Over a year into its reincarnation as a serious news broadcast (eight episodes in HBO time), and News Night, the fictional cable news show depicted The Newsroom, has lost its way. Facing plummeting ratings and the pressure to moderate a Republican presidential debate, the staff resigns to covering the seedy Casey Anthony trial and Anthony Weiner's Twitter photo debacle.
News Night anchor Will McAvoy leads the charge into the dirt, which is not the only uncharacteristic form of behavior he is exhibiting. He brings on faux New York magazine writer Brian Brenner to profile his operation, despite his disdain for print journalism, and that the writer is the man his ex-girlfriend and current executive producer, Mackenzie McHale, cheated on him with.
But as News Night sells its soul, The Newsroom gains some heart. By allowing its sanctimonious, messianic news staff to fumble and acknowledge the compromises journalists sometimes make, rightly or not, Aaron Sorkin's show actually focuses on the issues it promised to address, for the most part putting aside the love parallelogram, tabloid troubles, and Bigfoot plots that have otherwise bogged down Newsroom's mission.
"Tragedy Porn" begins with Will setting his conditions for allowing Brian to "audition" to write a News Night profile. Bill agrees, but Will soon faces some ultimatums of his own. Reese Lansing, ratings police and son of Atlantic World Media big cheese Leona Lansing, puts the pressure on the Will, Mac, and news division president Charlie Skinner to cover the Casey Anthony trial, as the show is bleeding viewers for ignoring it.
Charlie and Will agree to embrace the new strategy, despite Mackenzie's impassioned protestations. Will justifies the compromise of News Night's principals with his desire to get the GOP debate. "I want to fundamentally change the way we interview presidential candidates for their job. If that means we have to be Jerry Springer for a few weeks, I am willing to pay that price," explains Will.
Of course, while the country gawks at the skeeze, a real storm is brewing, as pointed out by economics reporter Sloan Sabbith. She begs Mackenzie to budget time into the show to discuss Congress's debt ceiling debate—but Anthony Weiner's inappropriate Twitpic steals what little spotlight News Night could have shined on the fiscal crisis.
As the producers prep for the mock debate, associate producer Maggie Jordan goes on a seemingly random rant against Michele Bachmann's "identity theft" of Christianity. This may seem a little of out place of the usually secular newsroom, but those familiar with Sorkin's repertoire will recognize his desire to recapture religion from the religious right—a la West Wing President Jed Bartlet's Catholic upbringing and Studio 60 and the Sunset Strip's evangelical sweetheart Harriet Hayes.
Charlie meets with last week's mysterious "late for dinner" NSA tipster. He offers Charlie the scoop on a phone hacking scandal at Atlantic World Media that could get Leona Lansing off News Night's back in exchange for covering "Global Clarity," a broadsweeping big-brother government wire tapping program. They put producer Jim Harper in charge of vetting the source, so Will doesn't get "Dan Rather'd" by running the story unverified.
But the serious journalism will have to wait: News Night brings its former producer Don Keefer, who now works at the morally inferior 10 p.m. hour, to show the staff how to use the Casey Anthony trial to exploit viewers' emotions. Don dissects Nancy Grace's coverage of the tragedy, because Sorkin is bored with bludgeoning his usual target, Fox News, for ruining the national discourse with its shoddy excuse for journalism, so CNN falls victim to a slap or two.
This is not the only tired trap Newsroom falls into, if only for a few minutes. Mackenzie rehashes with Brian the sordid details that led to her relationship with Will ending. To go undercover in the Internet trolling community, associated producer Neal Sampat proposes posting misogynistic comments about Sloan (and Sloan puts her concerns about how the debt ceiling debate could sink global economy aside to worry if her butt is big). Will drops in on his therapist so he (and we) can be told he is using Brian to torture himself and Mackenzie, as Sorkin can never simply "show" such a revelation.
Fortunately, after briefly stumbling through these subplots, The Newsroom stops indulging its own problems to focus on the flawed approach News Night is now taking, as Maggie struggles to stomach working with a Anthony Weiner whistle-Tweeter.
It is not all just tawdry trials and crotch shots concerning the ACN staff. Charlie tries to confront Leona about her efforts to use tabloid-baiting to sink Will, whose critiques of the Tea Party and the Koch brothers are perturbing Atlantis World Media's corporate connections. Mackenzie and Sloan have a serious debate about covering the debt ceiling crisis, diverting from their usual conversation topics: boys and manicures. The episode ends with a studio-wide power outage, which Mackenzie, only half kiddingly, reads as a sign that News Night must stop with the tragedy porn.
As The Newsroom nears the end of its hit-or-miss first season, Sorkin appears to have found some of his footing, as the show has grown stronger since its early episodes. Jessica Stuart, who has 15 years of television experience working in various network and cable news rooms, said she appreciated how "realistic" the episode felt.
Stuart could appreciate the added pressure on the staff to score the GOP debate rang true, "Getting a debate, especially now in cable news days, is a very big deal." Furthermore, she noted that the contrast between how seriously the NSA source was treated and how frivolous Weiner-gate guest came off.
"She has an agent, and she's doing the round of shows. I think that's quite interesting, and again, goes to show you what a business it has all become. I feel like the whole thing was a look at the old way things were done and the new way things are done." Such a contrast is far more subtle and compelling than the usual lecturing the Sorkin's characters do. Noted Stuart, "He's not making doing things 'right' easy for this News Night team."
- Read last week's Newsroom recap.
- Read the U.S. News interview with Wesley Clark about his show Stars Earn Stripes.
- Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.