When is it safe to broadcast the news? When Aaron Sorkin says it is, of course.
The season three premiere of HBO’s The Newsroom launched in classic Sorkin fashion. (Your visceral reaction to those last three words, as is the polarizing Sorkin way, likely dictates whether you thought the hour was brilliant or insufferable.) There was a tragedy. There were impassioned heroes rallying together to become better than they thought they could be. And there was, as there always is, moral grandstanding.
Titled “Boston,” the premiere centered on the show’s fictional ACN news network’s coverage of last year’s bombing at the Boston Marathon. More specifically, however, it focused on how the media screwed just about every single thing up.
Everything was put on blast: CNN reporter John King’s misreport that an arrest was made without getting confirmation, which every other news outlet then in turn began reporting as fact. The New York Post’s cover photo wrongly suggesting that two innocent men were suspects, which every other news outlet then in turn began reporting as fact. The conspiracy theory treasure hunt conducted on Reddit that surfaced dozens of false reports, which were then recirculated all over Twitter and then, again, which every other news outlet then in turn began reporting as fact.
The underlying—and Sorkin-ly overblown—theme? The industry-wide abandonment of basic journalism ethics, the rise of citizen journalism, and the conflation of social media reporting as credible news gathering is a danger to society.
Journalists are supposed to be the watch guards and they’re not guarding anymore, Sorkin is saying. They’re opening the gates and letting any and all information flood in, no matter how speculative or unsubstantiated or harmful. They’re not doing their jobs, and everyone is guilty.
Well, everyone but Sorkin’s noble battalion of infallible Journalists With Ethics, the reporters and producers at ACN.
“We’re going to do this well!” Sam Waterston’s Charlie bellows early on in the episode.
When rumors and suspicions begin flying across rival networks’ news tickers, Emily Mortimer’s Mack flits around the newsroom with signature virtuous gumption. “We don’t go based on tweets from witnesses we can’t talk to!” she pledges. “What credible news agency would do that?” A quick beat passes before a producer chimes in: “Fox is up!”
The bulk of the premiere actually put an unexpected spin on the ripped-from-the-headlines story. Rather than spend the hour tugging at heartstrings with exploitative sob stories about the heroes and victims of the Boston bombing, the episode was spent showing journalists talk about when it’s safe to report breaking news.
It’s not the sexiest angle. It’s not the angle you’d expect from a cable drama. But it’s the most quintessential Sorkin-esque angle there ever was, and he nails it.
In an interview last week, Jeff Daniels, who plays ACN anchor Will McAvoy, talked to me about this. “We got a problem here,” he said. “Major news agencies have a problem. We’re supposed to wait for the guys who get the double confirmation. We’re supposed to wait for the guys who are doing actual reporting.”
The tension of the episode comes as the clock ticks and ACN, at the order of Mack and Will, still haven’t gone live with the report of the bombing. The network suits are becoming exasperated, but they won’t budge. Mack and Will learn of the attack in the episode’s first 30 seconds. The ACN news team doesn’t go to air with it until minute 12.
That tension morphs later in the episode as Twitter and Reddit reports catch fire, much to the disgust of the professional journalists in the newsroom. Dev Patel’s Neal gets the Sorkin laugh line. “Social media is going to solve this crime,” he says, before facing a firing squad of death stares from his colleagues.
For as much as the premiere seems like an indictment of the media, particularly against CNN and John King, whose blunder is a major point of the episode, it actually makes a point to defend them, too. In the Church of Sorkin, this is the prayer of humility: forgive them, for they know not what they do.
When the ACN newsroom begins cheering CNN’s retraction of King’s report, Sam and Will storm them in a fury: “What are you doing? Worst moment in this guy’s life and you’re cheering? Why?”
Daniels thought that was one of the more important moments of the episode. “Aaron took care to write in the episode that we weren’t beating up on CNN or John King,” he says. “We got lucky. That could’ve been Will McAvoy doing the false report. Sam and I are going, ‘We dodged a bullet there.’”
But that the CNN-John King blunder even happened is a cause for alarm. “How do you compete against that?” Daniels says, championing the plight of an ethical news producer. “We’re [society] not waiting for Brian Williams to get it right, when we can just go gab about the reports on Twitter.”
As much as all of the episode’s examination on the value of ethical news reporting is hyper-specific to the Boston Marathon incident, Sorkin pulls out to for a macro look at the fate of news organizations who dare to uphold their journalistic integrity. Basically, they’re screwed.
ACN’s numbers come in, and they learn that, since Will and Mack and Charlie made their manifesto that they were going to be the good guys doing the good reporting, the network has plummeted in the ratings. “Somehow in regaining our credibility we went from second to fourth place,” Will says.
What does that say about us, news consumers, that we demand fast and accurate news, but don’t really care so much about that last “accurate” part? That we’re willing to settle for shoddy reporting and a lack of ethics? For as much as Sorkin tends to tell you with incessant speechifying and grandstanding how you’re supposed to feel, he’s also at his best when he raises self-searching questions. And that’s a doozy.
“There’s no accountability," Daniels told me. “When you do get it wrong maybe there’s a retraction. Maybe there isn’t. You just move on to the next day.”
“Mostly it’s ignored that you completely fuck it up, that you didn’t do a professional job and got the story wrong,” he went on. “If you put a mission accomplished banner on the ship, they’ll believe it. Just tell them many, many times that this is going on and they’ll believe it. That’s not news. That’s not Murrow, Cronkite, and all those guys Aaron emulated and revered that first season. Those guys are still out there, but man they’re being stampeded.”
And with this being the last season of The Newsroom, soon there won’t be an Aaron Sorkin vehicle to remind us, albeit in a slightly holier-than-thou fashion, what a tragedy that truly is.