Untangling the Web: Sorkin's 'Newsroom' speaks to me

Journalists I’ve spoken to have raved about 'The Newsroom,' whereas “normal” people have been less enthusiastic.

The Newsroom 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Newsroom 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
From the moment I heard about Aaron Sorkin’s new show, The Newsroom, I was excited. As a massive West Wing fan, a news junkie and a journalist, hearing that the screenwriter and producer had spent the last two years on news sets learning about my chosen profession suggested that this could be “it,” that this HBO show may actually have been written just for me.
So why does The Newsroom get to take up an entire column, when I could be ranting about Iran like everyone else, about how the Internet is destroying journalism, about the frustrations of patchy 3G when trying to coordinate live Twitter coverage? Because in each of the 10 episodes of the first season, Sorkin made me think. He made me think back to covering significant news events over the past few years, of similar situations I’ve experienced professionally, albeit on a different medium, and ultimately about the type of website I want to be running here at JPost.com. Almost every episode in the first season either sparked ideas for a new column, or reminded me of one I’d written previously, though probably better constructed and produced. Ultimately, The Newsroom is responsible for the final push needed to get this column back up and running.
It seems only fitting that in order to ease back into writing after a few months hiatus while transitioning into my new role, this week I’m going to write about television.
At this point, a spoiler alert: Any readers who are interested in the series but haven’t yet watched it are advised to stop reading now, save this link, and come back to it once you’ve watched the first season. Personally, I’d also advise stopping whatever you’re doing immediately, quitting your job if need be, and watching all 10 episodes right now, but I’ll leave that up to you.
Sorkin’s new show tells the story of gruff cable news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), who is on a “mission to civilize,” putting together a nightly news broadcast which aims to “do the news” well, despite corporate and commercial pressures. To put it simply, he’s doing what every journalist worth their weight in salt dreams about. His ex-girlfriend MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), heads up a staff of dedicated newsmen and women whose personal and professional dramas fill out the show’s storylines, on the backdrop of real news events such a fire at BP's Deepwater Horizon oil well and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
The Osama bin Laden episode (Episode 7, “5/1”), for example, took me back to the morning of May 2, 2011, and covering the story on JPost.com. While the characters of The Newsroom were tipped off by an anonymous source that major news was about to break, I woke up to an SMS from then-opposition leader Tzipi Livni reacting to the event, almost tripping down the stairs in my apartment as I read the message and breaking into a run toward the office as I realised what had transpired while I’d been sleeping. For me, the episode rang parallels of the night Prime Minister Binaymin Netanyahu announced that a deal to free Gilad Schalit had been signed. That night, in October, 2011, we too received tips a few hours before the official announcement. In the days that followed we made plan after plan in the newsroom, fielded countless phone calls and emails, and stayed awake for far longer than is healthy, fueled by an adrenaline buzz that lasted over a week.
“5/1” also did a brilliant job of capturing the dissonance for Americans of that day - the celebratory feeling of triumph over evil, adulterated by hesitance to laud death in whatever form. As a viewer, those joyous scenes were accompanied by a feeling of unease, which from subsequent conversations I understand many in the US felt too on that day.
McAvoy raises the issue of anonymous comments on The Newsroom’s website in Episode 6 (“Bullies”), after receiving a scarily credible death threat. I too mulled the issue last year on these very pages, after The Jerusalem Post launched a new talkback system which had reporters, readers, contributors and editors alike up in arms. Episode 5 (“Amen”), stirred up nostalgia too, when the Newsroom team tracked down an Egyptian blogger to help them cover the emerging Arab Spring in the Middle East. For me also, some 18 months ago, the same topic inspired a few pieces of writing, including the first for this column.
In Episode 8 (“The Blackout, Part 1), when Sorkin’s journalists are ordered to report a story with little editorial value in order to bring up the ratings, I was reminded of various trashy stories in the Israeli media which we’ve “ummed” and “ahhed” about covering. Children killed by estranged fathers, parents killed by unstable children, four-year-olds in suitcases with mothers married to their daughter’s grandfather - all of which guaranteed page views if splashed at the top of the site with a sexy headline, but were really entertainment rather than news.
The Newsroom episode which hit me hardest, and which may yet inspire its very own spin-off column, was Episode 4 (“I’ll try to fix you”), on the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. The pace of the episode made for a poetically realistic depiction of how big unexpected news events tend to unfold - everything seemed to be heading in one direction, with the entire show focused on tabloid dramas over McAvoy’s public image, until the shooting story breaks. The look on assistant producer Maggie (played by Alison Pill)’s face as she witnesses the first reports coming through the wire - from boredom to vague interest, to rising concern - have flashed across my face in the past as well, and I’ve seen many editors and journalists with that same look, when news breaks through endless streams of information.
The meatiest part of the series played out during the last 10 minutes of that episode, as the journalists made split-second decisions about whether or not to go with a sketchy report of the Democratic representative’s death, which of course turned out not to be true.
For me, the episode eerily echoed a few situations I’ve witnessed at work in recent years, including of course the story of the 2011 shooting itself. Most recently, in the days following a terror attack in Bulgaria which claimed the lives of five Israelis in July this year, a series of Israeli news sites wrote up and published a badly translated Bulgarian report about a suspect. The articles were accompanied by a picture of a man who looked like the suspect who ended up being arrested for the attack, mainly because they both had long hair. Needless to say, the story spread fast.
After deliberations between the Internet editor on shift and our military reporter at the time, the decision was made not to post a story, as the report was unconfirmed and based only on the one Bulgarian report. Just like Will and Mac in Episode 4, the safe, conservative decision paid off in the end, when one by one, reporters, ABC News, the Pentagon and Bulgarian authorities denied both the report and the identity of the culprit. The victorious feeling a journalist gets when they make such a call and get it right - the “I told you so!” - was aptly captured.
Though I’m not a television critic and may not have a license to do so, I’m giving the show five stars. I do concede, however, that I’m hardly an impartial judge. I was recently told that sometimes my choices of topics for past columns appeared to be directed at other journalists rather than my audience at large. Sorkin may have fallen into the same trap; every journalist I’ve spoken to has raved about The Newsroom, whereas “normal” people have been less enthusiastic. For anyone intimately engaged with the style and content matter, the show is near-on perfect, but for others it can be too narrow and industry-specific.
And while we might both have a lesson or two to learn, for now I’d like to offer a sincere “Thank you” to Sorkin and his team for the hours of viewing pleasure, and to reassure my fellow news nerds that The Newsroom has been renewed for a second season, set to premier in June 2013.
The writer is the Managing Editor of JPost.com