So Aaron Sorkin is redoing The West Wing, but this time in a newsroom. The West Wing redid the Clinton administration, but better, with everyone making the right decisions for the right reasons despite their charming and lovable personal failings. In the same way, HBO's Newsroom gives us a set of high-minded, hyper-educated, East Coast elite liberals (in some cases disguised as Republicans, snort) play-acting their way through the past two years, but—with the benefit of hindsight—presenting it the way it should have been given to us the first time around. The BP oil spill is recognized instantly as a major crisis, and is announced as such, with no one worrying about being sued. Arizona's immigration bill is instantly recognized as a civil-liberties disaster. The Koch Brothers' takeover and bankrolling of the high-minded original Tea Party, dragging the Republican Party far to the right, is made headline news every single night. (Someone over there has been reading AlterNet's Adele Stan and her prescient and ongoing coverage; Addie, I hope you're getting royalties!)
It's so easy for a journalist to hate this show. Everyone is smart and high-minded all the time. Even the bad guys have clear and articulable motives for their low aims: keeping a job, keeping the larger network alive, keeping decent relations with Congress. And they talk about it all so brilliantly, spitting their core philosophy back and forth in rapid-fire irony, just like something out of the 1940s movie His Girl Friday, or like the Saturday Night Live parody thereof. In keeping with those screwball comedy ancestors, Newsroom's true-love "A" couple (the anchor Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, and his executive producer MacKenzie McHale, played by Emily Mortimer) are separated for highly decent and understandable reasons, enabling all kinds of ongoing sparks and adorable miscommunications. The "B" couple (their seconds, Jim Harper and Margaret Jordan), ditto.
And at first, I, too, disliked it, for all the reasons every journalist I know did. Let's start with the fact that the newsroom drama is playing fast and loose with the rules and practices of journalism. Breaking news gets broken by television, and they do their own reporting instead of lifting things from newspapers. An intern says she's found an absolutely critical source on a story with national urgency and the source is rushed live, on air, with no fact-checking, no pre-screening by someone more senior, no check on his credentials, no legal review—no legal review! (That sound you hear is my teeth chattering because my head is spinning.) It makes news decisions look so simple, so righteous, so unambiguous. It replays and oversimplifies the discussions we've been having with each other, behind the scenes, for years now, about the Importance of news for a democracy, about the deterioration of standards because of advertisers, competition, and corporate entanglements with power, as if you could easily identify right and wrong. And who can stand having all those better-than-you-are characters—smug, histrionic, drop-dead-gorgeous, ironed, and well-dressed (seriously? have you ever met a reporter?)—playing better versions of us.
But it's getting some nice viewership—among people who know nothing about the news. Let me refer to my personal focus group here: My wife the prosecutor loves it. So do her colleagues and friends. These are people who know absolutely nothing about news, or people who never glanced at a byline, or people who think of reporters as buzzards or enemies of justice. These are people who have never heard of the ideals that journalism sets for itself, or about the debates we've been feverishly having among ourselves. They don't necessarily know about the institutional conflicts behind journalism's deterioration: the corporate owners who have business before Congress, the competition for ratings, the sheer drudgery and expense of digging out the facts. Newsroom is making us look smart and glamorous, just as the West Wing did for White House wonks. Let's turn off the filter for a few minutes and enjoy the snap-talking, high-drama version of our lives. Because that's what we're all really like inside, right?