Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Nature abhors a vacuum but what's between your ears?

I have a crush on The Newsroom

The first few minutes went live on the web before the first episode aired, and I was quickly intrigued.  I was a huge fan of The West Wing and its "smart people talking really fast about smart things" formula, and I was excited to see this applied to broadcast journalism.

(Full disclosure:  I minored in journalism in college and considered a career in the industry.  I went a different direction partially because of exactly the media issues addressed by The Newsroom  – I say at the risk of getting ahead of myself – and partially because I wanted to do something more artsy.)

So that first clip is really well-known.  But the clip that reaches inside my chest and wraps its hand around my beating heart is this one: 

YES YES YES.  It's the speech I imagine my college journalism professor – a fantastic and smart man who taught his students to be diligent and meticulously ethical – would want to see on television news.  It's the speech I would love to see, and the speech that would get me watching a news show religiously (should I ever own a working TV again).

The show does fall victim to some trademark Sorkin pitfalls:  the male lead is a genius prodigy with daddy issues, there is angst aplenty about co-workers who can't admit they're in love, everyone is a super genius who talks a mile a minute, etc.  And the liberal bias is deep enough that you need a snorkeling mask.  But beneath all that, the show makes some very important points about the state of American journalism.

The graphic at the left circulated on Facebook not too long ago.  It's one of those "laugh because it's funny; cry because it's true" things for me.

I'm a self-confessed CNN junkie.  When I had a working TV or when I'm somewhere where I have access to and control of one, I'll happily leave CNN on all day.  I like seeing the different ways a story is presented based on the time of day and the demographic audience at that time, or the way the presentation is changed between daytime and prime time and the weekend.  But mostly I like a steady stream of information.  (It's the same reason I feel naked without my smart phone now – I can't stand feeling like there's something going on that I don't know about.  Maybe that's why I studied journalism.)

But I feel a little guilty for my CNN obsession, because I know that even though it's not as clearly biased as Fox News or MSNBC, it's still not presenting the highest form of discourse or anything close to a complete picture of the news.  (There are a few exceptions to this.  Fareed Zakaria has a Sunday morning show that deals with a lot of international news that the network at large ignores or under-covers... but it's hidden away on Sunday morning.)  I could listen to NPR or watch C-SPAN, but I don't.  I call myself a purist, but instead of going to the organic farmer's market I happily swallow the processed, preservative-laden canned vegetables from the local chain grocery store. 

So how do you fix the state of journalism when even those who love it fall into the trap of style over substance?  I don't know.  It's too late to put the advertising worms back in the can, so whether we like it or not, news and its presentation are a business.  Print journalism weakens with every passing day.  And while the rise of blogs and the internet provides a wider range of sources for information, it also skews the signal to noise ratio heavily.

For now, I'm content to get lost in Sorkin's idealistic little world once in a while and resolved to begin seeking different sources for my news fix. 

Post title is a line from this R.E.M. song.


  1. I've not seen The Newsroom, but I've heard a great deal of conflicting opinions on it. The most troubling to me is the allegation that Sorkin infantilizes his female characters here, or at least writes them very one-note. The concept does sound interesting to me; I'm a big fan of shows that take an inside look at media production, especially TV, but that claim's been enough to keep me away from the show so far.

    As for the state of journalism itself, I've always been of the Hunter S. Thompson school of thought myself, c.f.:

    "So much for Objective Journalism. Don't bother to look for it here — not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms."

    "If you consider the great journalists in history, you don't see too many objective journalists on that list...I don't quite understand this worship of objectivity in journalism. Now, just flat-out lying is different from being subjective."

  2. Wow. OK, I admit I'd skipped this clip going around for a long time because frankly, I was suffering from Arron Sorkin burn-out. I still love The West Wing and Sports Night, but I was frankly bored of the man himself. He seemed, well still seems most of the time, to embody many of the worst stereotypes that Conservatives have about people like me on the American Left. He is your classic Limousine Liberal, a phrase I use unironically only for him, Keith Olbermann, Michael Moore, and Arianna Huffington. To a lesser extent Bill Maher too, but I'm getting off point. This clip is something I only dream of ever hearing on real news programs.

    To a degree I get it from Rachel Maddow. MSNBC may sell itself as the "liberal alternative to Fox," but take away their Conservative host (who gets three hours in the morning; that'd be like of Fox gave that much air time to Dennis Kucinich), the more Centrist Democrat types, and the Obamabots, she, Mellisa Harris-Perry, and Chris Hayes are really the only Liberal media you can get on TV unless you're lucky enough to get The Young Turks on Current. And of course Shepard Smith on Fox has his moments, after which the Fox News people immediately drag him out into the hall to re-administer the drugs* they have him on to keep him at that network. Thank goodness for outlets like Citizen Radio (, magazines like The Nation, and internet radio shows like The Majority Report, or I would be lost.

    And about here was where sleepiness caught up with me and my grand point was lost. Sigh. Well, thanks anyway Tara for sharing this.

    *I cannot confirm that they actually do this. ;-)

    1. Shepard Smith strikes me as a guy who is so beyond the point of giving any semblance of a fuck he just sits back, trolls the network and sees what he can get away with.

      But yes in terms of any actual progressive journalism you're pretty much limited to the Internet IMO. Consortium News is OK, but they seem rather more interested in towing the Democratic party line than doing any actual investigative journalism nowadays. Though Robert Parry's expose on Nixon's backdoor deal with North Korea was good.

    2. Forgot to mention Democracy Now in my list of good sources.

  3. The Obama image is on the left not the right...

  4. I haven't seen The Newsroom, yet I agree broadcast journalism is largely filtered and subjective. I love journalism and a large chunk of what I follow on Twitter are journalists. I'm particular to Huffington Post and ABC News. If you have a chance to read Anderson Cooper's Dispatches From The Edge, he provides insight as to how broadcast journalism is sensationalistic as well.

  5. He's not Liberal, he's been a registered Republican for 20 years ;D

    In all seriousness, I get most of my legit (read: not The Daily Show) news coverage from the web. Cenk Ungyar over at The Young Turks is liberal as all get-out, but he has a keen eye for when politicians are spouting bullshit, and news sites like Politico and Think-Progress are things I think more people should read.

    Disclaimer: I'm center-left on most issues, and I'm prone to grab most of my headlines from Reddit.

  6. Those were some very interesting thoughts on the state of broadcast news in this day and age. I've never actually seen a full episode of /The Newsroom/, but from what I've heard, it's a very good show. The clip you presented was an excellent example of that.