(How I Got To Memphis performed by Kelly Willis from the album Real – The Tom T Hall Project)
I can’t say I’ve read all of the excoriating articles about The Newsroom, but I’ve read enough of them to wonder why a show I love to watch seems to be so universally hated. It has also been interesting to wonder why a writer-producer like Aaron Sorkin, who was praised for previous work such as The West Wing and Studio 60, is suddenly so universally dismissed as a sexist bully and a fantasist.
But then I remember I’m a Media Studies teacher and I think about the bad press my subject gets, and how inaccurately, misleadingly, and unfairly it is represented in the media.
And I consider the source.
I’m not here to argue that The Newsroom is perfect, but then perfection is rare in television, and I wonder why anybody would waste time looking for it. What I do know is that the over-reaction from the news industry towards a television show that was set up to specifically critique the news industry stinks of the kind of self-serving, self-delusional bias that must be typical of people who work for organisations who do almost nothing but make everything a little bit worse than it was before. It was a show about people with ideals working in an industry without them. And there was soapy relationship stuff, character-driven stuff as well, as you would expect from a piece of broadcast fiction.
When The Newsroom criticises the news media for being relentlessly shallow and trivial, for misleading the public and for ignoring all principles of good practice, it must sting. Because it’s true. It’s even true for supposedly liberal news organisations like The Guardian, which is as guilty of producing click-bait and trivia as any of its enemies in the right wing press. And the things is, while people are worried about their jobs, and competition from other online sources, and paying their mortgages and all that, and defend what they feel they have to do to survive, it doesn’t mean that what they’re doing is good, or worthwhile, or a public service. Sure, people are clicking those links and there certainly is more of a public appetite for trivia than there is for in-depth news and analysis, but then that’s what you get after systematically lowering peoples’ expectations and trivialising politics and misleading them about what matters. That’s what you get when you steadfastly refuse to engage with ideas or the truth and instead focus on bacon sandwiches and personalities. Let’s not pretend that a bit of gossip about Angelina Jolie serves anybody other than the super rich, whose greatest fear is that the public will wake up to the power they have in their hands.
When The Newsroom rails against listicles, or garbled, inaccurate news sourced from Twitter, it has a point. The 24 hour news beast is obsessed with being first and less worried about being accurate; just as it puts a corporate or neo-lib political agenda before the truth. So The Newsroom was fantasy news in the same way that The West Wing was fantasy politics.
As for the recent controversy about the campus rape story in Episode 5 of Season 3, I genuinely think it wilfully missed the point of the discussion in the show, which was about cheap theatricals and artificially generated conflict in place of genuine analysis and debate. The episode was about a news producer who didn’t want to put a rape victim in a studio with one of her attackers because it would be a cheap, tawdry stunt done in the name of ratings and not in the name of truth or justice. The show was about how to do the news. In British terms, it was criticising the kind of stupid studio ‘debates’ you get on Radio 4’s Today programme: all done in the name of ‘balance.’ And, yes, the show did criticise people who publish stuff on the internet without going through the kind of rigorous editorial process that good journalism demands.
For me, The Newsroom was every bit as good as The West Wing, and I wish there was going to be more of it. It finished, more or less, with the kind of gnomic interlude that has you scratching your head. The show’s centre, Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, sat with a guitar and played the Tom T. Hall song, “That’s How I Got to Memphis.” Some other people joined in. It was beautiful. Why was it there? I don’t know. Maybe because the song feels like the truth, which is what journalism is supposed to be about.