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Aaron Sorkin’s “Newsroom”

June 28, 2012
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HBO‘s newest series, Newsroom, which debuted on Sunday, is written and produced by Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote West Wing, Sports Night, and the movie The Social Network. The show is written from an idealist perspective – how the news ought to be and could be in a best of all worlds – rather than a materialist one – how and why news media have degenerated so far and what could be done about that.

What is most interesting about Newsroom, which drew a large opening audience for its Sunday debut of 2.1 million viewers, just behind HBO’s lineup of Game of Thrones (my choice for the best show ever) which had an opening audience of 2.2 million, and Martin Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire of 4 million plus, and twice the excellent, but unlucky, Luck’s opening of 1.1 million, is the reaction of the real media to it.

In general the media strongly dislike the show.

Imagine that. A show that criticizes the media as being tawdry, superficial, money driven and stupefyingly misinforming, provokes the real media to say that they do not like the show!

Washington Post’s former media writer Howard Kurtz panned it at the Daily Beast (the successor to Newsweek) as “bad satire,” preachy and overblown:

Naturally, Will [anchor Will McAvoy played by Jeff Daniels] delivers a boffo NewsNight, running roughshod over government and corporate flacks, and at this point the audience is supposed to cheer. Except the characters have taken turns acting like such jerks that it’s more exhausting than uplifting.

As someone who is in and has been in the media, Kurtz does not know journalists who are jerks? Where have you been Mistah Kurtz? Are you dead to what real journalists can be like? Having been a journalist myself, and having been around a good number of them, I’d say the characters in Newsroom are a lot more appealing than their real counterparts generally are.

Over at The New York Times, Alessandra Stanley, while acknowledging Sorkin’s cracking good dialogue, pans it as

Railing against the shallow, ratings-driven discourse on cable news shows, Mr. Sorkin has created his own newsroom — a Brigadoon version — where high-minded journalists pursue accuracy and excellence by, as one character puts it, “speaking truth to stupid.”

Yet oddly enough “The Newsroom” suffers from the same flaw that it decries on real cable shows on MSNBC or Fox News. Cable television would be a lot better if anchors pontificated less and went back to reporting. “The Newsroom” would be a lot better if the main characters preached less and went back to reporting.

News to Stanley: Sorkin’s targets are not just other TV cable news shows. His target is the whole of the mainstream media industry, including newspapers like the Times itself. When idealistic executive producer MacKenzie McHale (an excellent and appealing Emily Mortimer) tells McAvoy that the country is at a “tipping point” and that democracy can’t survive if the people are being systematically misinformed, despite the excesses of this speech (she actually quotes from Don Quixote, or, as McAvoy corrects her, from The Man of LaMancha which was based upon Cervante’s Don Quixote tilting at windmills character), what she’s decrying is right on target.

To be fair, one of the criticisms aimed at the show is that it does more telling than showing than it should, with characters like McHale launching into speeches. But what I would criticize about this show is not that it does that but that it idealizes and thus falsifies the situation, thereby obscuring what would be an actual solution. The station’s news director, played by Sam Waterson, tells McAvoy that he “fucking loved” McAvoy’s take down of a smug, right-wing know nothing student at Northwestern (who described America as the greatest country on earth), and Waterson’s character recounts a falsified history of what American news media used to be, claiming that they used to do real news because “they decided to” do so. As if this is all about individual decisions of whether to be good or bad news people.

Consider in contrast to this absurdly benign and well-intentioned portrayal of a News Director, these two actual stories, the first about NBC and the second about Viacom/CBS:

In the 2000 Presidential race, when the major TV networks retracted their earlier and correct projection that Florida was going to Gore, thus making him President, Bush’s cousin John Ellis, who was brought into Fox’s studios to act as the head of their “decision desk,” called Florida for Bush. Jack Welch, head of NBC/GE, who was in the NBC studios while this unfolded, asked the NBC elections desk chief why NBC was not also calling Florida for Bush. NBC listened to their boss and put Florida in Bush’s column; they later retracted it, but they had nevertheless helped to set into motion the impression that Bush was the winner and that Gore’s subsequent insistence that all the votes be counted were the actions of a sore loser.[i] The rest of the major networks then followed suit, again without any new data about the actual vote count.[ii] As David Podvin and Carolyn Kay describe it:

