Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Irresponsible Information Custodians

We have set the DVR to record The Newsroom.  I watched the most recent episode yesterday.  (I believe it is the fifth episode of the second season.)  While understanding that a show like this needs to generate a certain amount of tension to hold the story line, it seemed that in this episode every character had a major headache.  During the show I started to ask myself - why should I care about this stuff?

Part of that reaction might be me.  My lower back had again flared up after doing too much (of the wrong sort of) exercise over the weekend.  My back was doing fine the day before, so I've been trying to return to normal and even to improve my routine a bit.  The larger routine now seems to have this cycle of improvement, more exercise, then return of pain.  I'd like to figure out how to delete that last bit.  In the meantime, television is supposed to be an escape from life's cruelties.  In that capacity, this show wasn't working for me. 

Nevertheless, the story line raised some serious issues that I'd like to explore here.  Most of the headaches I mentioned above emerge because somebody else not in the recurring story of the show had information about one of the show's main characters - a video, photos, a conversation that could be taken out of context.  These other people had a type of power, one you'd associate with blackmail.  But rather than use the information to extract something from the main character, they simply release the information via social media.  They are motivated by a need for self-promotion or, in one case, wanting to embarrass the main character as a kind of vendetta.  The embarrassment happens, sure enough, and that is followed by anger. 

At some point, watching angry people ceases to be entertainment.  But it still might be educational.  The message might be this.  We have trust relationships with so many people and/or have incidental contact with people during rather important moments that we'd like to keep private thereafter.  The result is that these others "have the goods" on us.  The press has spent so much time on Snowden and NSA capturing our phone calls that it has diverted attention from this other reality.  This particular episode demonstrates the potential risk of having all that information out there in other people's hands.  Quite possibly they don't have our interests at heart, nor even a shred of common decency. 

The show may overstate the risk for most of us, who are not television personalities.  But as several of the characters involved in the production of the news have been negatively impacted by the injudicious release of information, and those characters are not so publicly visible, the show makes the point that each of us bears this risk to some degree. 

Now to a couple of related points.  More than any other show that I'm aware of, including Aaron Sorkin's other big show The West Wing, the Newsroom has the characters talk quickly.  (On The West Wing, the Josh Lyman character walked particularly quickly as did many of the other leading characters.)   Originally I thought the quick talking was a theatrical way to signify the character was intelligent.  Further, since the quick talk was usually in dialog, the other person in the conversation had to process the quick talk.  Doing so and then responding in kind illustrated rapid recognition.  I've not been particularly enamored with this "trick" because in actuality my experience has been that there is no relationship between speed of speech and intelligence.  And since as a writer I'm well aware that a good part of the job is to make the message intelligible to the reader, I'd guess that any experienced person with an ounce of smarts would figure out much the same regarding their talking. 

Since Sorkin is a smart guy, this never added up for me, till yesterday's show.  I then began to see the rapid talk as a kind of badge.  It is a badge not unlike the type that triathletes wear, to signify their endurance and commitment.  The rapid speech is there to show the character's intensity.  All the leading roles have an enormous amount of drive.

Couple this with that in the show all the leading characters are single and on the make, except Charlie Skinner, and you get a set of pre-conditions for which the irresponsible release of information becomes likely.  A show like this needs to have some within office romance, a soap opera component if you will, because the viewers like that and expect it.  But here it happens in an over the top manner. 

So you have the executive producer of the show, MacKenzie McHale, having had a former thing with the show's anchorman, Will McAvoy.  (Until writing this I hadn't note the Mc affinity in their names.)  They now are supposedly bound by a professional work relationship, but she has no qualms whatsoever in playing his surrogate mother, in order to release his hidden angels.  He has a need to be the journalist qua prosecutor, his professional persona.  Sometimes that blocks his more human side.  It makes sense as a story line, but as a guide to real world professional relationships it is godawful.

Then there is the relationship that should have been but wasn't between Jim Harper, the senior producer, and Maggie Jordan, an associate producer and subordinate to Jim at work.  They know way too much about each other's social life and from time to time that leads to awkward expression, giving the feeling of rubbing salt in a wound. 

In this episode there is a third couple in the making. Each has witnessed the other being victim of irresponsible release of information and has lent a friendly shoulder for the other to lean on.  The first is Sloan Sabbith, a financial reporter and a rising star as a news anchor.  The other is Don Keefer, another executive producer.  It sure seems they will be girlfriend and boyfriend by within the next few episodes, the irresponsible release of information having made for a suitable bonding experience. 

Anger may be the emotion of the times in which we live.  All of us now have unprecedented means for making information very public.  The combination is extraordinarily frightening.  Do even the most virtuous act responsibly when they are angry?  We are so afraid of Big Brother.  We should be afraid of ourselves. 

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