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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Newsroom, Episode 3: I Give Up

OK, I have watched three episodes of HBO's series "The Newsroom." Enough is enough.

What I was hoping would be a breakout, first class TV series about journalism, how it is done and why it is important to our country has nose-dived from that lofty perch into the abyss of partisan political diatribe.

Three episodes ago the show began with what I thought was promise. Sure, there were gaffes (correspondents being embedded in Vietnam which didn't happen; nobody on the staff actually doing any reporting; and lots of soapy chatter about who is sleeping with whom, etc), but I could forgive some of those.

In last Sunday's episode any thought that this show would portray reporters and producers actually doing their jobs without inserting their own political biases into every event, interview or broadcast was snuffed out.

Jane Fonda as Media Mogul Leona Lansing
Instead, we get a dose of fictional Atlantis Cable Network (ACN) anchor Will McAvoy (initially the token conservative in The Newsroom) ranting and raging at the Tea Party and others who disagree with the Obama administration as though he were the White House Press Secretary. My advice to Obama: Fire Jay Carney and hire Will McAvoy.

Apparently, McAvoy's avowed super-liberal executive producer (MacKenzie McHale) has managed in just three episodes to exorcise McAvoy's imprudent conservative demons and convert him into a more agreeable (but no less ill-informed) version of MSNBC's über-liberal ersatz journalist Chris Matthews.

Like Matthews, McAvoy bellows at the camera and insults those with whom he disagrees.

So THAT is who the McAvoy character is modeled after. I was hoping it might be somebody who has the integrity to keep his/her opinions under wraps while actually reporting the news. But sadly, that is not to be the case in The Newsroom.

With a newsroom full of producers, writers and others who view the world through a defective prism that can only reveal the left side of any issue, any hope that this series would provide viewers with a glimpse of how real journalists work has vanished.

Just about everybody on the show violates the Code of Ethics produced by the Society of Professional Journalists and that at least some of us try to adhere to. Indeed, that code might as well be toilet paper in The Newsroom's lavatories.

The Preamble to the SPJ's code states:

"Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society's principles and standards of practice."

I won't duplicate the entire code here but there are at least three areas where The Newsroom is in obvious violation:

·       "Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible."
·       "Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context."
·       "Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant."

Ostensibly, News Night 2.0 (the new name of the show), is a return to good old-fashioned news. Give them what they need, not what they want--even if it hurts.

Yet Will McAvoy, in laying out the format of for his viewers, says: “My party’s being hijacked....something that began as a “middle-class movement responding to bad trends” was “co-opted by the radical right.” Because he is a confessed Republican (holy crap!), Will apparently believes he is the perfect person to take the tea party to task. So now the Tea Party is the target. 

Enter Jane Fonda as Leona Lansing, the woman who owns Atlantis World Media which includes Atlantis Cable News. And here Fonda is REALLY acting--playing the role of a cold-hearted conservative cable network owner. Now THAT does strain credibility.

Charlie (the Sam Waterston character who is the boss of ACN's news show) stresses the urgency of criticizing Tea Party congressmen, and makes a comparison between Senator Joseph McCarthy and Republican Rep. Michelle Bachmann.

Leona dismisses that as baseless: rabid anti-Communist McCarthy, she says,  was "obviously bad" whereas Tea Party supporter Bachmann is nothing but "a bad hairdo" and not anyone to worry about.

Perhaps the most cringe-inducing comment made during episode three, as far as journalists are concerned, comes from Charlie who, in response to the perceived imbalance of News Night 2.0's presentation of the news says: “balance is irrelevant. It has nothing to do with the truth, logic or reality.”

OK, I've got it. ACN is now the fictional twin of MSNBC. And Will McAvoy is evolving into Chris Matthews, Ed Schultz and Keith Olbermann all rolled into one persona.

My advice: Don't stay tuned.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Newsroom Episode 2: Journalism or Soap Opera?