Shortly after George W. Bush declared his candidacy for president in June of 1999, General Electric Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jack Welch was contacted by Bush political advisor Karl Rove. Welch later informed associates that Rove told him a Bush administration would initiate comprehensive deregulation of the broadcast industry. Rove guaranteed that deregulation would be implemented in a way that would create phenomenal profits for conglomerates with significant media holdings, like GE. Rove forcefully argued that General Electric and the other media giants had a compelling financial interest to see Bush become president.

Welch told several people at GE that the conversation with Rove convinced him that a Bush presidency would ultimately result in billions of dollars of additional profits for General Electric. Welch believed that it was his responsibility to operate in the best interest of GE shareholders, and that now meant using the full power of the world’s biggest corporation to get Bush into the White House.

Toward that end, Welch said that he would finally deal with a longstanding grievance of his: the ludicrous idea that news organizations should be allowed to operate in conflict with the best interests of the corporations that own them.

Since the beginning of the country, it has been considered appropriate for the business community to exercise its right to aggressively support the candidate that best represented its interests. The new dimension that Welch introduced was the concept that the mainstream media should aggressively advance the political agenda of the corporations that own it. He did not see any difference between corporate journalism and corporate manufacturing or corporate service industries. Business was business, and the difference between winners and losers was profit, whether you were selling nuclear power or ads on the network news. From Welch’s perspective, it was insanity, not to mention bad business practice, for the corporate owners of the mainstream media to restrain themselves from using all of their assets to promote their financial well being.

In general, he saw corporate news organizations as untapped political resources that should be freed from the burden of objectivity.

Specifically, NBC News was an asset owned by the shareholders of General Electric. It existed to make profits and to serve the interests of those who owned GE stock. Period.

Anything else, Welch told associates, was “liberal bullshit.”

In 1988, NBC News president Lawrence Grossman insisted to Welch that news was a public trust and should not be subjected to the same pressure to make profits that was applied to other GE units. Welch fired him.

In 1999, the GE chairman decided that it was no longer good enough for NBC News to just be profitable. Seven years of a frequently uncooperative Democratic Administration, combined with the Rove-inspired vision of spectacular profits through deregulation, now motivated Welch to take action.

He began to aggressively, but very discreetly, evangelize the gospel of corporate media as corporate lobbying tool. It was not a new concept; in the opinion of many, it was already the status quo. But from Welch’s point of view, the corporate news organizations were not living up to their potential.

The mainstream media could make George W. Bush president.

That would be good for Americans who believed in free markets and the merit system, Welch said.[iii]

In 2004, in a story that parallels the NBC/Jack Welch tale, Viacom chief Sumner Redstone explained how his corporate identity trumped his personal politics. From the Asian Wall Street Journal, September 24, 2004, “Guess Who’s a Bush Booster? The CEO of CBS’s Parent Company Endorses Bush”:

Sumner Redstone, who calls himself a “liberal Democrat,” said he’s supporting President Bush.

The chairman of the entertainment giant Viacom said the reason was simple: Republican values are what U.S. companies need. Speaking to some of America’s and Asia’s top executives gathered for Forbes magazine’s annual Global CEO Conference, Mr. Redstone declared: “I look at the election from what’s good for Viacom. I vote for what’s good for Viacom. I vote, today, Viacom.”

“I don’t want to denigrate Kerry,” he went on, “but from a Viacom standpoint, the election of a Republican administration is a better deal. Because the Republican administration has stood for many things we believe in, deregulation and so on. The Democrats are not bad people. . . . But from a Viacom standpoint, we believe the election of a Republican administration is better for our company.”

Sharing the stage with Mr. Redstone was Steve Forbes, CEO, president and editor in chief of Forbes and a former Republican presidential aspirant, who quipped: “Obviously you’re a very enlightened CEO.”[iv] (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, pp. 277-280)

I actually agree with some of the critics who say that if the show more realistically portrayed how media that are really doing their jobs seek to find out the real story, that the show would be better. Instead, we get a too-good-to-be-true prescient Jim Harper (played by John Gallagher Jr.) smelling out the true story of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe from the get.

