The opening credits of HBO’s The Newsroom loop various shots of familiar graphics: “Special Bulletin,” “Special Report,” “Breaking News” along with shots of the most venerable of newsmen. There was a time when the rare use of one of those graphics with a serious news anchor gravely stating “This is breaking news!” would send alarm bells, catching the attention of anyone within listening range. It shouted “this is urgent; this is important.”
These days, at least on cable news, those jarring words are as likely to introduce the latest Hollywood divorce, the winner of Wimbledon, or a snowstorm (but only on the East or West Coast). There is no longer a sense of gravity, of urgency attached to “breaking news.” No sense of “stop whatever you’re doing and listen to this. You need to know it.”
But even when the story is important, like last year’s remarkable Egyptian revolution, the continuing coverage, wall to wall, 24/7, can either strip an event of its urgency as loops of the same (often horrific) scenes are played over and over again—or conversely inflate it so far beyond its immediacy, that other, immediate, important, yet not as showy stories are ignored completely.
One of the subtler messages of last night’s (and very little about The Newsroom is what I would call subtle) episode of The Newsroom concerns the cable news tendency towards coverage overkill.
Framed around the 2010 Congressional elections, this week’s episode “The 112th Congress” takes on the Tea Party and the Koch brothers. But within that main story thread, news anchor Will MacAvoy (Jeff Daniels, in a wonderful performance) and his team also touches on the thwarted May 1, 2010 Times Square bombing attempt. They gave the story a shade over three minutes, enough to cover it, but not enough to bring in talking heads to drone on about terrorism, Muslim extremism, and not enough time to bring in the usual left and right suspects to argue about whatever they might find as political fodder. They also pick up on a largely ignored fact, missed or ignored by mainstream media as they debated terrorism by Muslim extremists: the bomb was reported originally by a Senegalese Muslim immigrant.
Now I like Hardball as much as the next policy wonk. But this sort of coverage Inoculates people against what they should be paying attention to, bends facts into opinions, and inoculates people against the truly urgent news when it happens. Not everything is a matter of politics, and not everything—not most things—demand wall-to-wall coverage. And not everything news story is worth of being a news bulletin.
Less subtly, The Newsroom dives into the uneasy relationship between the news and the corporate entities that either sponsor or own it. Our freedom is closely tied to the existence of a free press (including broadcast, and even online, media). But what does that mean a “free press?” Does it only mean free of government control? Do we look at the old Soviet newspapers like Pravda or the government-controlled media in any number of countries run by dictators or the military and say proudly, “that’s not us?”
Or does a free press also mean free of influence from advertisers and corporate interests? Will makes an important point in his opening commentary when he reminds us of the agreement network news made with the government when those networks were established decades ago. For freedom of the airwaves, paid for by taxes, the networks are obliged to present one hour of news per day as part of their license agreements—to serve the public interest. Taking a stand that “Nothing is more important than a well-informed electorate,” he reminds his viewers.
But Will’s new, serious newsman persona clashes with the parent company (Atlantic Media Worldwide) and its CEO Leona Lansing (played by Jane Fonda, in the most ironic casting by any network this, or perhaps any, season). Unlike the free broadcast networks, cable cable networks have no such stated obligation. They are beholden to their viewers, without whom they would cease to exist—and their advertisers. That goes for entertainment programming as well as the news.
Cable news too often airs what the executives believe will bring in the viewers, the ratings and therefore the big bucks paid by advertisers. So we get wall-to-wall coverage of sensational news—disasters natural and personal, played out 24/7. The “big stories,” accompanied by horrific visuals often played ad infinitum drown out smaller, less overtly sensational, and sometimes much more important news that unfolds slowly, quietly, but no less importantly. Who has the biggest and best coverage of the latest crisis (complete with tag line and impressive logo and entrance music)? Who has the glossiest “experts” and high profile politicos to debate the relative merits of every angle ad nauseum?
On the other hand, how far does a news network have to go to avoid pissing off powerful political forces, whether influencers like the Koch Brothers or politicians who sit on critical Congressional subcommittees? But how does an electorate become informed if the content it’s fed is influenced either by advertising dollars, the fear of falling ratings, or by a parent company beholden to the good graces of powerful forces in (or outside) of the government, and how can we as news consumers know if and to what extent our news is being filtered or influenced by these pressures on news organizations. They shouldn’t be at all. That’s what a free press is all about.
Our nation is at a crossroads. There are big issues facing us about the way to take our country forward into this new century. We are desperately in need of a national conversation on everything from jobs to health care to climate change to education, and a whole slew of social and science issues. And cable news is in a unique position to both inform and feed the debate.
But we can’t seem to break through the shouting; we’ve lost the ability to “agree to disagree” and discuss civilly without attacking, swift boating or name-calling. Part of this is due to this increasing tendency to transform news in into contact sport.
But there is another issue, perhaps more critical, fueled by the incessant shouting matches when cable news shows substitute partisan sycophants for hardball interview. Call in two talking heads and let them have at it—all stands equal, no matter if there truly is a right and a wrong without the anchor stepping in to question the arguments of either side.
There is this seeming necessity to give the illusion of balance to every single issue, as if facts don’t matter, and right and wrong were merely opposite sides in a debate. In an important exchange during this week’s The Newsroom between news director Charlie Skinner (the great Sam Waterston) and CEO Leona, Skinner asserts, “We don’t pretend the facts are in dispute to give the illusion of fairness. Balance is irrelevant to me. It has nothing to do with truth, logic or reality.”
Giving a forum under the rules of balance to “birthers,” for example, gives them credence, inflating their importance in the the overall political debate, lending fuel to their supporters, and suggesting that they may have a point, despite the facts. Taken to an extreme, “balance” enables the “big lies,” which if told often enough and argued with enough vigor (and in the national media) by the true believers might actually gain steam. It’s an environment that gives equal weight in the argument to Michelle Bachman (R-MN) and a Harvard (or Yale, or Princeton) economist or law professor.
News is a public trust, and it is the job of the news is to stop the lies before they become big, despite the fact that might be “good” television. Television news is not “entertainment,” although these days, it often might as well be the WWE for news junkies. That’s as true for Fox News as it is increasingly for MSNBC (I’m sad to confess), and even CNN.
As much as I’m loving the hard news angle of The Newsroom, I’m equally enjoying the behind-the-scenes story threads. Not as strident as last week’s episode, the relationship games, now bumped ahead six months by the end of the episode are nowhere closer to resolution. I’m cheering for (as I’m sure we are meant to) for the charmingly shy senior producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.) to win over associate producer Maggie Jordan (Allison Pill). And clearly Will and Mackenzie (Emily Mortimer) have intense feelings for each other that will ultimately explode one way or another. And when they do… Okay, it’s predictable, but hey, I’m not all about the politics.
The Newsroom airs Sunday nights on HBO at 9:00 p.m.