It’s with a skeptical mind that I first watched the pilot episode of HBO’s The Newsroom. After all, I’m skeptical by nature. I’m a journalist, so it kind of comes with the job. And though the idea of a realistic portrayal of the broadcast journalism world seemed to draw me in almost immediately, I dismissed a good portion of it with a simple thought: it can’t be done. It can’t be recreated effortlessly, not even for such a dialogue demigod like Aaron Sorkin.
But this show, for all its flaws, does get some things right. And I don’t mean general vicinity, I mean nail-on-the-head accuracy.
Wait…flaws? A Sorkin special about the seedy underbelly of what broadcast journalism has mutated into…could have flaws? (My apologies for the usage of ellipses; we use them often in my job.) Well, yes. Most of these deal with character development and plot hole inaccuracies, but that’s for another day.
I’ve been watching The Newsroom since its beginning, but it wasn’t until the seventh episode, titled “5/1,” that I felt a unique kinship with the show, its message and its portrayal of a world I’ve made my home for the last four years. That’s because — for the first time in the television show’s run — I had a shared experience with what the characters were going through.
I work for a NBC affiliate in Mississippi. It’s a relatively small market, all things considered. It’s a far cry from New York City, and it doesn’t exactly deal with a 24-hour news cycle. Three days a week I report, and the other two I spend producing and anchoring newscasts. Yep, I’m a weekend anchor.
May 1, 2011, was as typical a Sunday as any. Arguably the most difficult day to plan of the week because of scarce story opportunities, we had been cruising toward the end of an ordinary work day.
A text from my news director boss changed all that, though. He told me — quite simply — something big was developing in the nation’s capital. Didn’t know what it was, but there were indications it was something related to national security and, as a result, President Obama would soon be addressing the nation. On a Sunday night.
“During primetime?” I thought. This must be a huge deal.
We were in the middle of one of our newscasts I produce for a FOX affiliate that shares space with us as well. Immediately after that, I gave the production crew a heads up that “something big was coming” and went into the newsroom to see what had been confirmed thus far. NBC, already in Special Report mode, had been speculating on what tonight’s speech would be about. Were terrorists planning to strike again? Had Gadhafi been assassinated?
Twitter feeds blew up with unconfirmed speculation until it started to leak that Osama bin Laden had been located and killed.
Networks continued to vamp what little details they knew until the President, having pushed his speech back several times that night, finally revealed to the American people what took place mere hours ago.
Lead anchor Will McAvoy — come hell or high water — is determined to report this story, but not until it’s confirmed, and the characters working for the Atlantis Cable Network go through a barrage of emotions as the news unfolds. One minor quip I have: McAvoy jumps on the air after receiving confirmation and finishes his on-air speech just as POTUS gets ready to address the nation. It’s incredibly unlikely, considering President Obama had already pushed his speech back a number of times that night, that McAvoy would confirm the news and rush to the airwaves with his seemingly pre-written monologue, finishing up right before the Commander-In-Chief speaks. Most others had to “vamp,” or ad-lib, until the President began speaking. It looked too polished to be authentic, but I digress.
Now at this point, I must interject that several of my journalism brethren will point at how “people don’t receive information that fast” or “too many people there have high-level ties that expand each episode’s storyline.” Okay, maybe I’ll concede that last point. My love for the show came from the echoes of a time where news anchors were taken seriously because they cut through all the bull and told you “that’s the way it was.” We’ve gotten far past that mark today, driven by profit to be sensationalistic echoes of the credible bastians of knowledge for which we were once known. Sorkin argues against that in nearly every episode, though. He drives home the main idea, the general belief, that, as executive producer Mac McHale puts it: “We can do better.”
Ethically, she’s right. And maybe that’s why some of the cries from much more well-known reporters, news gatherers and TelePrompTer readers seem to be so shrill: the idealistic portrayal of what broadcast journalism ought to be threatens many news organizations’ very existence.
Does the Atlantis Cable Network run with an errant, unconfirmed report just to be first with the news? No, especially not when it’s a story this big. In “I’ll Try to Fix You,” the same dilemma presents itself when a rogue NPR report erroneously reports former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died from that mass shooting at a Tucson, Ariz., mall. My point here is this: we — especially those entrusted to inform and educate others about what’s happening around us — can take so much away from this show.
And at times, the realism is eerily similar. Though we had far fewer in our newsroom that Sunday night than Charlie Skinner and Co. in New York — it’s a weekend newscast, after all — we managed to put a product on the air that was powerful. We opened with the first words from President Obama, that “the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda.” NBC rushed its bin Laden obit package to local affiliates across the country. Though the package itself was non specific so as not to appear dated (most obituary packages are done months in advance and held for when needed), it served us well at a point where more questions existed than answers. We closed the segment with a live satellite shot from the White House (again, provided by NBC) showing people gathered at the gates, chanting “USA! USA!” loudly. Those sentiments spoke largely to what many were saying across the nation.
Regardless of my political beliefs — which I won’t share here because I’m a journalist, and an ethical one at that — or my opinions about how this world was shaped after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, I can tell you the mood in the newsroom that night was one of almost complete disbelief. I remembered where I was the day the North and South towers fell in Lower Manhattan. I remembered what went through my mind when I heard the news nearly a decade later that the man responsible for that had been killed by Navy SEALS. We knew — as Skinner told others — that we were a small part of something we’d remember for the rest of our lives.
And however that thought began, it quickly turned into determination to present this in a way viewers would understand. Watching “5/1” brought all of that back. For all of its flaws, what The Newsroom does well, it does extremely well. The portrayal of the newsgathering process and adrenaline rush that accompanies these stories is faithfully recreated. Though the episode doesn’t have the emotional context that “I’ll Try to Fix You” did (mostly because the former was spread over an entire episode), it shows that Sorkin’s aiming in the right direction. And as long as he’s doing that, I will continue to watch.
Watching a television show — regardless of the genre — is almost like investing in a new relationship, isn’t it? You get caught up in the first episode, then maybe you see something you don’t like in subsequent ones, but if your love for the idea — for what the writers are trying to do — is enough, you’ll stick with it.
I have a degree of apprehension about season two, mostly because of the firing spree Sorkin initiated weeks ago. But keep churning out episodes I can relate to, episodes that reinforce the ideals that made me a journalist, and you’ll have a viewer for as long as you stay on the air.