THE NEWSROOM RECAP 5: AMEN

THE NEWSROOM RECAP 5: AMEN

This episode of The Newsroom was the closest the show's ever come for me to doing what I think it wants to be doing: effectively interweaving accounts of principled reporting and the ethical dilemmas of journalism with snappy explorations of its characters' personal lives. Unfortunately, it founders on the same shoals it always does: MacKenzie's and idiot, and Will thinks it's all about him. This week, the reasons we know that Atlantis, the company that owns News Night, is a Fictional News Paradise of Legend are that its gossipy morning show makes a real effort to teach its viewers about a substantive media conflict of interest, and that it took almost a year for one of more than 100,000 people who received a hugely embarrassing email about major figures in the organization to figure out that it might be of interest to media reporters. Not to mention that it’s truly hilarious to think that anyone wouldn’t have known Will and MacKenzie dated when they were together because journalists are notorious gossips, a quality you’d think would be catnip to Sorkin.

nullBut no, the real problem here is the rift between the rest of the episode and Will’s defense of MacKenzie to Nina, a reporter, when he has been tipped off by Gary, the Smart Black Guy Who Isn’t Afraid to Criticize Obama, Validates Jim’s Seduction Techniques, and Also Has a Sideline in Bribery, that TMI takes payoff money from celebrities. “I hired the best EP in broadcasting in spite of her being my ex-girlfriend,” Will tells Nina, who he believes is going after him for sexually slighting her at New Year’s (never mind insulting her job), in angrily warning her to step away from his staff. But nothing in the show indicates that. In fact, everything we see indicates that MacKenzie is a disastrously ill-informed and naive woman.

She misses that her boyfriend Wade is using her to prep for a Congressional run, which would be a heartbreaking tale about a skeptical journalist letting down her guard and being disappointed if she didn’t know so little about everything else. She confesses to Sloan that her economics knowledge only extends as far as thinking “a lot of what’s going on in the world has to do with the economy,” and that her oversight of the economics statements she’s producing consists of the following: “I pretend to read what you give me, then I nod.” Her response to the news that the Army is filling the power void in Egypt? “The army’s not the good guys?” All of this might have been cute for Mary Richards back in the days when she was still ordering Brandy Alexanders during job interviews, but there’s something distasteful about Sorkin’s asking us to buy incompetence in the guise of dizzy adorability. Nina would be justified in investigating MacKenzie’s utter lack of qualifications even if there weren’t ethical lapses in her current performance or errors of judgment in her past.

This glaring contradiction is doubly unpleasant because it sullies the best job The Newsroom’s done so far at actually showing the challenges and pains of directing correspondents on the ground from a cable control room. The reason the coverage of Tahrir Square works is that Will and his team don’t magically discover a major scoop simply because they care about it more than anyone else, or avoid a major error because they’re so much more ethical than their competitors. The episode is, instead, largely about process and the dangers of reporting in a war zone.

First, Elliot and Don’s frustrations, which have been boiling since election night when Don urged Elliot to jump into the scrum of commentary, end up having real consequences. Elliot, who’s been confined to his hotel room giving useless broadcasts that add nothing to the network’s coverage of Egypt, hits the streets after Don’s pestering, and is badly beaten by the crowd. On his return, Don wants to put him on the air for reasons related both to public interest and his own interest. “We show what’s going on. Journalists are getting beaten up,” he urges Charlie, Will, and MacKenzie. “I know that we’re not the story. But Jesus, goddamnit, nobody else is going to know . . . In the media, we’re all effete, elitist assholes.” In a show that’s all about trying to paint a journalist as hero, this is the first moment that’s effectively captured the anxieties of reporters about their standing in the wider world, and the risk and guilt that accompany those times when journalists are recognized by the broader public for their personal accomplishments.

