I enjoy analyzing and writing about the effect media has on our society—including news media in general and (because I am a child of the TV Generation rather than a child of the Internet Generation) television news in particular. Thus, two of my favorite films are Network (directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Paddy Chayefsky, 1976) and Broadcast News (written and directed by James L. Brooks, 1987).
Those two films reveal some of the inherent flaws in having TV news (or any news, really) tied to advertising revenue, Q Scores, and ratings (or circulation numbers and click-through rates). Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant script for Network also addresses the changing mindset between the pre-TV Generation (such as my parents) and the TV Generation (such as me) in the way that people from those generations conceptualize the world and perceptualize human interactions—particularly romantic relationships.
Now, nearly 40 years after Network was released, we could add a third “mindset” with how the Internet Generation (people born in the 1980s or later) are again conceptualizing the world and perceptualizing human interactions differently from the TV Generation. These types of technology-based conceptions and perceptions of reality are what actually define what used to be called the Generation Gap.
At some point, I may get around to writing about Network and Broadcast News, but this week’s installment of Spontaneous Quixote is devoted to the recently concluded HBO series The Newsroom—a show that covers some of the same social concerns as Network and Broadcast News, but does so in a more contemporary manner and for a somewhat younger audience (though the series was conceived and written by Aaron Sorkin, a fellow TV Generation cohort whose view of the Internet Generation is not always flattering).
When HBO began producing The Newsroom two years ago, I watched it to see if it would cover the concepts I hoped it would. Not only was the first season almost what I hoped it would be as a social commentary about news as information vs. news as entertainment, it also delved into the political problems caused by media monopolies.
Rather than having an ethical responsibility to try to ameliorate society (the concept of amelioration being subjective, of course), media corporations actually have a fiduciary responsibility to their stockholders to entertain audiences because entertainment is more lucrative than enlightenment. Thus, we often get imbecilic “news” items such as “Here’s What’s Trending on Twitter” or CNN’s anchors competing in a game show that is produced and broadcast by CNN (which stands for Cable News Network, in case you either forgot or never knew).
Yes, our news is now largely filled with imbecilic bullshit rather than information citizens in a democratic republic can actually use for self-governance—which is what James Madison had in mind in comments he made five years after he left office as the fourth president of the United States. Regarding the First Amendment’s stipulation that Congress shall make no law prohibiting freedom of the press, Madison wrote:
Nothing could be more irrational than to give the people power and to withhold from them information, without which power is abused. A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.
Madison was concerned about government controlling the news media and thus preventing the dissemination of information that “people who mean to be their own governors” must have. Unfortunately, Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and other intellectuals among the Founding Fathers of the United States didn’t foresee the real threat to the dissemination of useful information:
They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies—the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.
(Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited)
Of course, humanity’s “almost infinite appetite for distractions” has been used by politicians throughout history. It’s what the Roman poet Juvenal referred to as “panem et circenses” (“bread and circuses”) approximately 1,900 years ago. In the pilot episode of the series, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is a primetime TV news anchor who is more concerned with entertaining his viewers (distracting them with a circus) than he is in enlightening them.
Will is the anchor for the fictional television network ACN (Atlantis Cable News), and prior to “waking up” in the series pilot, we are informed that Will excelled in presenting “human interest stories”—or as ACN’s owner Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda) says in the third episode, “Obesity, breast cancer, hurricanes, older women having babies, iPhones—he was great at that shit.”
However, in the pilot episode, Will was given a new executive producer, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), who shifted the focus to a news program that matched the notion of journalism James Madison envisioned:
There is nothing more important in a democracy than a well-informed electorate. When there is no information or, much worse, wrong information, it can lead to calamitous decisions that clobber any attempts at vigorous debate.
(MacKenzie McHale, Fictitious E.P. on The Newsroom, written by Aaron Sorkin, 2012)
This notion of the media contributing to a vigorous public debate is humorously but insightfully discussed by Leona and ACN’s news division president, Charlie Skinner, in episode 1.03, “The 112th Congress”:
Charlie Skinner: News organizations . . . are a public trust with the ability to inform and influence the national conversation.
Leona Lansing: I know, that’s why I bought one.
Generally, in its first season, The Newsroom presented a good intellectual dissection of our society in the way in which television news contributes to “dumbing down” the culture rather than in enhancing the political acumen of the public. For instance, episodes 1.08 and 1.09 (“The Blackout, Part 1: Tragedy Porn” and “The Blackout, Part 2: Mock Debate”) were particularly effective in pointing out the problems with news agencies that devote enormous amounts of time to such sensational incidents as the murder of two-year-old Caylee Anthony and the trial of her mother, Casey Anthony, rather than focusing on creating debate formats that force political candidates to actually address important issues in an honest and comprehensive manner.
