Depicting the News Night newsroom as it covers one of the biggest events thus far in The Newsroom series, Sunday's episode oscillates from comedic pitfalls to the high stakes drama of covering a once-in-a-decade national security story. The night of May 1, 2011—lending the episode its title "5/1"—starts in booze-and drug-fueled revelry and ends in a somber reflection on how the 9/11 terrorist attacks changed America, with plenty of mishaps, disagreements, and successes along the way. The steady flow of wisdom espoused by Charlie Skinner, ACN's news division president, keeps The Newsroom from falling off the cliff into farce; the show hovers in a Sorkinian cloud equal parts cerebral wit and patriotic grandstanding.
The episode kicks off with a party to celebrate a year and week of "News Night 2.0," the reincarnation of the ACN cable news show hosted by Will McAvoy. Charlie receives a mysterious call, a Deep Throat wannabe tipster who alleges the White House will soon be announcing an impromptu speech where the president will deliver some important news concerning national security. Said announcement comes, but only after Will has overindulged on some pot brownies—"medicinal" he insists—and the team must hustle to get back to the newsroom to cover the story.
Meanwhile, producer Don Keefer, anchor Elliot Hirsch, and financial reporter Sloan Sabbith are stuck on a plane without an arrival gate at LaGuardia airport, unable to even undo their seatbelts to join their colleagues back at ACN headquarters. "I'm the guy who wins the lottery and loses the ticket. Biggest story in a generation and I am a spectator," Don complains when he isn't hounding a cranky stewardess to let him off the plane.
As the News Night staff puts together the pieces of the spontaneous news conference, "5/1" grapples with journalists' responsibility to attain, confirm, hold, and finally disseminate information, particularly when it pertains to national security. The producers immediately suspect that the president will announce the successful killing of Osama bin Laden, but Charlie wisely counsels, "We want it to be bin Laden. Let's not let the wish be the father of the thought." Executive producer Mackenzie McHale instructs the team to chase down confirmations of the bin Laden theory while entertaining other possible events that would carry such importance (tech geek Neal, the resident myth-mongerer, suggests alien contact).
But what's a Newsroom episode without a little romance? For a brief moment, it appears the frustrating Don-Maggie-Jim-Lisa love parallelogram will be shedding one of its legs, as Jim admits he didn't mean to return Lisa's "I love you"—a storyline that at least runs parallel to the larger theme of when it is appropriate to say what—and they break up, but only temporarily. Meanwhile, the Will-Mackenzie once-romantic, now-professional relationship features a welcome role reversal: A doped-up Will, rather than Mackenzie, plays the babbling fool in need of guidance (granted, he is high on THC, not the strain of desperation she often appears to be huffing).
This week's episode explores not just how news is produced, but the impact news has once it is reported. Making this point crystal clear, Charlie explains that he once broke a story during the Gulf War too early, costing the lives of American servicemen, and thus he insists that the team waits for White House permission before reporting the bin Laden raid. "We're going to get this one right," he says, "and if we're two minutes late, let that be a small penance for all those we got wrong."
The Washington bureau does not share Charlie's sentiments, and tries, unsuccessfully, to go rogue on MacKenzie so they can break the story themselves (she cuts the broadcasting feed to Washington, D,C. before they get the chance).
When Joe Biden—who, of course, is a BFFL of Will's—gives him the green light to run the story, the anchor snaps out of Dazed and Confused mode to report the raid.
Before Will's closing monologue, the episode includes one final twist: The mysterious tipster calls Charlie again, not to address the bin Laden revelation, but rather to insinuate that TMI, a troublesome tabloid owned by ACN's parent company, is engaging in illegal phone-hacking tactics, a la the real-life News of the World scandal, setting up the next series of challenges the News Night team will surely face.
According to Jessica Stuart, who spent 15 years working in the TV industry including at various network and cable news outlets, "5/1" nailed a couple key details about covering big stories.
"The drills are real," Stuart said of Neal's explanation that the staff practices breaking news procedures on a monthly basis. "Everyone gets into place. Everyone makes the phone calls. They were really intense," she explained. The tension between Washington and New York bureaus is also very common, she said. "It goes back to that anchor competition that is always there."
"It had a neat message about reporting the news and what that really means," she said, discussing the episode. Stuart was not still working in the industry to cover the bin Laden raid, but was working for NBC during the 9/11 terrorist attack, when she was stuck at an airport, not unlike Don, Elliot, and Sloan. In The Newsroom, Don reports to the captain and the rest of the plane that Osama bin Laden was dead. Stuart too recounted comforting airline staff members seeking information on that tragic September day. "You had this moment of, we are the only link to any information whatsoever, and it was a pretty emotional moment."
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