Sunday, July 8, 2012

HBO Newsroom deceives, falls short of the mark

The news continues to be a hot topic in the media.   No surprise there, as our major papers, evening newscasts, and social media sites are our primary information highways.

For many years, our news media has also been a popular topic in entertainment media.  There were films, like the Front Page, His Girl Friday, Network and a personal favorite, Broadcast News.  In tv land, there has been The Mary Tyler Moore Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, and Newsradio, among others.

This summer HBO has brought us Newsroom, the latest series from the always earnest and popular writer/producer Aaron Sorkin.  Sorkin’s list of successful scripts and series is impressive.  It’s long, it’s consistent, and it’s across genres.

And that’s what’s so damn upsetting about Newsroom.  This overwrought drama that is supposedly about the presentation and delivery of cable news via the show 'Newsnight' is little more than a hackneyed gabfest featuring lines better delivered by emeritus faculty at second tier journalism schools holding positions far removed from daily news.

The show sure looks like a news program, with sets designed like actual cable newsrooms (at least CNN’s TimeWarner Center in NYC), characters who would fill production roles in actual newsrooms, and actors dressed to look the parts of the managers, anchors, correspondents, and producers and assistants who populate actual newsrooms.

But it’s little more than window dressing.

Working hard to avoid spoiler alerts, it’s impossible to imagine an anchor with managing editor responsibilities have an executive producer hired under him while away on vacation.

It’s hard to imagine the president of the news operation of a major cable company spending the better part of his working day swimming in booze, while pining for a time long gone, the time when reporters had 48 to 72 hours to write their story, while the film travelled overseas to New York to be processed and cut.

It’s beyond belief to find an intern hiding behind her own skirt in one episode, only to speak forcefully against superiors in the next one, while covering up a deep secret that violated a cardinal ethics tenet. 

And sources don’t just pop up with information in real time with little push or effort, and producers, as smart as we can be, don’t put together the pieces of a complicated puzzle in such a way as to advance a story several days ahead of story.  (Just watch the first episode if this requires clarification.  The bullshit factor here was beyond belief, even for entertainment television. )

I could go on.  My friend Dave Marash in CJR wisely noted that news is gathered by reporters and producers and camerapeople out in the field.  What Newsnight shows what happens inside the mothership, inside a corporate hq, not out in the field, where video is shot, interviews are conducted, contacts are made, roadblocks are navigated, cameras get broken, emotions strain, and computers fail. 

So we’re getting talking mannequins, garrulous sounds from characters who don’t have the time to debate the great questions they purport to balance against the story they’re working on, simultaneously.

We’re getting office politics, some office sex (not on camera, a surprise for HBO), and plenty of direct language about what their job is supposed to be.  Perhaps that’s why Dan Rather liked the show so much.

For those folks interested in our newsgathering capabilities, this show may hold interest.  For Aaron Sorkin fans, this show may be the appropriate follow on to the idealist, and idealized, West Wing.

For those of us who have been there, and ‘there’ can be a great number of places, but for those of us who have been there, Newsroom falls far short of promise, fails the public by deceiving them into believing this is all there is, yet will probably be successful enough to further burnish Sorkin’s image as the chronicler of our major institutions.

Now, will he turn to a hospital drama after Newsroom runs its course?  That would be something.  Has that been done by anyone in the television landscape?    Imagine that, a hospital drama in prime time.  That’s something new and refreshing!