It should come as no surprise to long-time readers that I am absolutely loving Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom on HBO. In fact, considering some of my latest columns, new readers probably aren’t surprised, either.
For the uninitiated, The Newsroom is Sorkin’s fantasy on how a cable news network ought to behave. I will grant, right from the start, that his fictitious Atlantic Cable News (ACN) has no place in reality. The likelihood of any network -- cable or otherwise -- allowing its prime time news hour to work the way ACN’s News Night does.
And that’s a shame, because it really is a great example of what this country could really use: a news program that “tells the truth,” as anchor Wil McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and his executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) put it in the pilot.
Those of you who are media savvy know the story of the pilot’s opening minutes. For those of you who don’t, it’s one of the most stirring scenes of someone fighting back against the liberal vs. conservative agenda punditry I can’t stand.
For years, McAvoy has risen the ranks of network news because he never offends anyone, never gives his opinion. While participating on a panel on American politics at a college campus, McAvoy is asked “Why is America the greatest country in the world?”
“It’s not,” he answers, and proceeds to explain why from a kind of “I’m a Republican but not a tea party-er” point of view. McAvoy says the National Endowment for the Arts is a “loser” and that people don’t like liberals “because they lose.” He remminds the pundits that they shouldn’t tell the students we’re the only country in the world with freedom because Canada, Japan, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, Belgium -- about 180 countries have freedom.
To the student who asked the question in the first place, McAvoy points out that (in 2010, when the episode takes place) America was seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, fourth in labor force and fourth in exports. He goes on to say that America leads in only three categories: the “number of incarcerated citizens per capita, the number of adults who believe angels and defense spending.... So when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t what the f--- you’re talking about. Yosemite?”
It takes a few fictional weeks to understand, but when McAvoy returns to work, his ex-girlfriend (McHale, played by Mortimer) is hired to be his executive producer. They decide that instead of giving American cable news viewers what they want they’ll give them what they need: the truth about any issue regardless of the ratings and regardless of political talking points.
The crew -- and therefore actors -- backing McAvoy/Daniels and McHale/Mortimer up are whip-smart, as is the writing. John Gallager Jr. plays Jim Harper, a producer McHale brings along. He develops feelings for Maggie Jordan, played by Alison Pill, recently promoted to associate producer. Thomas Sadoski is Don Keefer, News Night’s former producer who keeps coming back to help out (and Maggie’s boyfriend). Dev Patel plays Neal Sampat, the resident techie who covered London’s Underground bombings with a camera phone; rising star Olivia Munn is Sloan Sabbith, an economist with the network with a host of degrees but barely any social skills; and -- one of my favorites -- Sam Waterston as ACN News Division President Charlie Skinner.
I’ve watched the first five episodes so far and they have been hands-down fantastic. In the pilot, ACN is the only network to put the pieces together on how awful the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. Other episodes go after the tea party (despite McAvoy’s Republicanism; or, more succintly, because of his brand of moderate Republicanism), Arizona’s immigration law, gun laws in the wake of the former Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords’ shooting, and even how to cover something like the Arab Spring from Tahrir Square.
Like any good hour-long drama, the show is as much about the characters as the issues tackled. The interplay between Gallager and Pill as Jim and Maggie is achingly cute while still focusing on their and their fellow journalists’ take on the news they’re trying to cover. Daniels and Mortimer are superb as former lovers who are trying hard to be professional to bring the truth to the small screen.
But the focus is the news, and each episode is instructive in not only how things get done, but how they should be done. No less than Dan Rather, who’s reviewed episodes for The Gawker website, says The Newsroom shows what really happens in a newsroom -- from the office romances to the decisions journalists have to make every day.
One of those struggles is to call a lie ... a lie. The Giffords episode tightly focuses on this as McAvoy (remember, he’s a Republican) points out very, very strongly that folks like Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachman, Glenn Beck and others are lying when they say President Obama is going to take away all our guns.
McAvoy and Co. show it’s a lie by pointing out that Obama has gotten all F’s on gun control measures.
I’ll make this easy. If you loved Sorkin’s view of the White House on The West Wing, you owe it to yourself to see The Newsroom. It’s an example of how newsrooms across the country -- even print ones like ours -- ought to make the right calls.