle. Judging by the end of “Newsroom”, in which Pruit capitulates his quest to transform ACN in a sensationalist 2.0 tabloid, it seems the future of great media venues will bear the dynamism and giddiness of technology, with the best of all-times journalism.
Featured Photo: Courtesy of HBO / Search Results in Google Images.
Published in Huffington Post, 23/12/2014.