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The Newsroom Fantasy-Journalism Is What They Want

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It has been going on for a month or two, picking up steam in last week and finally aired Sunday evening. The Newsroom, created by Aaron Sorkin.

Sorkin has pretty good 'street cred' when it comes to the creation of such things, The West Wing and The Social Network among his accomplishments. The Newsroom has all the early earmarks of being another fine production, with a well known list of actors in the cast, and a topic that has the potential for some insightful moments, perhaps even riveting, real news can do that.

Oh, wait. Did you hear it? It was all that 'potential' being flushed down the television toilet awash in sanctimonious clap trap.

I read a lot about the show, about Sorkin's reasons for doing it and listened to interviews with him and actors in the cast and then watched the first episode. Suffice to say, I think Sports Night, Sorkin's first television effort, was probably better and more on target than this offering. And when it comes to television news, Network by Paddy Chayefsky likely can't be topped. But it could have been and there in lies the frustration.

The television news business is an easy target for film or TV. It has interesting personalities, it has the potential for fascinating topics to cover, and it's familiar enough to the audience so that a lot of time isn't necessary for them to 'buy in' or to 'get it.' So why hasn't someone done it right? Why has even Aaron Sorkin fallen back on the cliches and the stereotypes that populate every film or television series about the news business?

Maybe it's not an easy story to tell or even interesting. The premise for The Newsroom is the usual one. Fed up with the shallowness of the 'news biz' a crusading anchorman and his trusty producer decide to take on the establishment and tell the 'real story,' to practice real 'journalism.' Why do you suppose that doesn't happen?

Money. When the television news business started, long before cable, it was in most cases a throwaway, particularly at the local level. In fact, horror of horrors, it was actually mandated by the government to a degree. What most folks don't realize is that they, the public, 'own' the airways. The networks and local affiliates are licensed to broadcast over them and with that license comes, or did, a certain responsibility. Or at least it used to. There was an actual requirement that each local station or license holder provide a certain number of hours of locally originated broadcasts for the 'public good.'

The news fit that bill. Fifteen minutes in most cases, reported by a group of low paid folks who had it in their heads that they wanted to do something for the good of the community. Edward R. Murrow was the closest thing to a national 'news' celebrity and in actuality he's a lot more famous now than he was then. And locally, well, locally, Romper Room consistently was much more popular than the news. So what happened?

As the country grew up and television became 'the' means of communication those who appeared on it started to become well known. Information became important and television became the source. News was inexpensive to produce, the 'product' just took care of itself. Things happened, people talked about it. And as it gained traction it became a profit center for networks and local stations. Suddenly, news people, who at one time were making $162.50 a week, were making $100,000 a year and everyone was happy!

And then a strange thing happened. You've seen Wag the Dog? The profit became the driver, the presenters became stars and the news became secondary. In fact, who needs news? If we don't have any let's just tell them what we think should or could happen. Let's develop a manufactured angst approach that will suck people to the TV set. Just how many 'trials, storms, crashes of the century' can we have in a decade? Apparently not enough.

So if some news can make money, a lot of news can make a lot of money! And it has. There is some evidence now that the wheels are wobbling on the money machine of television news, i.e. CNN, the Today Show, local news, but Fox keeps chugging along and salaries are not going down at 60 Minutes. News, or what passes for it, is still making a ton of money and with the 'public good' requirement long gone and a flaccid FCC in no mood or position to require anything, what you see is what you get and will keep getting.

So when Sorkin's characters wax poetic (he is a wordy guy) about the responsibility of news people, the importance of journalism, and the fact that the strength of any democracy is an informed public, now you can just smile and ask yourself, 'Would Jeff Daniels character do what he's doing for $162.50 a week and would you watch it for your own good?'

Stay tuned, film at 11.

Correction: A previous version of this post stated incorrectly that Network was written by James L. Brooks.