Last week I gave a barely passing grade to HBO's incursion into the world of professional journalism. This week, I am giving it a big fat F.

The series, though filled with enough clichés about the news business to choke the most lenient journalism professor, did get off to an interesting start in its inaugural show. It dealt with the 2010 BP oil platform explosion off the coast of Texas that poured millions of gallons of oil into the ocean.

On last Sunday's show fictional producer MacKenzie decides the BP story is old news, even though in reality that story was being covered by every other major news organization on the planet because of riveting images of the oil rig sinking beneath the waves.

Instead, she wants to lead with SB 1070, Arizona's Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act.
Emily Mortimer as Producer MacKenzie McHale

Ahhhh yes, here is where we see Hollywood flexing its liberal biases. The SB 1070 story is good because Gov. Jan Brewer is a racist, as is apparently every other person living in Arizona who believes that something must be done to protect the state's borders from the daily and nightly invasion of illegal immigrants.

When anchor Will McAvoy protests that the BP oil rig story is good television, MacKenzie climbs aboard her contrived journalistic soapbox and barks back: "We don't do good television, we do the news!"

Oh, I get it. The BP story is not news. At least not when "News Night 2.0" (the new name for the fictional news show) can attack a conservative governor who is trying to get the federal government to do its job and protect the nation's borders.

Maggie, a young producer who wears her politics on her sleeve like a Valley Girl wears a tramp stamp, is assigned to do the pre-interview with Jan Brewer's office. Naturally, she has to let the Brewer staffer know just what she thinks of SB 1070 (a racist bill aimed at Mexicans).

Then we find out she dated the staffer when she was in college and a remark he makes about Obama leads her to make a vulgar remark about his skill (or lack thereof) in the sack.

The result is that Jan Brewer bails on the interview with Will McAvoy and goes to CNN instead. In reality such a dumb performance by a junior producer would get her fired. But not on News Night 2.0. She is, after all, the correct political flavor. Perhaps if she had been right of center....

None of this stops our executive producer MacKenzie from soldiering ahead with the SB 1070 story. Just 90 minutes before air time the show rounds up three other guests: a second runner up in the Miss USA pageant who insists her support of the bill cost her a chance to be first runner up; a wacko militia-man who does the interview holding his rifle (which he has named "Jenny"); and a self-published "professor" from an online diploma mill.

Is it a coincidence that all three come across as callous right wing nut cases while the Newsroom's left wingers are allowed to demonstrate their decency via PC homilies about immigration? Or am I letting my misgivings of Hollywood show through? Nope, I don't think so.

The show makes another point about obtuse conservatives when it airs footage of Sarah Palin making a gaffe about Norway and The Netherlands (she confuses the two during a short sound bite), and the beat goes on.

Is News Night 2.0 in the tank for President Obama? I am willing to take bets on it. Is the Newsroom spiraling into a soapy newsroom version of General Hospital? It appears so, but I hope not.

There is much about journalism and those who practice it that is worth watching. It just hasn't become apparent with this show--yet. Maybe it will.

Maybe the show will forgo all of the cliché-ridden interpersonal relationships (who is sleeping with whom? and why? and why not?) and actually show how good reporters, editors, producers, etc. work a story. To date, that has not happened. In fact, no one ever leaves the newsroom to pursue a story. They just seem to drift from one office to another with an occasional appearance in the newsroom.

Maybe the reporters in The Newsroom (by the way, where are they?)  and producers (plenty of those) will curtail their overt left wing biases and focus on how exceptional journalism is done, rather than behaving like a collection of unpleasant narcissists who see journalism as their personal ladder to fame and wealth.

On the other hand, maybe The Newsroom will continue to devolve into nothing more than another Hollywood left wing political vehicle that views the world as an "us and them" proposition--where "us" equals good and "them" equals evil.

Whatever happened to objectivity, fairness and accuracy? Stay tuned. Maybe those critical journalistic qualities will appear in future episodes of The Newsroom.

I'm not holding my breath!