WTVA’s C.J. LeMaster offers his take on Season 2 of HBO’s The Newsroom.
We Can Do It Better: An Editorial on Season Two of HBO’s The Newsroom
by C.J. LeMaster
Mackenzie McHale said it best last season: “We can do better.” It was a mantra the fictional executive producer and fiery Brit in HBO’s The Newsroom almost chanted in the hallways. News Night anchor Will McAvoy was on a mission to civilize, she wanted to turn the world of cable news on its head and — back to reality — show creator Aaron Sorkin was faced with a difficult dilemma: how do you do that?
By screwing up. I’m not talking about Sorkin’s strategy to fire nearly all of his writers going into season two, nor his acknowledgement in many trade publications that there were issues with the show’s first season. Many thought the cast and crew of the S.S. Atlantis Cable News needed a bit of course correction.
You see, those first ten episodes had moments of greatness — lots of them. Moreover, it painted ACN as the one news organization rowing against the current, trying to do the right thing, being accurate above all else.
True, the ping-pong nature of love interests and “will he, won’t he” questions tuned a good portion of people out, but those who stayed would come to understand the prestige that came from serving among McAvoy’s motley crew. You respected their talents and understood what they were trying to do.
That’s why season two is so incredibly important: McAvoy & Co. had to screw up. For this, Sorkin turned to the most basic of human tendencies, when you want something to be true so badly that you’ll distort the actual truth to satisfy that need.
Season two’s major plot device involves a good bit of fiction with a basis in reality: a report that American soldiers had used sarin gas on civilians during an extraction. You really can’t get a much more newsworthy story than something that involves war crimes with a major superpower.
Fill-in senior producer Jerry Dantana stumbles upon the tip from one of his sources in the first episode, and the operation — dubbed Genoa — slowly starts revealing itself as the veteran producer starts digging.
All the while, we’re treated to occasional flashforward scenes with lawyers and depositions, where ACN’s flagship news program is suddenly in hot water for a story that was simply not true.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because Sorkin borrowed this from something that got another cable network in trouble 15 years ago. CNN reported a similar event involving sarin and U.S. troops during the Vietnam War. It was later proven to be false, and several involved with the story were fired or reprimanded.
These scenes paint a very bleak future for ACN, with even the company’s lawyer proclaiming that “no one who was responsible for Genoa will ever work again.”
We know what’s going to happen, and we watch anyway, because we — like the members of the staff vetting this information — start to believe that it could have been a possibility in this fictional universe. Too many sources are confirming it; too many things are working in their favor. Veteran newsman and ACN news division president Charlie Skinner even starts buying in.
Then the big break comes when a three-star general comes forward. And this is where episode 6, “One Step Too Many,” lives up to his name. Dantana’s interview with the general suddenly flounders; the top military man won’t confirm they used sarin. After the interview, Dantana — partly because his own government distrust makes him want to believe so badly that Genoa is real, and partly out of pride as a journalist — doctors the interview with careful edits. This one event stands to undermine all of the circumstantial evidence they’d uncovered. Dantana had crossed the line through conscious manipulation of the facts.
But he’s not the only one who did so. Episode 7’s big reveal touted a top secret Washington source as leaking falsified information to Skinner because of a deep, personal grudge. That information — a manifest confirming the existence of military cargo in Genoa — was the only real tangible evidence they had.
A few episodes earlier, a hastily-created edit of the George Zimmerman 911 call by producer Maggie Jordan — where the resulting clip makes the neighborhood watchman sound like he’s engaging in racial profiling — even foreshadows what’s to come. Newshounds may remember the same thing happened in real life, involving a Miami-based NBC News producer who was fired as a result. Maggie’s mistake, innocent as it was, illustrates how easy that kind of manipulation can be.
Getting the story you want can be addicting. As a journalist for the last five years, I can attest to that. And as a reporter, you have to edit interviews for time. Most interviews last five to ten minutes on camera. Considering my final product has to be a little more than 90 seconds, I have to make snap editorial judgments every day and reduce those statements to what’s most relevant. Were there times I could take someone’s quotes out of context in the interest of time or a better story, and go about my day? Sure. It’s a risk you take each time you write a story, whether that’s for print or broadcast. But the reporters who do that end up with a less-than-stellar reputation and a harder time cultivating their sources for future stories. Eventually, those actions catch up with the ones who play fast and loose with the truth.
Dantana’s ethical betrayal speaks to the heart of that, undoing the good McHale cultivated when she waited before pronouncing Rep. Gabrielle Giffords dead from an erroneous NPR report in season one, ripping apart the foundation News Night and its characters have worked so hard to establish. And this news organization vetted and verified the Genoa story for eleven months.
Several months ago, I praised Sorkin’s first-season take on the death of Osama bin Laden (“5/1”) for the realism and attention to detail provided in those tense newsroom moments. And I have to admit; when I saw the first couple of episodes for this new season, I wasn’t completely sold. Fictional news story as plot device? Why? The show’s best when it takes these real events and weaves a delicate web throughout. Wait…there’s a new introduction minus Walter Cronkite? Why? That was a tip of the hat to the greats. It was a look at “the way it was,” to borrow from the signoff Cronkite used to end just about every broadcast.
He was right. Looking back, “the way it was” is a far cry from the way the industry is today. Thanks to the power of the Internet — and social media, in particular — we can stay connected more than ever before. And that’s when I realized subtle clues in each episode that pointed to the slow-but-steady decline of the newsroom’s attention to detail, from little things like blowing the fact check on a Dominique Strauss-Kahn story to the Zimmerman audio edit. Dantana’s deceptiveness on Genoa’s biggest interview brings that all to a head, a point of no return. His actions prove that he’s willing to do just about anything to prove the story is legitimate, even if those actions end up contradicting that in the long run.
The landscape of cable news is far beyond Cronkite’s world decades ago. Sorkin’s decision to change the show’s introduction came out of a need to convey urgency, that these faceless news gatherers have to get the word out immediately. Faster pace, less time to dwell on the pillars of the past. All the time in the world for context or proper vetting matters not when hidden agendas surface. And unfortunately, in Dantana’s case, there’s no time or patience for pesky details like the truth.
Was it an “institutional failure,” as McAvoy called it? Perhaps. Is that an inherent problem in journalism today? It could be. Will they gain the trust of the American people back again? Ah, now that’s where it gets interesting going forward. But here’s my mantra: they had to screw up. The news team that vowed to do things the right way had to drop the ball here. The season had to have a catalyst so strong, it would throw everything into jeopardy, and bring a rallying cry worthy of the season’s final two episodes.