‘The Newsroom’ and Pop Culture’s Allergy to Reporting

I know I went hard on The Newsroom on Friday, but now that y’all have seen it, I want to talk about the way the show treats reporting, something I wrote about at length for the lovely people at Press Play:

The staff of Will’s show figures out earlier than anyone else that Deepwater Horizon will be a major environmental catastrophe because Neal (Dev Patel), whom Will has earlier identified as “the Indian stereotype of an IT guy” proves to have exceedingly useful insights into the workings of offshore drilling rigs. He gained this knowledge, possessed by no one else on any staff of any publication in all the land, because, my hand to God, he “built a volcano in primary school.”…Jim, possessed of the world’s most coincidental personal connections, turns out to have a college schoolmate working at BP (who makes time to give Jim a ring in the midst of a massive disaster) and a sister who works at Halliburton…The Newsroom cuts away as soon as anyone on staff has a source on the phone. The show is supremely uninterested in the actual and lengthy processes of source development and research. Maybe it’s a tactic to keep the focus on Sorkin’s fast-talking, fact-spewing sock puppets, or to make sure the show whips through a story from the near-past each week, but it lends an airless quality to the proceedings. Everything we need to know, apparently, is already here in this glass and chrome box.

The rarity with which pop culture gets reporting right remains a mystery to me, particularly given the extent to which television has cracked procedurals. Reporting a complex story is exactly like cracking a crime: you have either a precipitating traumatic event or a hint of a secret system at work, pursuit of credible leads and dead ends, development of trust, attempts to build an airtight case, and often, revisions before the final presentation. Sometimes the story changes the world, as with Spencer Ackerman’s reporting on the FBI’s use of virulently anti-Islam training materials, which got President Obama to order them scrubbed. Sometimes all a reporter gets is the satisfaction of a job well-done. Whether on an episodic basis, or on a story-as-season-long arc basis as the original British State of Play did, this should be a relatively easy thing for television to just nail.

The thing that I find genuinely disturbing about The Newsroom is its narrow identification of cable news as the problem and Will McAvoy as the solution. Cable news polarization is a problem, but it’s a problem that ultimately affects a fairly small number of Americans day to day and year to year. The larger problems are ones that affect all sorts of news programs and publications: shrinking staffs and budgets that support less-ambitious reporting, government secrecy and control of information, increasingly stultified and PR-controlled interviews that decrease the possibility of honest conversation and homogenize reporting. Tone and presentation are issues that float on top of this sea of larger challenges.