I don’t share the vast hostility felt by many in the media towards The Newsroom, Sorkin’s latest TV series which happens to be about the media itself. I get that it can be both nauseatingly preachy in its idealism and somehow simultaneously pathetically trivial insofar as it dwells on romantic sub-plots. And yet, like most of its critics, I watched it through to the end. And I think its primary and enormous virtue is the following.
It’s easy to forget that, for most people, the news is consumed via television, in sound bites, with minimal analysis and reflection. The constant debate of the blogosphere is just not a world that the majority of any electorate is tuned into. And so people like Hannity and Blitzer and Maddow matter. The first is a shameless propagandist and puppet-figure who picks what to say according to what best hurts Obama. He’s not a journalist because he’s not concerned with the truth. The second is so strung out on appearing neutral by fabricating a faux-balance of badness between the two American parties that his show is rendered uselessly deceptive, as bad as Hannity’s but in a different way. The latter, despite partisan appearances, does much better. She’s the only one remotely close to reporting in a way that is responsive to the facts.
And The Newsroom plays out like one big paean to and depiction of this view that – hey, call it crazy, but maybe the media’s role is to call out bullshit, and hunt it down. Nothing more, nothing less. No deference to powerful people, no detached ‘he said, she said‘ reporting. Just the truth.
Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at NYU, pushes these ideas in his own way on a daily basis, through his blog, Twitter and Facebook. In the online world, he’s quite an influential figure now. It would be hard for journalists to have missed his thoughts. And I suspect that’s a major reason why The Newsroom does not seem important. If it is premised on ideas elites have contemplated already, its content may seem infertile. But for most people I imagine the series has acted as a wake-up call. At its core is a call for the awakening of our critical faculties, a cry for civic republicanism. I’m pretty well educated, but it’s only in the last year or so I have been able to properly step back and question what it is that I’m hearing and reading. It’s all too easy to take that skill for granted.
Again, I accept that it could be executed less loudly. The West Wing managed to make many points without ever really feeling like it’s writer talking to us directly. Perhaps that’s a reflection on the fact that its characters were far more attractive, and insofar as we embraced them we really believed it was CJ who fumes at Saudi Arabia and Sam who is content with his tax rate. I can’t envision us ever viewing Will McAvoy in this way, despite that awesome opening speech. But at a time in American politics when fact-checking and its role in reporting is more prominent and important than ever given the new levels of lying the Republicans have brought to the presidential race, The Newsroom‘s message is a big one being pushed through a hugely popular medium. This may be an intellectual rather than aesthetic defence, but I still think it’s not a show to be looked down upon. Yes, he’s annoying. But I truly think that a McAvoy figure on real television wouldn’t go amiss.