To be fair, though, there were also a few horrendous storytelling flaws in the first season—such as having plots that relied too often on convenient coincidences. These fortuitous coincidences did not come across as meaningful Jungian synchronicities. Instead, they came across as what they actually are—crutches for lazy writing by Aaron Sorkin.
Additionally, the soap opera love triangle between Jim, Maggie, and Don in the first season was annoying more than it was poignant. I fully understood the necessity of that soap opera love triangle. It gave the audience something other than dramatized demonstrations on how television news doesn’t fulfill its responsibility of providing substantial and relevant information that a democratic republic must have in order to make that sociopolitical system work.
In other words, the soap opera love triangle provided the viewers with a superficial circus so Sorkin could ameliorate us with the more substantial subject regarding the superficial circus that news media has become. Sorkin needed the soap opera love triangle because (to paraphrase Don’s comment about the changes Mackenzie is making to Will’s news program) no one wants to watch 60 minutes of a program telling them to eat their vegetables.
Well, almost no one.
I want to watch that type of program—if the “vegetables” are media analysis and social commentary, that is. However I’ll admit I’m probably part of a minority of 10% of the population (or less) who would tune in for 60 minutes of MacKenzie McHale telling me to eat my vegetables so I could grow up to be a responsible citizen who understands the sociopolitical issues in which all of us are enmeshed.
Overall, there was a lot of substantial information in the first season’s 10 episodes. Unfortunately, the second season’s nine episodes were uninspired. They did not even have a riveting soap opera plot—while there were several soap opera plots weaving through the second season, none was particularly riveting.
The nine episodes of the second season were so insipid that I would not have been disappointed had the series been canceled rather than renewed—but it was renewed, and it was then announced that the third season would also be the final season due to Sorkin wanting to move on to other projects.
The six-episode final season concluded on December 14, 2014—and it was not only far better than the second season, it was also better than the first season! While I often find fault with some of his scripts, Sorkin did a great job with every scene in every episode of The Newroom‘s third season.
I particularly liked the scene in episode 3.05, “Oh Shenandoah,” where Don interviewed a female college student who created a rape-reporting Website after she was raped at a party. There are no easy black or white answers to the socio-ethical issues that are raised during their conversation. However, as I watched and listened to the student Don interviewed, I thought of my female friends who have been raped. I thought of how parts of themselves were irrevocably damaged by that act of violence, and I became choked with emotion.
As I watched episode 3.06, “What Kind of Day Has It Been” (the final episode of the series), I was wishing The Newsroom wasn’t coming to an end. Not only did the final season present several sincerely poignant moments between characters I had come to care about, there was also some insightful social commentary–such as on the effect that social networking Websites and citizen journalism (such as CNN’s iReporters) can have on civility in society.
One of my favorite segments was when Sloan Sabbith interviewed the annoying Internet Generation mascot Bree Dorrit about a celebrity stalking app (ACNgage) that he placed on ACN’s Website:
Bree Dorrit: ACNgage is citizen journalism.
Sloan Sabbith: Can you talk about the vetting process this citizen journalism undergoes?
Bree Dorrit: The vetting?
Sloan Sabbith: People can post more than locations. They can post observations.
Bree Dorrit: That’s right.
Sloan Sabbith: I’m asking if those posts are fact-checked. . . .
Bree Dorrit: People don’t read this with the expectation of it being true.
Sloan Sabbith: Excuse me? People don’t have an expectation that what they’re reading [on a news agency’s Website] is true?
Bree Dorrit: They read it for the immediacy.
Sloan Sabbith: But you’re using the word journalism, which means there is an expectation that what they’re reading is true. . . . Why does that belong on our website?
Bree Dorrit: Honestly, I think there’s a shifting definition of what’s public and private space.
Sloan Sabbith: There is, and we should care about that, but my question is why should we care about a talk show host drinking at a bar?
Bree Dorrit: Don’t you think it’s great that we’re not putting people up on a pedestal and worshipping them anymore?
Sloan Sabbith: I don’t think celebrities are one of the bigger problems facing us, but aren’t we the ones building the pedestal? You’ve got a map that gives us their location.
Bree Dorrit: The idea is that we’re acknowledging that they’re real people.
Sloan Sabbith: I wonder how many of us didn’t already know that, but you’re doing more than acknowledging they’re real people. You’re beating them up for it.
Bree Dorrit: Aren’t they protected by the piles of money they’re surrounded by?
Sloan Sabbith: Okay, what’s the line of demarcation? You make over X dollars a year and now you get to be treated by us as a regular person who’s basically had an electronic bracelet slapped on their ankle. What does X equal?
Bree Dorrit: It would be silly to name an exact dollar amount.
