11:48 am Aug. 13, 20124
Every Monday, Glynnis MacNicol writes about the new HBO series, "The Newsroom." Today, Episode 8, "The Blackout, Part 1: Tragedy Porn." (Earlier posts here.)
If you share Aaron Sorkin's political views then Sunday night's "Newsroom" was the episode for you. Let's call it political porn (and not the Anthony Weiner kind, though Weiner did make an appearance this week).
Over the last eight weeks I keep asking people who tell me they enjoy the show (and more than a few people must: "Newsroom" ratings are reasonably strong and there can't feasibly be that many hate-watchers out there) what they enjoy about it. Without fail the answer comes down to their feeling that Sorkin is giving righteous, articulate, unrelenting voice to their political beliefs. Some might see this as a dramatic shortcoming, but fair enough. Sorkin is the Glenn Beck of the liberal media elite! And he demonstrates it with a vengeance this week in a series of bludgeoning dramatic exchanges that sound like nothing so much as a dramatized reading of the comments section of Media Matters. Saddle up angry liberals: this episode is for you.
First a quick note. The episode is titled The Blackout, Part 1: Tragedy Porn. Two parts!
That Sorkin felt the need to split this episode into two parts once again suggests that he is best suited to network television and has only landed at HBO through some weird, misdirected executive brainstorm accident. Thus far the only thing about "The Newsroom" that remotely requires the HBO platform is some awkwardly placed and completely unnecessary profanities.
The episode pivots on a series of crappy, lowbrow decisions (though happily none of them involved Maggie, Jim and Don's weird love triangle, which received nary a mention) which the folks at "News Night" must make to maintain their ratings and their negotiating power at the network (kudos to Sorkin for acknowledging this is often the source of our crappy television).
Part 1 opens on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, 2011. "News Night" has just lost half its viewers to HLN's Nancy Grace due to its refusal to cover the Casey Anthony trial. News president Charlie Skinner, our anchor Will McAvoy, and his executive producer MacKenzie McHale are informed in no uncertain terms by Reese Lansing that they had better get on the Casey Anthony ratings wagon, pronto, or else.
"Or else." in this case, is a reference to the upcoming Republican primary presidential debate which Will and company are hoping to moderate so that they can forever change how presidential debates are done. (Less clear is what this change involves, but calling Michele Bachmann an idiot on TV appears to be part of it.)
Scared that if the show's ratings drop any further they risk giving Leona Lansing (the still glorious Jane Fonda) a reason to cancel the show and/or that the Republican National Committee will lose interest in Will as moderator (part of Will's appeal, we are told, is that he is currently the second most-watched anchor on cable; more on that in a moment), Charlie and Will quickly agree to hand over a quarter of the show to Casey Anthony, enraging MacKenzie who still wants to do a real news show, ratings be damned. (One of the stories that gets pushed to the side is Sloan's "prescient" piece about the debt ceiling, that wildly undercovered news story that the mathematically-challenged MacKenzie can't see her way to squeezing in.)
As if having to cover a baby killer is not insulting enough to the sensibilities of the "News Night" fixers, late in the day Andrew Breitbart's site reports that Anthony Weiner has tweeted a picture of his … well you know the story. The highbrow folks at "News Night," faced with a long weekend of Casey Anthony, attempt to wash their hands of Weiner and as the lowest rung on the hierarchy-ladder Maggie is eventually assigned to set up a segment. Adding salt to the wound, in a subsequent story meeting someone audaciously suggests they cover the weather: New York is in the midst of a heatwave and there is the possibility of tornadoes.
But Casey Anthony and Weiner are bad enough: Will will not stoop to weather reporting. Come Monday Will has convinced himself Casey Anthony and a woman who leaks them revealing text messages from Weiner when she shows up on set amid a round of cable talk appearances are the price he has to pay to do "good" in journalism (i.e. create a new presidential debate format, which will presumably be the series finale), and Don is called in to explain to the staff what makes Casey Anthony coverage so compelling.
Unlike most of Sorkin's lectures, this bit of media coverage edification actually proves interesting. Using a clip of Grace's show, Don breaks down the science behind courtroom television: why so much of the coverage involves unrelated loops of the suspect in court filmed from different angles, why the camera cuts away from certain talking heads to show seemingly miscellaneous tape, why the screen is set up the way it is, why certain child abduction cases make the news while many, many others don't. We all know courtroom coverage can be compelling (if tawdry) but the logic behind it, or rather that there even is a particular logic behind it is a good reminder television is the modern Great Oz pulling our emotional strings with the hand of a deft marionette artist.
Alas, here's where the whole tragedy porn lecture falls apart (as it always seems to do on this show, because Sorkin is more interested at yelling at us than digging deep enough to figure out why things work a certain way).
In real life, Nancy Grace, the HLN host who coined the phrase 'Tot Mom' to describe Casey Anthony, was indeed benefitting from a surge in viewers interested in the trial (and would increasingly do so for its remainder). But Sorkin's premise that "News Night" needed to chase that coverage to retain its audience is not supported by reality. First things first: Will, we are told, is the second most-watched anchor on cable. Sorkin would probably do well to tweak this fact to make WIll the second most-watched anchor who doesn't work for Fox News; Fox News consistently holds the top 8-10 spots in cable news ratings (in May 2011 Glenn Beck, still at Fox, was ranked fourth, and believe me, you would not be hearing about Casey Anthony there).
