What Will the Untimely Death of 'The Newsroom' Say About Journalism?

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy in the news drama series, 'The Newsroom.'Credit: AP
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

We may want to deny it, but most of us like, and need, a mirror in our lives. Preferably, we’d want it to be a mirror on the wall that will always tell us we are the most beautiful (wise, smart or any other affirmative adjective) of all. But being what we are, and the world being what it is, we’ll settle for anything that will respond, and reflect, the fact of our mere being.

That is why I, being a sucker for police and law procedurals in my TV diet, am the ideal viewer of series dealing with the lives of practicing journalists. And being – as it were – on the sidelines of “real life” journalism, since I write about culture and not about wars, lives and sudden death and catastrophes, I’m a real aficionado for series taking place in the “trenches” of newsmaking, like “The Newsroom,” the latest ouevre of TV producer and writer Aaron Sorkin, of “The West Wing” fame.

It is screened every Monday on Yes Oh, each episode being beamed almost concurrently with its release in the U.S. on HBO, which produces it. Its protagonist, and indeed hero, is Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels), the anchor and producer of a fictional newscast, “News Night,” broadcast on a fictional cable station, ACN (Atlantis Cable News). The lines between fact and fiction – a serious no-no when news is concerned – become a bit blurred because of Jane Fonda, who was married for a time to a real-life owner of a cable network empire, Ted Turner of CNN. Here, she plays Leona Lansing, owner of ACN, who is on the verge of selling it to a business tycoon. He will presumably be less concerned with moot issues like “freedom of speech” and a free press, and rather more about the free-for-all business of making money.

Watching many films and TV series about the media can make one a slave to one’s own memories, and that is why, while watching “The Newsroom,” I could not erase from my mind the young Jane Fonda playing a fearless reporter in the movie “The China Syndrome,” series like “Lou Grant” with Ed Asner as the editor, and of course the famous fictional “Network,” the factional “All the President’s Men” and the almost documentary “Good Night and Good Luck,” George Clooney’s movie about that paragon of the television news industry, Ed Murrow.

Will McAvoy is no Murrow, but he is no less committed to reporting the news on his beat as he sees it, “in the face of corporate and commercial obstacles and their own personal entanglements,” as the premise of the series was formulated at its launching in 2012. It has been said about Sorkin that he likes all his characters to be “good” – there were no real villains in “The West Wing” – but that does not mean his characters lack blemishes.

On the contrary: If, in other run-of-the-mill TV series the protagonists possess a solid guide of conduct – the law and its constraints in crime and law procedurals – the only guide for the news journalist is “the truth,” and that seems to be a slippery concept at best, sliding down a slippery slope of relativity and conflicting agendas.

The journalist in movies and on TV once seemed to be the only remaining stalwart of honesty, a knight in the shining armour of truth. Nowadays we get to see up close the human chinks in his – or her – armour. McAvoy has his share of warts (substance abuse, his own ego and messed-up personal life) but when push comes to shove (and it happens twice or thrice in every episode) he rises to the professional and personal heights expected of him. For example, in the first episode of the third season, “Boston,” dealing with coverage of the breaking news of the Boston Marathon bombing, the newsroom cheers when a rival channel hastily reports a bit of news that was found to be false. McAvoy and the chief of ACN, Charlie Skinner (played by the veteran Sam Waterston, of “Law & Order” pedigree) admonish them almost in unison, and harshly. They shouldn’t have rejoiced over their rivals’ failure, since they are prone to the same fate; indeed, most of season three of the series has to do with ACN rebuilding its reputation after having had to retract a major story.

Sorkin’s stature in the TV industry makes him an ideal butt of inside jokes. One of them is “the Sorkin sketch” which parodies some of his most characteristic writing and filming mannerisms. An example is two characters sharing lines of a smart and witty dialogue while walking from place A to place B (the credit for this should have gone to Thomas Schlamme, director of “The West Wing”). Another is a minor character in a hierarchical organization (a newsroom or the army; Sorkin wrote the play “A Few Good Men”) asking for “a permission to speak freely,” and then pointing everyone in the right direction and setting the plot on the right course again.

One can see something of Sorkin’s writing mannerisms in the last segments of the life of his latest series. While “The Newsroom” is still “walking and talking,” it marches toward its end, which echoes the threat of extinction hovering over the newsgathering profession in general. After two seasons, it was decided that “The Newsroom” does not deliver the expected ratings, and commercial and corporate obstacles have sentenced it to an untimely death. Its current third season of six episodes — a stay of execution, if you will — will be its last, and there are only two episodes to go until the pulling of the plug.

So, in a way, it is the right time for a series about a TV newsroom to “speak freely.” And indeed, with the Boston bombing in the background (and the charm of “The Newsroom” was partly that it dealt with real life news in a fictional setting), the network itself is in danger of being taken over; one of the staffers is in hiding for fear of being charged with spying (for obtaining classified documents); and McAvoy has received a subpoena from a grand jury, where he, as expected, refuses to name sources.

A series about a noble profession – yes, I do see journalism as such – on the verge of becoming extinct due to commercial and corporate obstacles, has two episodes more to say something meaningful about TV newsgathering and reporting. Now is the time for the series and its producer to speak freely about itself and the world it lives in, reports about, reflects (as a kind of a mirror on our walls) and is reflected upon.