Broadcast politics

After President Obama was elected, many in the press even compared the West Wing’s fiction to the facts on the ground in 2008.

election mess 311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
election mess 311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps by design, as we quickly approach Election Day in the United States, Israeli television is providing us with some of the best fictional television programs about politics ever seen on the small screen.
There’s old and new – but all have a certain insight into November’s race to the White House and, to a certain degree, can shed some light on Israeli political affairs as well.
First and foremost is West Wing, which is now being re-run on cable TV. The outstanding drama, which originally ran from 1999 to 2006 in the US, followed a fictional administration of American President Josiah Bartlet. In a nutshell, the series focused on both the political intrigues of the Democratic and Republican parties as well as the personal lives of key members of the White House staff. The last season, which is currently being aired, shifted a good deal of attention to focus on a fictional presidential election.
The race pits a relatively unknown Latino Democratic congressman, Matt Santos, from Texas, played by Jimmy Smits, against a veteran Republican senator from California, Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda.
Back when the show was first running, political insiders I worked with at the time praised the show for its realism and authentic portrayal of the campaigns. In the show, each side is desperately trying to outmaneuver the other and often having to compromise in an effort to win over the support of various groups.
After President Obama was elected, many in the press even compared the West Wing’s fiction to the facts on the ground in 2008.
Indeed anyone following the show could find many similarities between the campaign four years ago and the TV show which aired three years before that. Strangely enough, the West Wing’s similarities resonate even in the 2012 campaign.
On the show, the GOP candidate Arnold Vinick is a moderate leader who served in a liberal state. While he easily takes the nomination thanks to his charisma and knowledge, he is afterwards badgered by the more conservative wing of the Republican Party to change his stance on hot-button topics.
To appease these forces he becomes ambiguous on certain issues and changes his publicly stated opinions. Does this sound familiar to those following the Romney campaign? West Wing was the brainchild of Aaron Sorkin, a media master who created some excellent shows and movies. On more than one occasion, Sorkin has been accused of promoting a liberal agenda, and you’d be hard pressed to disagree with that assessment.
The subtext for most of his work has been a feeling of social responsibility, which is supposed to give the viewer something to think about in hopes of making this a better world.
His latest show, The Newsroom, which is currently airing on Israeli TV, is a perfect example of how NOT to win people over by overtly preaching to the audience. It’s important to mention that while the West Wing aired on network TV in the US, Newsroom airs on the cable channel HBO, which is limited in the number of viewers. HBO reaches people who generally more affluent.
The program also does not go through the regular FCC/censorship channels.
The hype of Sorkin returning to do a regular TV show was huge and the cast seemed to be a winning combination. Despite that, critics panned the pilot. Personally, I always believe that you need to give a show at least four episodes until you can give a fair assessment.
After watching six shows, I can honestly say that Newsroom needs to be seriously retooled and quickly if it’s to survive.
First of all, the characters on the show are one-dimensional and most seem to have very few redeeming qualities. They are annoying, spineless or impossible personalities.
I might be able to live with some of that if Sorkin wasn’t trying to slam his message into my head with a baseball bat.
By that I mean that there is absolutely no subtlety in the way he’s trying to let the viewer know that he feels, for example, that the TV news industry in the US is dreck or that the American people are being misled by hard-line Republicans (i.e. the Tea Party).
The shows also deals with issues from the recent past – the BP oil spill and the Arizona immigration law among others, and it feels like Sorkin is using the show to bluntly give his take on those and other issues. For some reason, I’m uncomfortable with that. Maybe it’s because Sorkin is lecturing the viewer on how he thinks these stories should have been handled.
Whatever entertainment value there might be in the show is far outweighed by the immense political substance in every episode. Due to its proximity to the 2012 election, Newsroom smells like Sorkin and HBO are more concerned about persuading than entertaining....
The last show I would like to mention briefly is the classic political British satire Yes Minister, which became Yes Prime Minister.
I strongly recommend everyone watch this show, which is now being re-aired on Educational television. Educational indeed.
In its original 36-episode run in the 1980s, the program reached the pinnacle of its genre by telling the truth about the relations between elected officials and the people, as well as about the inner workings of government.
While the production values aren’t up to today’s standards, the acting was superb and the dialogue still holds up over 30 years later. Here are some lines from the show: On political speeches: “A good speech isn’t one where we can prove that the minister is telling the truth, it’s one that nobody else can prove that he’s lying... Delivering a speech is just a formality you have to go through in order to get the press release into the papers.”
On suppressing information: “Suppression is the instrument of totalitarian dictatorships.
We don’t talk of that sort of thing in a free country. We simply take a democratic decision not to publish.”
On foreign policy: “The four-stage strategy – the standard foreign office response in a time of crisis. In stage one we say: ‘Nothing is going to happen.’ In stage two we say ‘Something is maybe going to happen but we should do nothing about it.’ In stage three we say that ‘Maybe we should do something about it, but there’s nothing we can do.’ In stage four we say ‘Maybe there’s something we could have done, but it’s too late now.”
On NOT voting to condemn Israel in the United Nations: “If you [the prime minister] insist on an even-handed approach the foreign office might agree to you abstaining on the matter of Israel so long as you authorize our man there to make a powerful speech attacking Zionism... The UN is the accepted forum for expression of international hatred.”
Does any of this sound familiar?
Jeremy Ruden is an independent media consultant.