After much buzz, Aaron Sorkin's new TV drama, The Newsroom, premiered on HBO Sunday night. This is not Sorkin's first TV show about a TV show. After portrayals of ESPN (Sports Night) and Saturday Night Live (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), Sorkin's latest show is a behind-the scenes account of a TV newsroom trying to lift itself out of the modern-day cable-TV echo chamber.
While Sorkin got a large amount of input from a number of different newsrooms, the pilot episode of The Newsroom isn't always a true depiction of how life plays out in the studios of CNN or MSNBC.
Jessica Stuart, a 15-year television veteran who got her start as production assistant on MSNBC's The News With Brian Williams and spent eight years working in various positions on cable and network news, assessed the accuracy of the first episode for U.S. News & World Report.
The show opens with seasoned cable news anchor Will McAvoy sitting on a panel hosted by Northwestern University. The moderator presses Will to declare his political stance, calling him the "Jay Leno of News" because he doesn't bother anyone. It is clear Will doesn't want to take a side.
I believe anchors have, indeed, worked very hard to be and portray themselves as neutral and unbiased representatives of information. I think that's part of the journalistic oath—whether idealistic or not—that in journalism… you leave your opinions at the door. However, as the show indicates, and I believe we can all attest—that has changed dramatically in the last eight years of cable.
Will, who becomes inspired after he believes his former flame, Mackenzie MacHale, is sitting in the audience, snaps at a student after she asks him what makes America the greatest country in the world. In a classic Sorkin monologue, filled with impassioned language and data to back up his claims, Will lets loose on why he believes America isn't great anymore. His rant about America's shortcomings sparks instant controversy and a few weeks later, returning from a vacation, Will finds that most of his staff has deserted him for a protégé's new show. To make matters worse for Will, cable station president Charlie Skinner has hired Mackenzie as his new executive producer (called EP for short), a decision Will initially protests. After a couple of heated exchanges, Skinner insists that she stays on, explaining there is a special trust between the two, despite (or because of) their personal history.
I think there is a very special trust between EPs and anchors and that chemistry is extremely important to a show's success. An anchor on set is at the mercy of the control room and the person talking in his or her ear. The executive producer has to understand the masses of information coming to them and then translate it in a way the anchor can immediately broadcast. The EP is responsible for the anchor's image. It's in their hands during live television. The anchor is actually in a vulnerable place. "
MacKenzie and Will aren't the only ones with a romantic backstory. Early in the episode we see that Maggie Jordan, an inexperienced assistant, and Don, Will's former EP, are also dating. Romance in the workplace is not out of the ordinary, as Stuart explains:
There were certainly and always office romances, office marriages, and romance rumors. I think because news is such a 24-hour, all encompassing industry, with work that is emotional (Hurricane Katrina) and dangerous (war zones), people in the business become isolated. It's hard to find relationships outside of the office where the partner understands what you've been through, or is accepting of the time and energy this business takes up. So, relationships can be pretty commonplace.
However, Stuart doesn't believe that in a real news room, a low-level assistant would be so vocal about her affair with a superior.
I certainly don't think an executive producer dating an intern or assistant would be out in the open, though. Honestly, it would hurt her career. She would always be held to, "She moved up because she was dating the EP of the show."
Another running theme is that Will has no idea what is going on at the ground level of production. He fumbles over people's names and his shocked to discover he has his own blog.
Real professionals know that their staffs are the backbone of the show and know the names of folks that are keeping the trains running. Newsrooms become dysfunctional families and everyone does play an important role. I highly doubt any anchor would ever not know the name of [his or her] own assistant. I think Sorkin may have stretched that a bit.
While still debating the new direction Will's show will take, news breaks that the BP Deepwater Horizon oil well has exploded (unlike his other shows, Sorkin will be basing the "news" on real-life events, starting with the April 2010 BP disaster) and the team debate whether to follow a lead that shoddy materials and inadequate inspections may be at fault for the leak.
I think Sorkin was off here in terms of accuracy. I know he needed to build storyline, but the truth is that the reaction to breaking news these days is almost hysteria breaking out in the newsroom immediately. I find there is much more of a knee-jerk reaction to something "breaking." Anyone who watches cable or network news can attest to the ridiculous amount of stories that are now referred to as "breaking news." Cable networks pride and measure themselves against each other for breaking the story seconds or minutes ahead of each other. Cables can't hold news until the anchor is ready for an 8 p.m., hour-long show anymore.
The team pulls together an hour-long broadcast on the catastrophe "on the fly," with Will operating without a script and the staff pulling in sources and statements after the live show has already started. Stuart also doubts that such a thoroughly researched broadcast could have been put together so quickly: "It's like they condensed weeks' worth of news into 45 minutes."
Overall, Stuart enjoyed the show, despite its idealistic take on the news (something that garnered several eye rolls in the U.S. News newsroom as well).
I read that Sorkin asked news executives what their newsroom Utopia would be and I can see clearly how he portrayed that in this episode. So many journalists head to newsrooms with the idea they are going to "change things" or create accurate and good news that audiences want to watch. But the reality is that news is a business, and the journalistic principals that guide so many of us to get into the news business in the first place, get squashed in the ratings game.
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Tierney Sneed is associate editor of U.S. News Opinion. E-mail her at email@example.com.