Not Enough News in “The Newsroom”


Hollywood has a love hate relationship with the news business. I’ve known a lot of actors and writers who are fascinated with the news, but hate the reporters they have to deal with in their professional lives; the paparazzi, the gossip press, the celebrity reporters who ask the same dumb questions every time.

Hollywood’s portrayal of reporters is the industry’s revenge.

A few minutes into the first episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom on HBO, news broke about the real-life explosion on British Petroleum’s oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, but the newsroom characters just stood  around debating the importance of the story in rapid-fire Sorkinese.

I turned to my wife and asked, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

She said, “Not one person is on the telephone trying to find out what happened.”

Instead, the newsroom staff was waiting for the wire services to post an alert that this was a huge story. A burning oil platform with 11 missing people is the lead story, and they all would have known it.

I’m always torn between being pleased that Hollywood thinks the news business is worthy of interest and dreading the portrayal.  With some good exceptions, the entertainment business has not travelled far from the days when reporters were portrayed as a pack of men wearing fedoras with a card saying “press” tucked in the hatband.

With The Newsroom, Sorkin is trying to bring high-mindedness to the news business in the way he brought it to The White House in The West Wing, and he doesn’t have to be realistic. Fiction compresses reality to make a point– life is long and art is short– but sometimes it’s just silly. When they finally got down to doing their jobs, Sorkin’s reporters developed information in minutes that in reality would have taken days or weeks to gather. To a real reporter it’s laughable. I’m sure lots of cops, lawyers and doctors also have bristled at Hollywood’s treatment of their professions, even when worthwhile issues were explored. But the slow reaction of Sorkin’s newsies to the oil platform explosion was like detectives debating whether a murder needed investigation.

Perhaps, some of the inaccuracies in The Newsroom will bother only someone in the business. As a veteran journalist who worked in Vietnam, Sam Waterston’s character never would have said he was “embedded” with an artillery unit. In those days, reporters covered the war uninvited. Worse was the producer who complains to the anchorman that, “You yelled at me in front of the crew.” In a real newsroom, the yelling goes on in front of the crew, the secretaries, other reporters, visitors from China and even your mother if she happens to drop by that day.   

The problems confronting the news business are much deeper than verbal abuse and whether news producers recognize a story when they see it.  Expenses are rising and income is falling. Anchors with multi-million dollar salaries sit in on discussions about whether there’s enough money to send a camera crew to a story. Less-experienced reporters are hired in the mistaken belief that elusive younger viewers will watch young faces deliver the news. The deepest cynicism in television news lives in those executives who have abandoned real news in a mistaken quest to please rather than inform their audience.

Sorkin’s The Newsroom touches on some of this in its preachy sharper-than-thou dialogue, but it flies by pretty fast.

For some reason the news business is just hard for Hollywood to get. Reporters are often portrayed in movies as dislikable because they are liars, or willing to give away the location of an Army unit to make a call on their satellite phone.  Never mind that the unarmed reporter’s life depends on those soldiers.

Reporters are often dislikable, but for better reasons. They are aggressive and impatient. They are rude and shout over other people. They want to know what the hell is going on and they want to know right now. They make cruel but funny jokes about the latest dead celebrity. And they are not sentimental because they’ve heard and seen too much. Unlike in The Newsroom, the job they do is not accompanied by a gauzy sound track of emotional music. They want the truth.  Just tell us how many people are dead.

Real reporters are so much more entertaining than Hollywood’s. Back in the late 80s, I was sent to cover a press appearance by Raisa Gorbachev, wife of the Soviet premier, after she’d had lunch with the cosmetics magnate Estee Lauder and a bunch of other powerful American women. One of the reporters asked, “Raisa, will there be détente between the US and the Soviet Union?” Trying to avert an uncomfortable political moment, the tiny 82-year-old Estee Lauder interrupted in her thick Hungarian accent and said, “Mrs. Gorbachev is not here to …”, when she was interrupted by a New York reporter who blurted out, “Shut up, Estee! We didn’t ask you!”

That’s the American press I know and love. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Page Two

Jaw Meet Floor

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Small President

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Cuba Diaries

Sunday, March 13, 2016

An Alphabet of Maladies

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Healthcare Confusion Act

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Freedom from Speech

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Too Big to Fire

Friday, June 19, 2015

More Probable Than Not

Thursday, May 14, 2015

It's Been Said

" 'The enemy of the people,'" was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017 ... It is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies. It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase 'enemy of the people,' that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of 'annihilating such individuals' who disagreed with the supreme leader."
Arizona republican Sen. Jeff Flake speaking on the floor today.

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