And the show navigates a more difficult set of emotions skillfully, too. “I sent him down there. I bullied him into going out into the street and they beat him up with a rock,” Don confesses to Will. “I know. Everybody knows,” Will tells him, before getting at the petty kind of thinking that can plague journalistic accomplishment. “We’re all jealous it isn’t us with the bruises on our face. You didn’t give him an order. You gave him permission.” That kind of emotion, or the self-congratulatory sequence after the show when the News Night team managed not to disastrously screw up their reporting on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting, are interesting, ambiguous places to be, the actual baseline people like Will and his staff are trying to rise above. It’s not really gossip columnists and media reporters who make up the Pit from which decent newsmen must rise. Instead, it’s their own venality.

But The Newsroom, sadly, can’t linger there, in that rich and ambiguous place. No, it has to end with a recreation of Rudy. After an Egyptian stringer is taken prisoner, so upsetting the News Night staff that they repeatedly injure themselves and corporate refuses to ransom the young man, Will insists on paying for his rescue. Because the self-injuries have to be seen to be believed, watch below:

This all might have been more effective had Will not already tried to bribe Evil Nina, and in a prior episode, privately paid for the cab rides of an undocumented immigrant so the man could get to his job. And it might have worked even better if it was a subsequent attempt to create a complicity between Neal and Will, who ridicules Neal’s internet abilities and obsessions much of the time, but who does seem to respect the younger man’s skills and passion. But no, it has to be about how the whole staff does their bit to pay Will, who makes $3 million a year, for his act of generosity, and then celebrates him publicly.

It’s amazing that a man, and the show that celebrates him, can recognize any news when they spot it, given how much time Will and The Newsroom spend in a self-regarding set of funhouse mirrors that seem to reflect only the most flattering version of Will back to him.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for ThinkProgress.org. She is a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com and The Loop 21. Alyssa grew up in Massachusetts and holds a BA in humanities from Yale University. Before joining ThinkProgress, she was editor of Washingtonian.com and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in Esquire.com, The Daily, The American Prospect, The New Republic, National Journal, and The Daily Beast.

THE NEWSROOM RECAP 3: THE 112TH CONGRESS

THE NEWSROOM RECAP 3: THE 112TH CONGRESS

As much as I believe Aaron Sorkin is, to some extent, correct about the brokenness of our news system, as I’ve watched The Newsroom, I’m finding myself increasingly sympathetic with the people he’s angry at, the ones who knuckle under to commercial pressure and the terms of their contracts as Will McAvoy and the News Night team rise above them. I absolutely agree that established stars like McAvoy should use their power and influence to emphasize facts and to elevate worthy stories. But it turns out to have been pretty easy for MacKenzie and Jim to convince Will that he should be a different kind of newsman and to give him the words to help him do it. The person who’s going through an internal struggle that turns out to be compelling here, the one who doesn’t have Charlie standing as a barrier between him and pressure from Leona and Reese, and the one Sorkin wants me to hate, is Don, my new favorite character.

nullAfter Will’s epic on-air apology for falling down on the job, Don sits down to have a heart-to-heart with Jim, who has effectively replaced him. “I would have loved to be part of that. I could have done the show you guys want to do. I’m equipped for that,” he confesses. “You’ve got a mandate. Bring viewers to ten o’clock. I don’t . . . I have to cover Natalee Holloway. And you guys set me up to look like an asshole before I even got started.” Don is like Will, to a certain extent, a talented man who succumbed to the pressure to put on a show that was likable rather than substantive. But unlike Will, he’s relatively anonymous. He could be fired and Elliot’s show would keep ticking on without him. If Don is going to live in hopes of being able to make the kind of show that Jim and MacKenzie are making for Will, he has to keep his job. And that means kowtowing to a lot of unattractive people’s unattractive senses of what counts as news.

Jim doesn’t seem to understand that his mandate to do good news is a luxury, rather than something he just woke up and decided to do. He begins telling Don that he can just do a good show if he wants before they’re interrupted. Then, he mocks Don later, telling him “You guys did a good show tonight. I wasn’t aware of what was going on with the McRib sandwich.” I kind of don’t blame Don for telling Jim, “Yeah, go fuck yourself.”