But Sorkin’s dead right about a number of things, especially about the death of a real civil society if the public cannot find out what is really going on.

As the computer genius Charles Babbage put it: On two occasions I have been asked, — “’Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?’. . . I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question”. [v]

If the American people are being fed garbage, they cannot make good decisions based on such a diet.

Six major conglomerates now own the U.S. media. Go back two decades and that number was in the dozens. The consolidation of news in a few hands, the turning of news into profit centers (where news shows used to be loss leaders), and the overall dominance of right-wing politics and neoliberal ideology determining what will and will not be shown and how it will be framed, make up the actual situation.

As Shanto Iyengar, a leading expert on framing, explains, referring to the well-established phenomenon that people will give very different answers to questions depending upon how the questions are worded, “Question wording effects are not symptomatic of weakly held preferences or naive respondents. To the contrary, these effects emerge across a wide range of subject-matter sophistication and expertise.” [vi]

In other words, it is not just the ignorant or easily swayed that are seduced by framing effects. This effect applies equally to people of very varied political persuasions. A story’s framing determines the boundaries of acceptable discussion and debate. Thinking outside those boundaries is invariably labeled “unrealistic,” rendered irrelevant, and designated as impossible or outlandish in the arena of “legitimate” public debate.

The main problem for our society is not, therefore, that too few Americans pay close enough attention to the news or that too many Americans are gullible, even though both of these phenomena exist and contribute significantly to the problem. Through a combination of, on the one hand, the media’s failure to cover—or censorship of—vital facts and issues and, on the other hand, their framing of issues in ways that predetermine what may or may not be considered, what the people of this country do not know about public policy and what falsehoods they believe have never been more extensive, extreme, and consequential. In the parlance of computer science: GIGO—Garbage In, Garbage Out. If the people are not being given reliable and fair representations of current events and issues, and if in addition they are being systematically told outright falsehoods, then there is no way that they can make sensible and wise decisions; they are being fed a steady diet of garbage. Mushrooms grow well on manure, but people do not make good decisions on a steady diet of it… (Pp. 263)

In other words, it isn’t just “telling truth to stupid,” as McHale puts it, articulating her view of what media ought to be. It’s more, “telling truth about the media, stupid.”

 


___________________________

[i] See Robert Parry, “Price of the ‘Liberal Media’ Myth,” ConsortiumNews.com, January 1, 2003, http://www.consortiumnews.com/Print/123102a.html, accessed January 5, 2009.

See also Dan Kennedy, “Jack Welch’s Journalistic values (II),” Media Nation (blog), October 28, 2006, http://www.dankennedy.net/2006/10/, accessed February 11, 2009.

[ii] Michael I. Niman, “Bush Cousin Calls Presidential Election,” Buffalo Beat, MediaStudy.com, December 14, 2000, http://www.mediastudy.com/articles/jellis.html, accessed May 23, 2009.

[iii] David Podvin and Carolyn Kay, “Media Coverup Part IV,” MakeThemAccountable.com, December 31, 2009, http://makethemaccountable.com/coverup/Part_04.htm, accessed January 3, 2010. A source for the Podvin and Kay article is a former GE media executive who wishes to remain anonymous.

[iv] This article is no longer available on the Wall Street Journal’s website. A copy and paste version of the entire article, however, can be found at GamingForums.com, http://igamingforums.com/iGaming/ViacomSetsRecordStraight/dnqjn/post.htm, accessed February 19, 2011.

[v] Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (London: Longman and Co., 1864), 67.

[vi] Shanto Iyengar, “Framing Responsibility for Political Issues: The Case of Poverty,” Political Behavior, Vol. 12 (1990), No. 1,20

 

Dennis Loo is Professor of Sociology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is a Harvard honors graduate in Government and received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of “Globalization and the Demolition of Society” and Co-Editor/Author of “Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney”. Website: Dr. Dennis Loo

 

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