Friday, August 03, 2012

The Newsroom - My Take

Jeff Daniels is a month younger than me.  Somewhere (but where?) I know I've written that for people my age I used to believe that what they can do I should be able to do too.  Yet the character he plays in the show, Will McAvoy, does some things as part of his ordinary function that I'm sure I couldn't do.  One is to keep an earpiece in during the broadcast which is a one-way pipe from the show's executive producer, who on occasion articulates aggressive instructions, and yet not respond back but nevertheless formulate original questions for the guests on the show.   Another is to have in the workplace mainly people who are half your age with very few peers age-wise or experience-wise.  The lead-in of the show has first Edward R. Murrow and then Walter Cronkite.   Murrow was before my time but with Cronkite I did watch his show.  So I know there was also Harry Reasoner, Roger Mudd, Dan Rather, many other seasoned reporters and as commentator Eric Severeid.  That's an awful lot of experience in a certain style of reporting.  In The Newsroom that experience seems lacking.   Perhaps that's closer to reality nowadays, especially for a cable network that is "up and coming."  I don't know.  I do think I'd have trouble  in such a setting where there is a need to supply sensibility and journalistic backbone.  I'd want to test my thinking with other senior leaders rather than have the burden squarely on my shoulders.

For actual TV news, my loyalty is to the PBS NewsHour, but the viewing has been less satisfying as of late.  As a rule they do better on international news or on domestic news stories that don't concern domestic politics.   Their stories about domestic politics feel forced and incomplete.  On the international stories the guests are often experts who are external to the situation.  When this is the case the guests usually agree with one another and support the points made by the other.  As a viewer one typically has the feeling that there is a value add in these segments.  This guest opinion frequently gives insight that haven't already been obtained beforehand from elsewhere.  On the domestic politics, however, the experience is quite different.  There are frequently elected representatives on the show, in which case there surely is both a Democrat and a Republican.  They often disagree and mainly seem to speak from a script.  The NewsHour interviewer maintains steadfast neutrality in this disagreement.  As a consequence there seems to be an absence of tough follow up questions.  When one of the guests makes a point attacking the other side, the interviewer simply passes the point as a question (....what about....?) to the other representative.  The response often doesn't actually address the question but does give the speaker time to echo the party line on the issue.   It would be far better to have consecutive but separate interviews, one with the Democrat, the next with the Republican (or vice versa), with the interviewer somewhat skeptical in approach in each interview.  The Fourth Estate is supposed to be a counter force to political power; so the skepticism would be in keeping with that.  I can only guess at to why the consecutive interview approach is not taken - somehow it would be criticized as unfair. 

I wonder how many viewers of The Newsroom also watch the PBS NewsHour.  In any event, I think this HBO series takes as its main premise that many of the viewers are like me dissatisfied with how domestic politics gets reported on the news and would like to see a substantive improvement.  Further, having been a huge fan of The West Wing and not having found something after it ended that fits the same viewing need, particularly in terms of pace of dialog and juxtaposition of the various subplots, I think the main other premise is to give West Wing fans what they want in terms of style of show, though in an entirely different context.  On this the show delivers. 

However, there seem to me to be a variety of important background issues that the show avoids that make it too less than completely satisfying.  Television is probably not a good medium for investigative journalism.  In many cases good sources, insiders who know the truth about something important, want to preserve their anonymity.  They don't want to go on the air for an interview.  They "leak" information, typically information that is damaging to power.   Their motives may be public spirited or sinister or still something else and that impacts their credibility.  A good reporter understands that's a big issue and therefore tries hard to triangulate the information via multiple independent sources, if at all possible.  TV news wants sources who will go on the record.  Therefore TV news has a bias away from investigative journalism and toward news about publicly available events where there are spokespersons or about news analysis where the source are experts who are not insiders. 

A second issue relates to wanting to give a thumbs up or thumbs down on a story rather than provide a more nuanced view with multiple perspectives.  This desire for a summative judgment on a story is exacerbated in The Newsroom by Will McAvoy being a former prosecutor and taking a prosecutorial style in his interviews.  In reality TV news is biased in this direction because of the relatively short segments which in themselves preclude getting a deeper understanding of what is going on and the need to present expert evidence in a way that it is accessible by a layman.  In other words, a social scientist expert on an issue may in her own research refrain from a summative judgment because of the underlying complexity of the situation, but TV news in particular wants to force a quick conclusion.  If The Newsrorom is supposed to be a tonic for the PBS NewsHour as well as for Fox News and MSNBC, it needs to recognize the limitations of the medium that make it similar to the latter two, even when not trying to do so.

A third issue is on the question "what is news?"  The various networks engage in a kind of Hotelling Competition and in that way end up covering essentially the same stories.  There may be a race for which station is first with a particular story or which can present its news analysis in the most appealing way.  But you don't get much variety regarding topics by switching channels.  When the story is an earthquake or a set of tornadoes, this is understandable as the destruction done is compelling news.  Otherwise, it is far less clear.  The Newsroom makes a point about how that station covers the news, in contrast to how the other stations do it.  But it makes no claims about what to cover.  I have to wonder why.

I thought the show was okay on the issue that nowadays, in our increasingly plutocratic society, power is frequently private rather than governmental in its origin, and that as a commercial enterprise the news network might very well find conflict of interest over a story about a person or corporation with which the network has a business interest.  Here okay means the issue was raised, at some length, early on in the series.  No real solution is presented, but it may be that no real solution exists.  I thought there was some irony in casting Jane Fonda in a cameo role as the owner of the network.  In a former life she was known to be quite critical of people in power.  She was reasonably good as the owner, whose business interests seemed equally important or more important than her ethical judgments.  The owner's character seems to be the lynchpin on this issue.  Given the social importance of an independent fourth estate that operates with integrity, it certainly appears to be a fragile mechanism for delivering the public good.

Let me conclude on a mildly frivolous note.  Aaron Sorkin seems to think with economists you can fantasize in ways to give them superhuman powers.  In The West Wing, President Bartlet was a Nobel Prize winning economist in addition to being a politician.  In the Newsroom Sorkin again lets his imagination run away with him by having an economist as commentator, Sloan Sabbith, who is also a very attractive woman.  She is hired for the show because she combines these two elements.  Curious on this point, I did a Google search.  Evidently, it's a thin market (ha ha)!  Taken Sorkin's fantasizing to heart, perhaps next up are economists who double as TV or film critics.  For the time being, I seem to have that market cornered.

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