‘The Newsroom,’ Process, and Progressive Triumph

As much as I’m not enjoying The Newsroom, recapping it for Press Play has actually helped me clarify some things that I care about in progressive television. I don’t just want to see progressives or progressive-coded characters win because they’re factually or morally correct, or because they do the right thing against the odds. I want to see clear explanations of systems, and to see the characters work through them. As I explained in this week’s recap, that’s part of why Don is becoming my favorite character on the show, because he’s all muddled up in the gears:

After Will’s epic on-air apology for falling down on the job, Don sits down to have a heart-to-heart with Jim, who has effectively replaced him. “I would have loved to be part of that. I could have done the show you guys want to do. I’m equipped for that,” he confesses. “You’ve got a mandate. Bring viewers to ten o’clock. I don’t . . . I have to cover Natalee Holloway. And you guys set me up to look like an asshole before I even got started.” Don is like Will, to a certain extent, a talented man who succumbed to the pressure to put on a show that was likable rather than substantive. But unlike Will, he’s relatively anonymous. He could be fired and Elliot’s show would keep ticking on without him. If Don is going to live in hopes of being able to make the kind of show that Jim and MacKenzie are making for Will, he has to keep his job. And that means kowtowing to a lot of unattractive people’s unattractive senses of what counts as news…

And I’m not even sure Jim gets the message later when Maggie, in one of the few moments in The Newsroom where a woman gets to explain something to a man, tells Jim that Don’s failure has more complex roots than Jim acknowledges. “Don’s hands are tied,” Maggie says. “He got marching orders to get the ratings up at ten. And he’s driving a different car than McAvoy. Elliot’s smart, but he can’t do what McAvoy does. Plus, his salary’s tied to ratings.” That, not a studied, cowardly commitment to blandness for its own sake, is the reality of cable news—and the actual source of journalism’s problems.

The show just seems to me like it’s giving up an enormous amount of dramatic potential in having characters spend most of the show making speeches, on air or to each other, dealing with their personal lives, and then, throwing us five minutes of people pulling together the guests who will appear on air or Charlie negotiating with Leona and Reese. Sorkin wants us to think his characters are Interesting Hero Journalists but we essentially never see them doing actual journalism, so we don’t get a sense that Maggie is great at weeding out idiots, or that Jim is terrific at developing relationships with sources, or that Neal is unbelievably good at sorting through documents, something that would have been particularly useful in this last week’s episode in documenting the Koch brothers’ funding of Tea Party operations.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: the most important thing in news, cable or otherwise, is not what Will McAvoy says on air. It’s what his staff has the resources to dig up. It’s what kinds of pressures producers like Don are under, and what they can negotiate to broadcast. State of Play did a particularly nice job of this in the scene where Bill Nighy’s editor went to meet with a suit who laid out the specific issues at stake in their negotiations with the government over broadcast licenses, and then capped the budget for a big scandal story the reporters were working on. The miniseries spent serious time negotiating with editors over content, whether they’d proved a story well enough, whether they were at risk of getting sued. By the time something gets to someone like Will McAvoy, or to the front page of the paper, most of the pressure’s already been exerted on the information. We get flashes of that with Don. But The Newsroom can only get better the more it focuses on actual process and on actual journalism, not on telling Will, or anyone in the audience, that we’re good people because we have certain facts at our disposal and hold certain opinions.