“The Newsroom:” Hollywood’s Latest Foray into Journalism

Reporters have been the subject of something like 2,100 feature films since Hollywood discovered that, like cops, doctors and lawyers, they lead interesting lives.

Television also has tackled the news business. Since the 1950s there have been something like 40 programs devoted to newspaper and TV newsrooms. Those older than 40 may remember the Mary Tyler Moore Show in the early 1970s. Or they may recall its dramatic, Emmy-winning spin-off, Lou Grant that ran from 1977 to 1982. Or how about Murphy Brown, which ran from 1988 to 1998?

OK, let’s be honest.

 Anybody who has ever worked in a real newsroom knows that Hollywood, bless its money-grubbing heart, just can’t get it right when it comes to what goes on inside the newsrooms of a daily newspaper or a television station.

 But that doesn’t keep it from trying.

 Take Hollywood’s latest foray into the world of those who gather the news. It’s an HBO vehicle called “The Newsroom.” I watched the pilot this past week and while I was really trying to give the show a chance, there were several instances when I had to yell “No! No! No!” at my big screen TV.

Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy

Take, for example, the scene in which the boss of this fictional cable news outfit tells his #1 anchorman that he was “embedded” with an Army artillery unit in Vietnam. This character, played by Sam Waterston, should know better. After all, he played the lead character in 1984’s “The Killing Fields,” about the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in 1975.

 Here’s a news flash: Reporters in Vietnam were never embedded. That was the beauty of Vietnam (if indeed that phrase can ever be used to describe that war). Reporters were free to go where they wanted with whomever they wanted. Sorry Sam, no embedding! That began with the second Gulf war.

 Then there is the producer who gets upset because anchorman Will McAvoy, played pretty well by Jeff Daniels, yells at him in front of the staff. What? Heaven forbid!

 Listen, if I had a quarter for every time I was yelled at when I was a struggling general assignment reporter for the Chicago Tribune in the late 1960s and early 1970s, well I probably could fill up the gas tank in my gas-guzzling SUV. And that is saying something!

 Luckily for me, I managed to escape the Tribune’s cavernous newsroom after about 5 five years and spend the rest of my career away from Chicago as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Latin America where crabby editors couldn’t yell at me anymore.

 The other irritant in The Newsroom is the way people talk. There is a lot of pontificating about what journalism is or should be. Help! Reporters, editors and producers don’t talk that way in newsrooms. They may do so in bars or when talking to journalism students on college campuses, but even then only rarely.

 Instead the conversations in newsrooms deal with stories that need to be covered; about how stories should be written or produced; what kinds of photos or graphics should go with a package; how a story is edited; what video should be used; and where a story will be played in the paper or during a 30-minute broadcast.

 Often there is a lot of arguing and yelling as editors, producers and reporters disagree over what the lead of a story is or how it should be played.

 Yet in The Newsroom, which takes place in 2010 and has, as its inaugural story the explosion of British Petroleum’s oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, nobody seems to know what to do.

The Newsroom Staff

Incredibly, nobody picks up a phone to check out the bulletin that has come over the Associated Press wire. They just stand around waiting for more updates. Finally, a field producer who has arrived with McAvoy’s new executive producer MacKenzie McHale (played by Emily Mortimer) manages to figure out what is going on.

 How? In cell phone calls he learns from his former college roommate (how astoundingly convenient!) who is an insider at BP that BP doesn’t know how to fix the spill. Then he gets a call from his sister (how impressively auspicious!) who works at the EPA and she fills in all the relevant details.

 Voila! There you have it. The complete story of the worst oil spill in history, wrapped up in about 45 minutes.

 Sorry folks, it simply doesn’t happen that way. Huge stories like that take weeks or maybe even months to fully report and understand.

 OK, I recognize that TV and movie scripts need to be tight and dramatic license dictates that all the boring stuff like actual reporting, exhaustive research, interviewing of sources face to face and writing or producing a compelling story is like dropping silly putty into the gas tank of a Ferrari when it comes to movies and TV shows.

 Yet, I wonder if some of the donkey work might not make for good drama also.

 That is, after all, what good journalism is all about. It’s the tedious digging through records, reading old clips or viewing old stories, interviewing, observing, analyzing, discussing, agonizing over accuracy, writing and sometimes rewriting that real reporters worth their salt do.

 I have talked to lawyers about how they are portrayed by Hollywood. An attorney told me once: “If people really knew what lawyers do nobody would go to law school. Unlike TV shows that show lawyers waxing brilliant in courtrooms, most of our time is spent briefing old cases, seeking precedents, or involved in what can only be called old-fashioned drudgery.”

 Of course, that wouldn’t make for good drama or those much-needed “eureka” moments when the cop figures out who dun-it or when the virtuoso lawyer gets the “real” culprit to confess right there in court.

 Good journalism and discovering the truth is more of a slog through a muddy bog than an unimpeded supersonic flight. Another bothersome plot in The Newsroom is the Waterston character’s altruistic confession to reluctant anchor McAvoy that he wants to return a perfectly profitable news operation with good ratings to an era when good old-fashioned journalism ruled the day and costs be damned.

 Who cares about ratings, about the expense of actually sending reporters out of The Newsroom to cover stories? Americans need quality journalism and news organizations should provide it, rather than indulge them with the insipid and gratuitous infotainment that they would rather have.

 Ahem. One suspects that as soon as the suits in the upper echelons of this fictional cable news network discovered this plot they would purge the place of such crass idealism. In fact, that battle is looming in the series and guess who plays the CEO of the parent company? You guessed it: It’s (Hanoi) Jane Fonda. Now there is a bit of brilliant casting.

 Here’s an idea. Why not have Jane send Waterston to a Vietnamese re-education camp until he learns that today’s news business is interested more in maximizing profits than in spending the millions of dollars it takes to effectively cover the world we live in?

 While I may seem overly critical of The Newsroom I am actually withholding my final judgment for another few episodes. Perhaps Aaron Sorkin, the executive producer of this peek into the world of journalism, will be the one Hollywood mogul who gets it right.

 Stay tuned….

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