At the end of last week’s premiere of HBO’s new series The Newsroom, cable news anchor Will MacAvoy (Jeff Daniels) agrees to a bold experiment intended to transform his popular primetime news show from annoyingly familiar infotainment into a news show with a sense of dignity and integrity. In tonight’s episode “Newsnight 2.0,” we get to view the beginnings of the new Newsnight‘s false start, not a complete failure, but not an instantly-transformed revelation in news programming either. Instead, Newsnight clumsily trips on its own feet through a series of missteps and screw-ups.
One of the things I like about The Newsroom is nothing is meant to appear effortless. Change, especially risky, big change, is often messy. And at the fictious ACN news network, where there are big egos and even bigger budgets at stake (not to mention past, present, and likely future romantic entanglements to negotiate), messy would be an improvement from the chaos wrought by disastrous comedy of errors.
Tensions between Will and Executive Producer Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer) are ratcheted up when she inadvertently reveals to the entire staff via misdirected email the real reason she and Will had broken up three years earlier (I think many of us can relate to sending this sort of unfortunate and embarrassing emails sent in error by mistakenly hitting “reply all”).
Very green Associate Producer Maggie Jordan (Allison Pill) blows a pre-interview, which results in the show losing the governor of Arizona as a pivotal guest the evening she signs the state’s controversial (and recently mostly overturned) “hand over your papers” law. The resulting broadcast is a train wreck, made worse by Will doing several end-runs around Mackenzie, allowing his personal irritation with her to affect his professionalism. And in the end, it is Mackenzie who must ask Will if he’s serious about the transformation, “Are you in or are you out?”
Will, still driven by his desire for high ratings (which runs counter to the new vision for Newsnight), is clearly not yet fully on board with Mackenzie’s way of doing things. It’s not that he doesn’t realize she’s right, and that creating a “real” news show is the right thing to do, but he is afraid of losing audience share and pissing off his base (which, by the way, leads to a hysterical moment when Will ties himself in knots in an attempt to make sense out of Sarah Palin’s nonsensical comments on the BP oil spill).
The question Will has to resolve for himself is whether he wants ratings to drive content or trust that excellent content will drive ratings in the right direction. Is he willing to take the risk of losing some of his audience to other cable news networks to broadcast the type of new hour he believes in, or is he such a “ratings whore” that he’s willing to compromise the news to maintain his ratings? Is he entertainer or journalist? That is the fundamental question. And it’s a good one.
What I think I’m going to like a lot about the series is that it seems (at least in its first two episodes) to raise some very important questions about cable news as it now exists. These are not new issues. Jon Stewart has ranted about the problems created by the 24-hour news cycle (and the pablum that often fills) it for years, beginning with his contentious 2006 appearance on CNN’s Crossfire, which led to the discussion series’ ultimate demise.
I’m excited to see these issues raised within the context of a weekly drama. They are important, especially in an election year when everyone is spinning and very little truth leaks through the morass of talking points, spin doctor spiels, and moral equivalency that often stands in for real news these days.
The guiding principles set out for the fictional Newsnight by Executive Producer Mackenzie highlight what is too often lacking on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC:
- Covered news stories provide information Americans need to know in order to be informed voters. Is it really breaking news that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes divorced? I remember when breaking news meant a story of national or worldwide importance. Up to the minute coverage usually signified a story of great implications.
- News will be provided in context (something often sacrificed, especially in foreign affairs), not as isolated blips, unaffected by history. Historical context is too often lacking, which makes it difficult for viewers to adqueately understand real implications of signficant news events, whether it’s a war or an economic collapse.
- Guests will be the best source to with a legitimate background to articulate each side of an argument in a controversial news story. Michelle Bachman (or Sarah Palin) are not experts. Is their take on any issue relevant other than as a sideshow?
- There are not always two sides to a news story. Sometimes there is right and wrong; even if wrong has an opinion, it’s not morally equivalent to the opposing side. It’s sloppy journalism to simply set two opposing sides against each other and watch them argue as if they both had a legitimate point. Sometimes right is just right. This is how the birthers got a foothold in legitimacy.
If The Newsroom even begins to get the conversation started and makes baby steps towards better delivery of the news, it will have had a major impact.
But lest you forget that The Newsroom is a drama and not a docu-drama, there is as much messiness on the relationship front as there is in transforming the way news is delivered. I love the tension between Will and MacKenzie; clearly there is rocky history between them, but there is also an awful lot of trust that lies deep. I am curious to see where their relationship goes, given Will’s ego and pride.
I’m enjoying the tentative relationship between reticent Senior Producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.) and Maggie. Although she is in a relationship with Will’s former executive producer Don (Thomas Sadoski), I think the embers smoldering between Jim and Maggie will spark as time goes on.
So? What did you think of this week’s The Newsroom? Is it just another drama, or does it have some potential for starting a very important national conversation about the way we receive our broadcast news? Let us know in the comments below.