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Commentary: Message behind ‘The Newsroom’ hardly breaking news

Courtesy of HBO

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“The Newsroom,” the new HBO drama from the illustrious Aaron Sorkin, is about as subtle as the very personalities it lampoons. Cable news has created a profit windfall, and you can send your thank you cards to those Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann types for that.

Thus is the overarching message of “The Newsroom.” Cable news is getting out of hand with its non-journalism-ness, so, by golly, we have to fix it.

Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is the “Jay Leno of nightly news.” He’s popular because he doesn’t take sides, which is a bit of a head-scratcher as the show tries to convince us that journalists shouldn’t take sides. Alas, after a series of unfortunate events, his ex-girlfriend, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), who just finished a 26-month stint embedded in Afghanistan and Iraq presumably so the show’s writers could convince us she’s a real journalist, is brought on board as his new executive producer.

McHale has had enough with McAvoy’s shtick. She wants him to be a real journalist like her, but she also wants him to be just as popular as all those other non-journalists on cable news. She thinks this can happen, and luckily for her, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion off the coast of Louisiana falls into her lap on her first day on the job.

So there we have it. “The Newsroom” wants you to know that we need to uphold the fourth estate, and not let Bill O’Reilly and the like tear it down because being opinionated means more money and more money is the American way, gosh darnit.

That, in and of itself, is an awfully idealistic stance, and idealism is nothing to complain about, but here it’s nothing new. Folks have been complaining about Fox News and MSNBC for years now. Regardless, I imagine you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who will say, “We don’t need good journalism anymore.”

It’s all a bit heavy-handed, and, at times, its notions on journalism overly romantic. I suppose that, as a journalist, I’m supposed to see this as some sort of rallying call for my industry, but I don’t.

Yes, I know the talking heads are bad, but isn’t it a bit unfair to loop them in as journalists? They’re not journalists, they’re entertainers; cash cows designed for profitability rather than impartiality, and I assume many viewers see them as such. (That is, unless I’m drastically underestimating the intelligence of our populace.) I’m not so sure “The Newsroom” tries hard enough to make that distinction, which is a very important and crucial one.

There have been newsroom shows before “The Newsroom.” Comparisons have been drawn to “Sports Night,” which ran from 1998-2000 on ABC and was also created by Sorkin. Frankly, if you want a rousing celebration of journalism, watch “All the President’s Men.” It’s as good an advertisement for the benefits of the industry as any.

That’s not to say “The Newsroom” is worth writing off. The pilot had its moments – Mortimer shouting directions at Daniels from the control room and the actual reporting among them – but it’s got a ways to go. It’s a pilot, however, so it would be a bit unfair to deal it a death blow until it’s able to find its footing, though with only a 10-episode order for its first season, that might come later rather than sooner.

Ditch the tired single-camera format and tone down the thematics. Show us what working in a cable news newsroom is like without forcing down our throats what’s good and bad about the industry. After all, I think most people know what good journalism is, and a lot of what’s on cable news ain’t it. Obviously.

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