I’ve become an avid watcher of the much-discussed HBO series of the summer: The Newsroom. As a former devotee of producer Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, which was (obviously) about politics, I was anxious to see his take on journalism, which is after all in a bit of a quandary.
Within the first hour, I was hooked. They got me, saying that the United States is no longer “the greatest country on earth” but it definitely could be. As a Canadian, I’m not sure I agree it ever was the greatest country (that would be disloyal), but it came pretty darn close! As my father used to say about the Louis L’Amour novels he read and re-read, “I like the values.” And L’Amour’s were the values America stood for, once upon a time: rugged individualism with a kindly soul, eager to help those struggling to better themselves. Equality was up there along with achievement, aka the pursuit of happiness. No longer is this generally true. Some still care about it, but not most of those in government. They’re too busy fund-raising.
So how does The Newsroom fit with those old-fashioned American values? Does a news anchor who suddenly becomes a prosecutor, supposedly on the side of the people but with a courtroom style that is often far from gentlemanly, represent what’s good and fine about journalism? Is that what we need on television?
I was formed, as a journalist, in the crucible of objectivity, where journalists were not supposed to express opinions unless they were seasoned veterans elevated to the rank of columnist or editorial board member. “Edward R. Murrow had opinions, and he brought an end to the McCarthy era,” the show’s veteran news director Charlie Skinner tells his favorite anchor, Will McAvoy, as they set out to transform the news. “Walter Cronkite had opinions, and they ended the Vietnam War.” I may not have the quotes exactly right, but you get the idea.
I beg to differ with Skinner. Murrow and Cronkite did not express opinions often, which made those rare occurrences have impact. And although I haven’t seen many of Murrow’s broadcasts, I know that Cronkite’s were always gentlemanly. We do not need more opinion on television. We need anchors who are fair. Sometimes McAvoy is brutally unfair, at least in my opinion.
However, I do like McAvoy’s insistence on getting straight answers from those who waffle and utter ideology in place of facts. I do like his “take” on the Tea Party: they’re a truly radical group, financed by billionaires like the Koch brothers, that needs to be scrutinized in the same way as other political groups. Journalists have become timid about taking these radicals on, and the American political discourse has suffered because of it. My problem is, I’m not sure Will McAvoy sets such a shining example of how to do it.
The series, which began in June and is still underway, has a few more episodes to go, so I’ll withhold final judgment until it’s over. In the meantime, I’m definitely enjoying each show, in part because it has the feel of a really good newsroom where people feel they are doing the best work they can do. It’s been a long time since I’ve been part of something like that.