And I’m not even sure Jim gets the message later when Maggie, in one of the few moments in The Newsroom where a woman gets to explain something to a man, tells Jim that Don’s failure has more complex roots than Jim acknowledges. “Don’s hands are tied,” Maggie says. “He got marching orders to get the ratings up at ten. And he’s driving a different car than McAvoy. Elliot’s smart, but he can’t do what McAvoy does. Plus, his salary’s tied to ratings.” That, not a studied, cowardly commitment to blandness for its own sake, is the reality of cable news—and the actual source of journalism’s problems.

Will can pontificate all he wants about the fact that the federal government didn’t insist that the networks provide several hours of ad-free news programming every night. But the reality is that it “failed to include in its deal the one requirement that would have changed our national discourse for the better.” And as gratifying as it would be to watch anchors and their producers get mad as hell and refuse to take it anymore, The Newsroom is a more interesting show when it actually explores what happens to people who buck their mandates and see what they can do within the limits of their contracts than it is when it focuses on Will’s ridicule of Tea Party activists and beauty queens.

We almost see an example of that kind of struggle during election night coverage, when Don tries to fire up Elliot, who’s doing his best not to influence the network’s analysis. “I am in there doing everything I can to get Mac to get him to go to you, and he is doing it,” Don grumbles to his boss. “He is inviting you to become a star. Would you stop being so fucking enthralled with the act of punching a ballot?” Instead of acknowledging that Don has a point, though, Elliot pulls rank on him. And instead of having the two men talk about Elliot’s brand, or Elliot’s desire to occupy the space Will left open with his conversion, the closest the writers give us is Elliot’s telling Don “Let me also say, I’m not the one who wants to be a star, Mama Rose.”— Sorkin has Elliot blame Don’s frustrations not on the quality of the news they’re putting out, but on Don’s romantic troubles. It’s a weird punt of what could have been a fascinating journalistic moment.

We do get some sense later that Will’s new approach may be in trouble, in the form of Atlantis CEO Leona (the allusion to Leona Helmsley cannot possibly be unintentional). “What happened to human interest stories?” she grouses at a meeting with Charlie, who thus far has protected Will from her wrath, and Reese, who we learn is her son. “Obesity, breast cancer, hurricanes, older women having babies, iPhones. He was great at that shit.” I don’t think Sorkin intended it this way, but her reminder to Charlie that “You don’t make money for stockholders, which I have a fiduciary responsibility to do” is a sharp puncturing of MacKenzie’s disdain for ratings, something Will warned Charlie about and that Charlie embraced.

Sorkin, and by extension MacKenzie, Charlie, and Will, may not like that news is a business, particularly not part of a large international conglomorate with interests that require Congressional approval and working relationships with major industrialists. But in the absence of an alternative model to pay Will’s staff and get him access to the airwaves, this is the environment he has to work in. Being obsessed with ratings, as Will was before MacKenzie got to him, may have been unattractive. But pretending that they don’t exist, or that Atlantis is a business rather than a non-profit, is to ignore that Leona’s interests and the show’s overlap. Leona has a duty to the shareholders to keep bringing in revenue, but she also needs her business to make money so she can keep paying out Will’s fat contract and the decidedly more meager salaries of his employees. And as we see in this clip, she’s thought through the business end of this proposition more thoroughly than Will, Charlie, and MacKenzie have:

In pursuing a new approach to news, Will’s been pretending the rules of the business don’t really apply to him. Neither he nor the show acknowledges that their revolution can’t possibly last if they don’t find a way for it to be financially sustainable. Now, in Leona’s parlance, he’s going to have to start playing golf, and find a way to make the machinery of the system work for him, and for the people who depend on him for their jobs.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for ThinkProgress.org. She is a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com and The Loop 21. Alyssa grew up in Massachusetts and holds a BA in humanities from Yale University. Before joining ThinkProgress, she was editor of Washingtonian.com and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in Esquire.com, The Daily, The American Prospect, The New Republic, National Journal, and The Daily Beast.