I saw the first episode of The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin's take on the so-called inner workings of television news and in the very first scene I got the message. The anchor Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, excoriates a young female student who asks the question: Why are we the greatest nation in the world?
This question sparks a long-winded insulting stem winding rant from the anchor that comes right out of the America really stinks playbook and leaves the poor student utterly embarrassed as if she were the ultimate poster girl for jingoistic excess.
The premise and contrivances of this overly talky show, given the obvious bias of its anchor, is how it can report the so-called news in a neutral way without revealing the bias of its anchor and his acolytes. There will, of course, be the usual fictional conflicts about love and sex, youth and age, moral integrity and crass profit pandering, politics, perceived truths and save-the world youthful idealism and all the usual clichéd themes involving the human condition that spew out of the Hollywood mindset with such certainty and faux conviction.
In some ways I was reminded of Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant satirical take on television, the movie Network, released in 1976, which won four academy awards including best original screenplay. It also launched one memorable line by the actor Peter Finch playing the TV personality Howard Beale, who went off the bend by proclaiming to his national audience a mad diatribe which urged people to open their windows and shout "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore."
In both shows, the issue is ratings, meaning garnering eyeballs, which are converted into advertising dollars. This, of course, is the object of the game, especially since both fictional shows being portrayed are getting bad ratings.
In the case of the network featuring Howard Beale, the idea is to capitalize on his exhibition of public madness to illustrate its bizarre nature as a deliberate come on to attract viewers. Chayefsky was portraying how the industry would do almost anything to get attention and how this affected the people who worked in the industry and how TV panders to the mass mind.
As a long-time news junkie, former reporter and editor, I have watched the dissemination of news go from a reasonably honest attempt to squeeze the bias out of what went out to the consumer, to what has become blatant strident propaganda for one cause or another with the spin, anger and intensity that would make even the late Mr. Goebbels blush.
What in the world are journalism courses teaching their students these days? I'm not saying it was ever a perfectly evenhanded environment. After all, we zealously cherish our constitutional right for a free press and free speech, but I seem to recall in my lifetime that there was always an attempt to leave the bias of the owners and editors on the editorial page and report the news as the chips fell without twisting the reportorial events to serve one cause or another.
Today, with sheep-like fervor, we follow those who will satisfy our prejudices, validate our opinions, and feed the "me, versus them" line with rigid propaganda points that paint the "thems" as hostile beings undeserving of our respect or interest. At work in this show, I think, is the usual "save the world" syndrome that often afflicts the Hollywood elite when they seek to portray their self-righteous moral superiority.
What makes me wonder about the integrity of Mr. McAvoy's character is why portray him as an angry America hater from the get go? I kept wondering how he even became an anchor with such a profound distaste for his country. I mean, he really hates America. I never can understand when a television show portrays a powerful media figure who has garnered all the advantages of the American experience and offers up a regurgitating notion about the country and society that gave him such sweet success.
It makes me mad as hell and I don't want to take it any more.
Warren Adler is the author of 32 novels and short story collections. His books are published in 25 languages worldwide and several have been adapted to movies, including "The War of the Roses" and "Random Hearts." His new book, The Serpent's Bite will be published in September. For more information visit www.warrenadler.com.
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