The highest ranked cabler in total viewers (Reese Lansing's concern is the number of total viewers the show lost, not demo viewers) not at Fox in May 2011 was Rachel Maddow, who is frequently the only cabler to break into the Fox-dominated top 10. Maddow did not mention Casey Anthony once during May or June, and only covered Weiner in passing. The idea that the cablers, political junkies all, would have to run to Anthony for ratings seems off; Anthony was morning-show fare for the middle of the country (at Business Insider where I was working at the time we could barely pay people to read about her) and the argument "News Night" is embroiled in over coverage is the sort one could imagine a network newscast having far more than a cable one.
Again and again in this series Sorkin continues to argue that the kind of cable news the country deserves doesn't exist, when in reality it was consistently are successfully being broadcast at 9 p.m. on MSNBC.
If Sorkin were really interested in talking cable tragedy porn he'd delve into the tragic effects we've been experiencing these last two years from the continual blurring of the lines between cable news hosts and politicians. The Republican line-up this year was nothing short of a reality show (again, political porn seems an apt description) made up of so-called politicians (and some actual reality television stars!) who appeared to be ginning for television hosting duties rather than positions as serious policy makers. That our entire political discourse since 2009—from beer summits, to the birthers, to death panels, to the actual birth certificate—seems better suited to a Nancy Grace–hosted courtroom drama than the grindings of a healthy democracy suggests the problem is not that country is being fed too much Casey Anthony, but that the media has devoted itself to turning Washington into one long reality-like, criminal case where the only endgame is ratings.
One last nit to pick. In the same way Sorkin failed to mention Lara Logan's ordeal during an episode set during the Tahrir Square uprising on the day she was brutally attacked, Will's weather-story contempt struck me as especially tone deaf. Not only is much weather reporting important newswise (there was an extreme heat shut down four U.S. nuclear plants last month, and the worst U.S. drought in over 50 years will likely jack up food prices next year) this episode was set in the same week Joplin, Mo. was decimated by tornadoes killing 189 people. You can argue coverage of disasters gets sickeningly dramatic rather quickly (on morning television, especially) but it's hard to argue it's not worthy of top-notch news coverage, nor that's its somehow beneath journalists or only appeals to trashy television watchers.
Meanwhile, in an effort to head off all the nasty gossip that's been dogging him these last few months (thanks to Lansing and that pesky gossip writer who has the audacity to call herself a journalist) Will reaches out to a reporter to write a feature on him in the hopes of getting his battle with Lansing out in public without his fingerprints on it. Before the reporter can write anything, he has to audition over the weekend, something we are told he is willing to do because he is desperate after leaving his good journalism job where he got cover stories galore to start a ill-advised start-up which has since gone bankrupt.
Those stupid people and their silly Internet dreams. Later, and more significantly, we also learn he is MacKenzie's ex-boyfriend and the person with whom she cheated on Will. (Why is Will doing this? His psychiatrist tells him he's holding his hand over the flame to take control of the pain.)
I really do wish, eight episodes into a 10-episode season, I could say that as a viewer I cared about this development, but mostly its simply further proof that Will is an unrelenting asshole and anxiety-ridden MacKenzie is a glutton for punishment, territory that's been more interestingly covered in both "Sex and the City" and "Girls" (two shows that could not have aired anywhere but HBO).
And finally: "Late to Dinner," the secret NSA source who contacted Charlie at the beginning of last week's episode and revealed there may be some nefarious wire-tapping going on at ACN, the parent company of "News Night," materializes in the New York Public Library to give Charlie more details. Thanks to the same wire-tapping technology that helped America catch Osama bin Laden, the government is eavesdropping on all of us, all the time (Morgan Freeman's big computer in the last Batman movie is a real thing we are assured!).
This is true, by the way: the government is eavesdropping on us all the time. So, presumably, is Wikileaks and FourChan. That said, Sorkin's government conspiracy theories feel so dated. They belong to a time when it was feasible that the C.I.A. and F.B.I. were actually well-oiled machines and not bureaucratic behemoths fumbling around with too much information. If Sorkin wanted to be timely he should have made the source a member of the NYPD.
"Late for Dinner" tells Charlie ACN has been hacking into phones and that it goes all the way to the top. To Leona, Charlie wants to know? No, but directly to her son Reese, who is the James Murdoch of ACN, except he has been directly approving the hacks, something we still don't know Murdoch did.
With this knowledge in hand Charlie assigns Jim the task of vetting "Late for Dinner" without attracting the attention of the N.S.A., and in a nod to their long friendship, attempts to warn Leona of the coming storm. The exchange, in which Leona provides both Charlie and the viewers with a step-by-step account of all the nefarious things she's doing to tank Will's career as punishment for ruining her relationship with the Koch brothers, did nothing as much as make me pine for a show starring Jane Fonda as the head of a wicked, right-wing television network. What fun that would be!
But alas, we must let Sorkin be Sorkin. And part of that, it is abundantly clear, is accepting that he (like that other media dinosaur NBC, who last night split a delayed broadcast of the Olympics closing ceremony with the premiere of a new show that takes place in an animal hospital) continues to believe viewers are an inept bunch who need to be spoon-fed what's good for them. This seems to me to be the real tragedy of "The Newsroom."
More by this author:
- What's really wrong with the White House Correspondents' Dinner?
- Nate Silver receives the adulation of New York's media demimonde in Nick Denton's Soho loft