Sloan Sabbith: You’re paid $55,000 a year. . . . That’s almost twice the national average for a family of four. Do your piles of cash protect you from this interview in which I’m intentionally stripping you of your dignity? And, by the way, I’ve managed to do it without lying once. So I’m going to give you another chance to answer my question before I answer it myself. What’s the value of an unsourced, unvetted story?
Bree wasn’t able to answer Sloan, so she finally had to tell him the value of such a story: “It’s entertainment.”
Of course, it might just as easily be asked, “What’s the value of a lot of the mindless distractions with which we are deluged on a daily basis?”
Sloan’s interview with Bree Dorrit is nearly a word-for-word transcription of a segment of the April 6, 2007 episode of the CNN talk show Larry King Live. Jimmy Kimmel was filling in for Larry King as the host, and one of his guests was Emily Gould, the then-editor of the “news” Website Gawker.com, which had a smart phone app called “Gawker Stalker” that allowed people to immediately post sightings of celebrities in New York (and eventually in Los Angeles, too).
I am not opposed to a good circus. Entertainment is a necessary part of human existence, and there is value in a lot of entertainment. Shows such as The Newsroom can entertain us while also exposing us to concepts that cause us to think about larger issues. I watch a lot of movies and television programs, so I would be a hypocrite if I derided the idea of people wanting entertainment. My point is that we should want enlightenment as well.
For instance, in contrast to such insipid fare as The Real Housewives and Jersey Shore, two of my favorite television programs often engage me intellectually with significant sociopolitical concepts:
- The Walking Dead (on the nature of human civility)
- Game of Thrones (on the machinations of Machiavellian politics).
It’s possible to be entertained by action-adventure programming that also stimulates critical evaluations of the world around us.
Additionally, I’m not necessarily opposed to insignificant action-adventure entertainment—such as The Flash and Arrow, both of which I watch each week purely for entertainment rather than enlightenment. Entertainment should be entertaining, which is why I give Aaron Sorkin a pass on the romantic triangle subplot of the first season. I also give shows like The Flash and Arrow a pass because even though watching them doesn’t enhance me in any way, they don’t diminish me in any way either.
Overall, I’m opposed to entertainment that diminishes a viewer’s intellect rather than develops it (which means I’m opposed to such drivel as Real Housewives and Jersey Shore because I consider them shows that diminish our society). I imagine the ultimate bread and circuses image of a “couch potato” eating a box of Cheez-Its while watching Here Comes Honey Boo Boo as Donald Trump is elected President of the United States by a xenophobic populace who enjoy watching The Apprentice.
However, as Sorkin himself appears to be, I’m mostly just opposed to material that is presented as “news” when it is either mostly or entirely entertainment. Of course, “celebrity news” is the nadir of this phenomenon, but even so-called “political news” is often nothing more than an attempt to entertain the audience while either presenting significant issues superficially or avoiding substantial items entirely while distracting us with nonsense that is supposedly relevant news.
As our society’s news and entertainment media “dumb down” their content for the supposed purpose of capturing people’s decreased attention spans, we actually have a “moral obligation to be intelligent” (to quote the title of Lionel Trilling’s selected essays). We have a moral obligation to be intelligent in order to slow down the erosion of our society’s collective intellect.
We must contribute to significant and complex conversations about issues with highly developed intellects that have been formed through an adherence to critical thinking. Anything less fails to achieve our moral obligation and may contribute to our collective reduction to an increasingly superficial society.
It is in its fulfillment of that moral obligation during its first and third seasons that The Newsroom was a resounding success. Yes, fulfilling such a “moral obligation” may seem like a losing battle; it may seem like an example of a quixotic mission in which one tilts at windmills. However, as Will tells Mackenzie at the end of the series when she is concerned that she can’t handle her new job as the president of the news division (following Charlie Skinner’s death and Mackenzie’s promotion):
There’s a hole in the side of the boat. That hole is never going to be fixed, and it’s never going away, and you can’t get a new boat. This is your boat. What you have to do is bail water out faster than it’s coming in.
(Will McAvoy, Fictitious News Anchor on The Newsroom, written by Aaron Sorkin, 2014)
Goodbye, Newsroom Gang! I’m going to miss you.
 For instance, regarding the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that occurred on April 20, 2010, it just so happened (as luck would have it) that senior news producer Jim Harper’s old college roommate is an executive at British Petroleum in London, and he is willing to tell Jim how bad the situation in the Gulf actually is. Coincidentally, Jim’s sister is a Halliburton executive, and she is willing to tell Jim that Halliburton knew the cement being used to cap the wells would fail.
 Such as Jim and Maggie finally getting together romantically, then possibly losing what they had finally found because Maggie might be moving from New York to DC, and then the great line Jim delivers when Maggie asks him why he thinks their long-distance relationship will work when other such relationships he’s been in all failed, “I wasn’t in love with them.” I don’t often go for the overly sentimental and somewhat corny lines, but that one got to me.