Democrats don't do drama, or comedy

The Newsroom Series 2, 2013

Jeff Daniels, Sam Waterston, Emily Mortimer

By Peter Hulm


The scariest thing about watching The Newsroom is waiting on the edge of your seat for its ridiculous soap opera to spill over into the real news framework of this still unexpectedly watchable series.

Thank goodness, it hasn't quite happened yet.

Journalists know how risible they are in their effort to respond to a noble cause, vitiated by greedy and venal owners, egotistical managers, terminally incompetent administrative staff, imperious marketing departments, and drunken, dysfunctional colleagues.

But ditzy we are not. I did know a translator who demanded to know what the French was for coup d'├ętat but she was no-one's idea of a journalist. One colleague slept at the typewriter (it was age). Another slipped off regularly to his car to top up his alcohol level from the bottle in his glove compartment.

But I've never met any as dopey as the women in The Newsroom or quite as duncey as the men. From the exaggerated length at which the cast play dunces and ditzes, we are clearly meant to find them funny.

Back to front

In contrast to the horrifying truths about the news business that The Newsroom tries to put across, the unthinking corruption of bosses and destructive management of media gets hardly any attention.

Jane Fonda as the network boss is played as a Katharine Graham figure, someone out of a different branch of the media and a different, long-gone time, with its own drama (the Washington Post was usually in dire financial trouble).

In fact, Sam Waterston as the editor and Jeff Daniels as the anchor are also depicted, like Fonda, as admirable figures, rising above the caricatural idiots who circulate around them (such is American ideology about business hierarchies).

Waterston is the only one who gives an idea of the real commercial-ethical pressures of journalism and how they affect workers in the business (his first-season alcoholism seems to have vanished).

Hooray for Jeff Daniels

Meanwhile, we can wonder at the work of Jeff Daniels (once a favourite of mine for Dumb and Dumber) demonstrating that he belongs in the pantheon with Patrick Stewart, Michael Chambon and Alec Guinness for discreet but singularly powerful acting that never loses its sense of naturalism.

And none of this might seem worth mentioning in a program that shows us what good news production could mean, and how far current programs are from that ideal.

What it's really all about

The Newsroom is now the place we come to remind us of exactly what the Tea Party stands for, the failure to report the Occupy Wall Street movement with anything but condescension, and the execution of a black man who fell foul of the U.S. justice system, as well as the targeting of American citizens by drones without arrest, trial or due process. Whew! Thought it would never happen.

Perhaps typically it was made by a network that has no news broadcasts of its own (HBO).

It's good to be Republican

Given that the owner, the editor and the news anchor are all business-oriented and the anchor declares himself a Republican, the TV plebs are presumably all Democrats.

So we can't help drawing the conclusion that Democrats are no good at drama, live at the mercy of their emotions, remain unable to manage their lives, and walk around blind to the wider picture. As distinct from Republicans? The scene of the young producer shouting to a busload of Sex in the City tourists about her terrible life was symptomatic.

Don't forget to break up cute

Once Aaron Sorkin thought of it, the scene was probably hard to resist. Tell the folks at home the truth about life in New York for a young professional, as distinct from the fairytale of SitC. It's as neat a piece of plotting as you can find on television, with a serious point we are meant to recognize at the same time as we see the personal drama unfold.

Then Sorkin doubles the stake by showing us how celebrity works with the YouTube generation: the girl who posted the video, tracked down because she tweets (if I remember rightly) that she is about to head off to the laundry, agrees to withdraw it, not as the result of a personal appeal to save the victim from hurt, but because someone with hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter agreed to send a recommendation to visit her blog. Neat.

But the cleverness hardly registers because it is wrapped in conventional horror comedy and a cute drama of inarticulateness among supposedly whip-smart television professionals.

What makes The Newsroom different

It's weird. Soap operas usually grind to a halt while the characters explain to each other, for example, what the Taliban are, in a stereotypical phrase. Watching The Newsroom, you want to get back to the studio and find out how they'll be treating wikileaks and Edward Snowden.

But, in contrast to the series storyline, the errors of The New York Times over weapons of mass destruction or Dan Rather's over George W. Bush's military record, along with many similar screw-ups (Occupy Wall Street, Julian Assange's story, Bradley/Chelsea Manning's drama), did not occur because a junior producer broke up with a senior producer. They came from failures of journalistic process and practice.

For another critical review, see the U.K.'s Guardian, whose argument is that U:S. TV news is crap, so why are we concerned with it?