THE BLOG
10/07/2014 04:55 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2014

WTF Happened to TV News?

Getty

If you've never seen Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom on HBO, you need to. If you don't have HBO, get it and binge watch the first two seasons and then wait patiently for season three coming this fall. I'm not generally a weepy guy, but I found myself getting choked up during nearly every episode. Not because it's a particularly emotional or sappy show or that I'm a particularly emotional or sappy guy. Both the show and I have our moments, but what gets me about the show is that it's "The News" the way a guy my age remembers it, wishes it still were and thinks it still should be -- honest, accurate, compelling and dripping with integrity.

The Newsroom is a series, set behind the scenes at ACN (Atlantis Cable News) and stars Jeff Daniels as the news anchor, Will McAvoy. Sam Waterson plays the head of ACN, Charlie Skinner and Jane Fonda plays Leona Lansing, CEO of Atlantis World Media (AWM), the parent company of ACN. The show is about the news told as news, rather than inane gossip and word salad that is allowed to be heard by means of an irrational excuse that "fair and balanced" means giving any lunatic equal airtime. It reminds us of the way Cronkite, Morrow and their ilk would speak the truth to stupid and hold leaders accountable instead of letting them blather on about whatever the hell they want without interrupting them with pesky facts.

We now live an world in which Alaskan quitter and failed vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin charges viewers more than Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime to view her very own newsy-type gotcha show and where comedian Jon Stewart has a better handle on current affairs, international politics and sophistry than most cable news channels.

NBC's Meet The Press With David Gregory had seen its ratings plummet due in part to Gregory's clearly biased reporting, questioning and bullying of guests. The show was No. 1 in the Sunday lineup for years and now consistently comes in third, which might not sound too bad except that there are only two other shows it's competing with -- Face The Nation on CBS and ABC's This Week. Gregory has since been given the door and NBC's DC insider, Chuck Todd, has taken over for Gregory as moderator of the venerable interview show.

In a recent episode of Meet The Press, Homeland Security's Jeh Johnson repeatedly corrected Gregory's misinformation based on Republican talking points about the immigration crisis unfolding on the Southern border. Feel free to read the transcript here.

Irresponsible journalists such as David Gregory only make a crisis like this worse when they try to exploit the partisan divide for ratings. It's completely ludicrous that a guest had to correct the misinformation a moderator of Meet The Press used to base his questions. Gregory chose to play political games and pander to Republicans rather than inform his viewers. Gregory's handling of this interview demonstrates not only the reason for the show's ratings being in the dumpster, but also why we have lost faith in the press. Time will tell how effective Chuck Todd will be.

Episode 6 of The Newsroom's first season, titled "Bullies," is, at least for me, one of the better episodes and indicative of the news the way it should be. In the episode, sexy economist Sloan Sabbith, played by The Daily Show alumnae Olivia Munn, gets a bit overzealous while questioning a Fukushima plant spokesman post-nuclear disaster. We see anchors crossing the line from tough examination into free-wheeling demagoguery and coming to terms with the reality that being an effective anchor and getting at the truth isn't so easy, even for those who have idealistically committed to doing things "the right way." This may sound painfully obvious, but considering that the first episode of The Newsroom was titled "We Just Decided To," it's a leap forward to admit that journalists can't simply decide to report the news accurately.

In this clip below, Sloan questions the spokesperson of the post disaster Fukushima power plant in Japanese. She asks the rest of the people in the room to give them some privacy and this, as you'll see is her fatal flaw.

At around 6:17 of the same clip, Skinner, her boss, comes up with a plan to fix the entire problem, which basically involves lying. Something no one in the newsroom is comfortable with. Anyone born after Reagan was the president would consider the entire premise of this clip a fanciful work of fiction.

Check out Charlie Skinner, played by Sam Waterson, having a fit about the broadcast on ethical grounds. You'd think we lived in a world where news people had a personal stake in accurate reporting.

When do you think was the last time that a news boss actually had a fit about anyone in the newsroom making stuff up or forming an opinion that would exaggerate the facts and spike the ratings? When do you think was the last time that a news boss said something like, "We don't report what you think," to a reporter or "Good luck getting a source to talk to you off the record. You're of no value to me"? Do you think CNN, MSNBC or FOX considers combing through a reporter's past stories to see where else they lied? Is it even fair, balanced and accurate to call them reporters?

Later in the show, Sloan asks McAvoy, "You want me to lie from the desk?" McAvoy shrugs as you'd expect, but unexpectedly seems troubled by the way things played out. You'd think they'd just murdered someone together and buried the body in the Everglades. That his reaction is both expected and unexpected is a sad commentary on the state of today's media. Expecting our politicians to lie to us is neither new nor noteworthy, but now we've come to expect our reporters and journalists to lie to us as well.

Last year 60 Minutes caught one of its reporters, Lara Logan, using flawed information about the attack at the diplomatic compound in Benghazi. Sen. Lindsay Graham used the report for ginned-up conspiracy theories even after it had been pulled from the CBS site.

"When Logan's report aired, Senator Lindsey Graham, who has been fixated on the idea of a conspiratorial cover-up, saw it as more dark proof. If we hadn't heard about Jones, and the warnings he said he passed on, what else didn't we know? Graham cited 60 Minutes as a reason for holding up the nominations of various ambassadors, an odd penalty, given that the incident involved a diplomatic outpost that could have used some help. After the report's integrity disintegrated, he said that he wouldn't give up."

Who cares if it wasn't true, right?

For her part, Logan was suspended, apologized and returned to 60 Minutes less than a year later despite longtime on air talent Morley Safer's objections.

The press and her peers didn't seem to care -- there was very little outrage that a show with the reputation of 60 Minutes had aired a segment that was, for the most part, entirely fabricated. It was almost as if the incident set a new bar, allowing everyone to conform to a lower standard. Why would you scream about the kid in class cheating on the test when you might have to do it yourself someday?

Partisan news has eviscerated facts, fabricated events and they've done it in the name of ratings. Competing networks slant events to favor one particular party or the other and we're inundated with rhetoric, hyperbole and sophistry. In most cases we're too apathetic, tired or lazy to apply critical thinking or reason to anything we hear. We have become accustomed to and seem to prefer being told what to think and why to think it.

The next time you're watching your favorite news show and steaming about what Hannity, Shultz, Sharpton, Blitzer, O'Reilly and others are yapping about, ask yourself this: "Does that even sound reasonable?" Then ask yourself if they've ever asked, "You want me to lie from the desk?"

One last thing: Here's the opening scene to the pilot episode of The Newsroom. If this clip doesn't make you sit in a dark room with a tub of ice cream and some popcorn binge watching the entire two seasons, don't bother friending me on Facebook.

Cross-posted from Complete Senior.