HBO’s The Newsroom: What We Can Learn

By on Monday, June 25, 2012
Sorkin’s The Newsroom offers a renegade yearning for
journalism by ideals, not ratings

HBO debuted last night a new Aaron Sorkin creation called The Newsroom which is drawing plenty of critical fire while spewing delightful dialogue onto the airways.

The plot: Evening news anchor Will McAvoy has stirred trouble for himself by lamblasting a student who asks why America is the greatest country on earth. In his view – it’s not. He blames his tirade on vertigo medication but he was distracted by a woman in the audience he thinks he sees, holding signs that say “it’s not but it could be.” You find out that he’s pulling in a hefty paycheck but lost any predilection for cutting edge speaking truth to power journalism. While McAvoy’s on vacation, his boss, played by the superb Sam Waterston, ships out his executive producer and staff to another rising star. McAvoy’s ex-girlfriend, MacKenzie McHale,who has just returned from 2+ years covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is brought in to run the show. Just as the newsroom personality ego war heats up, a breaking news story hits the wires pulled from the real headlines – the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The news team must battle their own dis-trust of each other and the clock to pull off an hour long show that looks beyond the surface details reported by the Coast Guard and exposes many of the real problems the country will face.

While providing an imperfect picture of a real cable TV nightly news show operating today, the show offers some insight that nonprofits and others seeking to work with the news media can learn from.

Booking on breaking news is super fast. A great resume with credentials to talk about a topic and the ability to answer a phone call or email right away can make the difference in being the expert on air – and being the guy watching the show at home. When news on the Deep Water Horizon spill breaks, viewers hear executive producer MacKenzie McHale quip, “book whoever answers first” when her staff rattle off names of renowned geologists who might be potential guests discussing the environmental impact of the spill. The first guy with credentials and not in a meeting who can answer the phone will be the guy booked and talking on air.
Even the big boys follow what others are reporting – and yes, tips from sources do exist. The initial news of the Deep Water Horizon spill arrives in the network news room via the news wire feed and it’s reported initially as a search and recovery mission – but it doesn’t take long for the staff to figure out that there’s an environmental disaster mushrooming from a spill of this magnitude (tipped off by friends of one of the new staffers having his rocky first day on the job) and to start raking for details. It’s common for stories to feed and mushroom at a national level. Interest from a major show can draw the other networks into the story.
Speaking truth to stupid: Do people really fear journalism is dying? Sorkin certainly conjures ghosts of Kronkite and other titans of journalism with a call to “Reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession” in the show. Many reporters today lament the shrinking time they get for stories, the limited resources they have to pursue them, and the emphasis on entertainment and first to get it coverage, over in-depth analysis. The show’s characters drink Sorkin’s idealistic Kool-Aid happily, and I think a lot of viewers will too. 
One interesting dynamic the show brings out that commentators have not noted much – the dilemma of what networks and media outlets will do with a generation of journalists who have spent the last decade in the trenches of war overseas covering US troops. One can hardly expect for these journalists to return to newsrooms and be satisfied with reporting news about Lindsay Lohan and the Kardashians. McHale and her battle-hardened team come across as trying to define a new mission – one to remake journalism according to its ideals, not its ratings and worst excesses.
Do news people really speak in the delightfully erudite rapid fire dialogue written by Aaron Sorkin? Not really. But there is a yearning among many for journalism to return to its roots of yesteryear. 
Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

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