Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Baby, The Bath Water, and The Newsroom

That is the greatest fallacy, the wisdom of old men. They do not grow wise. They grow careful.
Ernest Hemingway (1899 - 1961)

Here's a bit of a confession.  I loved The West Wing and continue to watch episodes of it on Netflix from time to time. It is "comfort food" for those with a Liberal inclination, even if it is also now somewhat dated.  The story lines remain compelling.  Yet never did I think of The West Wing as real social commentary or as somehow telling us about the politics that we should want.  The episode where President-elect Matt Santos chooses his opponent in the general election, Arnie Vinick, to be the next Secretary of State did seem to foreshadow President Obama's selection of Hillary Clinton.  That is the exception that proves the rule.  Though it might be no exception at all, as at the time of this choice there was mention in the press of Lincoln's selection of Seward and that may have provided the real model for President Obama. 

This brings me to The Newsroom and how this particular fan of the Newsroom sees that show. The use of the word "fan" in the previous sentence may be a stretch.  I do watch the show, but I don't love the show like I loved The West Wing.  Indeed, I often don't like the show.  But that's for a very specific reason.  The underlying theme of the show is whether an in-your-face style of TV journalism and indeed characters who lead an in-your-face style of life, both in work and in romance, is compatible with an ethical approach.  The show asks further whether the ethical piece is necessary, given that so many others are also in-your-face in their behavior sans ethics.

The appeal of in-your-face TV journalism to serious elements of the audience, both Fox News and MSNBC practice it even if those channels show little concern for "balance", is that other real life news programs that persist in a more staid approach and do aim for balance, notably the PBS NewsHour, seem incapable of dealing with those in government who are Tea Party members.  As interviewees, these people would stonewall on the show and deliver responses that didn't address the questions of the interviewer.  Given that, viewers like me wished the interviewer would have adopted a more prosecutorial tone, to get the interviewee to offer up a real response.  This is motivation that the viewer already has.  It is what gave The Newsroom its opening.

But I find that characters that are in-your-face all the time, on the air and off, at work and at play, is too grating for my sensibilities.  The people I know aren't like that.  They give each other more space to breathe.  It is evident that the show has tuned it down a little in this third season, because of the critics and viewer reaction to the previous seasons, but it is still too grating for me.

The above, it seems to me, is the right sort of criticism for a TV show.  But others take The Newsroom to task because as social commentary it is not spot on, witness this recent piece found in the Washington Post, 'The Newsroom' is the worst prestige show on television.  (I found this critique also too much in-your-face, clear evidence that I'm getting too old.)  So I'd like to segue to the social commentary front, where the Newsroom hits and where it misses for me on that score, and what themes I'd like to see addressed.

Yesterday (December 12) on Twitter I wrote four tweets, each meant as a verse in a rhyme, intended to take on the question of disruptive change versus the incremental kind of change.   This theme was addressed not that long ago by Jill Lepore in her New Yorker piece that criticizes the work of Clayton Christensen on disruptive innovation.   Yesterday I thought I was being cutesy offering up thoughts this way.  (The tweets were spread out time-wise, with the gap about an hour before the next one appeared.)  In hindsight, it may just be obnoxious.  Nevertheless, the message I was trying to send yesterday is that there is no right answer here, even if some answers appear better than others in certain situations.

The Newsroom has taken up the issue of disruptive innovation in the last few episodes.  With that the question is posed to the audience, though not in so many words, do those who promote disruption have responsibility for consequences that can be anticipated but are not the direct result of their actions?  In the most recent episode, those journalists who believe the answer to this question is yes, so that when the consequences are pernicious the actions shouldn't be undertaken, even if their is near term economic profit to be had, are cast as white knights on the show. Those who take the opposite view are cast as villains.  Neither has any self-doubt about their own held position.  This is the black and white morality of a TV show.  It is comfortable for the viewer, if not very educational.

Then, in the most recent episode, the show had the temerity (really, the lack of good judgment) to use the experience of a woman who has been raped as the set up for some subsequent reality TV, where it has been proposed that the victim confront her attackers.  This segment caused quite a tempest in social media.  As it turns out, last night on The NewsHour there was a segment, I thought it quite good, on the binge drinking many students on campus do.  The segment asked why student binge drinking has been so hard to contain, and why it is so difficult to talk about the issue sensibly.  Near the end of the segment there was some discussion about the correlation between rape on campus and binge drinking.  It was pointed out that most campuses have elected to treat the issues as two separate things rather than as parts of a whole, out of fear that if the issues were linked it would seem as if the campuses were blaming the rape victims.  It was also pointed out that the binge drinking itself is embraced by the larger culture to a great degree, making it not just a campus problem but a societal problem.  The piece from earlier this year, The Dark Power of Fraternities, made it seem that the fraternities' need for liability insurance would contain the most egregious behavior.  The segment from last night suggests we all should be skeptical of that conclusion.  Given the points raised during this segment, that actors on the Newsroom seem to believe their show can promote intelligent discussion on the subject seems to me the worst kind of hubris.

Let me close with one bit where I think the Newsroom got it pretty much right, which is how the character Charlie Skinner reacted to his news division being bought from the previous ownership by a "punk" who planned to disrupt the current format and embrace "crowd sourced journalism" instead.  During the first two seasons of the show, the episodes regularly featured Charlie fighting the good fight with the previous ownership to get the story done and in the right way, even if it is a tough call and doing so might cut into the bottom line of the parent company.  But now Charlie has reached the end of the line and has no more fight left in him.  (Sam Waterston, the actor who plays Charlie, is in his mid 70s and he does shake a little, so physically this seems quite credible.)  When the new owner takes over, it is just too much for Charlie.  There is no way that he can conceive of to get things to turn out well.  He opts for the lesser of two evils, capitulating to the new owner rather than having his division shut down entirely.  But he lives in constant dread.  He has a fatal heart attack in the most recent episode.

The plot here is similar to what Leo McGarry goes through in The West Wing, after Leo breaks with the President over peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis.  But by that point in the story, Leo doesn't protect his staff in the same way as Charlie does and President Bartlet, more Liberal than Leo, is not a threat to the current order the way the new owner is to Atlantis Cable News.  So Leo doesn't seem to have the same dread that Charlie has, though that might be my viewer's spin on it.  In any event, I've felt that same sense of dread, quite a lot as of late.  The object is different and my health is not the issue.  But that we face too many social problems that are beyond our abilities to address them reasonably or, more accurately, that there are two few people around who want reasonable solutions to these problems, that generates a sense of foreboding that I've had for some time.  Charlie's got that feeling too.  That feeling is real, even if the rest of the show, not so much. 

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