In the second episode of the new HBO series Newsroom we get a key scene in which MacKenzie, the Serious Journalist just returned from two years reporting in Iraq and Afghanistan, gives a literal white-board presentation to the staff about how they will create the Great American Newscast, as epitomized by their aggressive reporting on the BP oil spill in episode 1. The moment carries great dramatic weight, because up to that point, although we have been repeatedly told that MacKenzie is a Serious (and mutliple-prizewinning) Journalist, what we have actually seen is a stumbling, inept, easily-addled, platitude-spouting stumblebum with extremely limited people skills. Even that big BP story came about by the pure luck of MacKenzie's protege having a sister and college roommate serendipitously positioned inside crucial board rooms (and, implausibly, willing to leak information that can be easily traced back to them).
So for the viewer, our opinion of MacKenzie is going to depend a lot on how she comes across in this dramatic unveiling of her three rules to guide her team in creating the antidote to crappy TV news.
Her number-one rule: "Is this information we need in the voting booth?"
Perhaps we can imagine that in her two years overseas MacKenzie has not actually witnessed cable television news, but as a regular consumer of it I can assure you that nobody in their right mind thinks the big problem is that there is too little focus on the potential electoral consequences of stories in the news. It often seems that electoral politics is the only prism through which some news media -- especially cable news -- processes coverage. CNN touts itself as having "The Best Political Team On Television," not the best news-gathering team, or the most informative team; MSNBC calls itself "The Place For Politics."
That aside, how can that possibly be the newsworthiness criteria of a journalist come back from two years reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan? Sure, there are reasons the American electorate should care about the conduct and progress of the wars, but those stories are worth reporting because wars were being fought, in critical, volatile regions of the world. Republicans and Democrats could be in 100% agreement on every aspect of it, and it would still be newsworthy.
Even more obviously, the Newsroom staffers had just broken that BP spill story, not because they sensed some important voter information in the rig explosion, but because they realized that the Gulf of Mexico was being filled with crude oil.
Notably missing from MacKenzie's list are questions like: "Does this story impact people's lives?" or "Is there more to this story than people have been told?" or "Will this story give people a better understanding of their world?"
For a brief moment, watching this scene, I imagined that Aaron Sorkin had actually created a clever, subversive premise: a bunch of high-minded, pseudo-intellectual, self-congratulatory liberal idealists get the chance to create their fantasy answer to crappy news media, unaware that they are actually making exactly the kind of idiocy they claim to despise. Sadly, I don't think that's Sorkin's actual intent.
I tried -- I honestly, sincerely, tried and tried and tried, to like Newsroom as a show, regardless of its attitude toward politics and the news media. I've enjoyed all three previous Sorkin TV series (Sports Night, The West Wing, and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip) -- didn't love them, but enjoyed them. At their best, they put well-portrayed, fairly interesting characters into reasonably interesting story lines and gave them sharp, witty dialog, that didn't depend on the viewer sharing Sorkin's view of how to best run a sports-news network, a White House, or a live comedy show.
So I tried to just enjoy the show, but after three tedious, numbing hours I have given up. It's possible that the show will improve in future episodes; there have been a couple of good lines, and I got a kick out of the conceit of Jane Fonda portraying her ex-husband (in essence). But so far it's roughly 90 percent mirthless sermonizing, in word and deed, about this great, against-the-odds project of forcing Serious Journalism down America's gullet, occasionally interrupted by reminders of who has slept with, is sleeping with, or wants to sleep with whom.
Having now surrendered on enjoying the show on its own terms, I have decided to commence watching it as if it really is the subversive attack on inane media critics I suggested above.
Taken in that light, episode 3 is a smashing good time.
The episode condenses the first six months of the Intrepid Crew's great project -- from shortly after the April 2010 oil spill through the early-November 2010 mid-term elections.
During that period: the US withdrew its last combat units from Iraq; the economic recovery stalled badly; the foreclosure crisis re-emerged; President Obama replaced Stanley McChrystal as Afghanistan commander; the Washington Post revealed the administration's secret privatization of domestic anti-terrorism functions; Congress passed the Dodd-Frank banking reform law; and the Senate failed to pass the American Clean Energy and Security Act -- just to cite some of the most obvious items that a Serious Journalist might have felt were important to cover in depth to ensure a well-informed populace. (Not including stories like the trapped Chilean miners and the New York mosque controversy.)
The story the Newsroom crew decides to cover extensively -- that its anchor Will McAvoy decrees will lead the show every night -- is that members of the Tea Party movement are morons.
Now that's some funny stuff right there. A little over-the-top, perhaps, in the cruelty of its depiction of the Newsroom staff's phony pseudo-seriousness justifying their nightly smug demonstrations of superiority over hand-picked conservative rubes. (They have already discarded MacKenzie's second white-board rule, "Is this the best possible form of the argument?"; as far as we are shown, they book only conservatives who spew farcically ill-informed nonsense, and who can only gape in stunned silence when confronted with a tough question.) Personally, I like over-the-top. I think it would have been even more fun if, as we watch McAvoy berating his hapless straw-man guests, we could see other TV screens in the control room silently showing the live feed of Bill O'Reilly doing the same on FOX News, and Keith Olbermann awarding Worst Person In The World on MSNBC, to drive home the point that Newsroom's Serious Journalists have unwittingly created a carbon copy of their competitors.
Episode 3 ends late on election night, with the plucky Newsroom staff lamenting with stiff drinks that the idiot populace has elected troglodytes to Congress despite their nightly warnings. They toast to their principled effort -- unaware of the looming spectre of the corporate hammer coming down upon them. Not to fear; the news that HBO has ordered a second season leaves little dramatic tension regarding the survival of the show within the show.
Which I'm glad to hear, because now that I'm watching it in this new light, I am eager to see how foolishly MacKenzie and crew apply their sophomoric version of Serious Journalism to the 2012 Republican nomination process. Watch out Mitt!!!