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Autonomy of a Failed Show: The Agreeableness of ‘THE NEWSROOM’

Let me start this post with a preface: I’m not trying to jump on The Newsroom bashing bandwagon. I watch the show because I really want to like it. But during last week’s episode the fundamental problem with it became clear to me, prompting this post.

It’s not the clichés, weak characters, or reanalyzing what was once breaking news.

The show is tanking because all of the characters are morally perfect, always on the right side of an issue.

There’s not conflict between them, and as a result, no debate of the issues the show tackles. 

This “revelation” crystalized for me during episode 6 (“One Step Too Many”) for three reasons: an unusual amount of Will’s tell-it-like-it-is monologues, Neal ripping apart the Ron Paul supporter, and the character who unethically cut the Genoa interview was a guest star.

Politically, I agree with the politics of the show, and thus, just about everything the characters say. And the characters all pretty much agree with each other. Sometimes there’s a slight disagreement between Will and the staff, but at the end of the day, everyone is ideological the same.

The reason for this is that The Newsroom only tackles high level issues, such as a gay army officer getting booed at a GOP presidential debate, or Ron Paul’s racist newsletters. Of course we all agree that booing soldiers is wrong, that our presidential candidates should not be racists. The show never gets into more nuanced issues where there could be serious disagreement between characters as well as the liberal viewing audience — great TV should challenge viewers.

By comparison, this is something that The Wire did really well. And The Wire didn’t presume to have all of the answer — it was only certain about the problems. There was no lecturing to the viewer like The Newsroom loves to do.

Consider Season 3 of The Wire where the show played out a scenario where drugs are legalized.

Instead of just saying the at war on drugs is failed— the surface level of the issue the we all agree on — the show presents a possible solution, lays out the pros and cons, no two characters feel the same way about the results so we can a lot of differing analysis, and viewers are left to reach their own conclusions. 

If the war on drugs were tackled on The Newsroom, it would amount to a segment where Will attacks proponents of lengthy prison sentences, he quotes some stats, and suggestion that legalization could be a panacea.

In fairness The Newsroom has skirted close complex issue, like with the occasional mention of drones this season, but that has been relegated to the sidelines. If I was running the show, I’d make that the central issue of the season — specifically, the staff and Will debating internally how to report it. But the show always stays on the topline, where things are either right or wrong, and all of the characters are always on the right side. And that’s why the season is focusing on the Genoa controversy.

If just about anyone else was The Newsroom showrunner, the Genoa controversy would have been created by one of the series regulars, not a guest star. If it was a regular, especially one we like, viewers would have been conflicted about their actions. As a result of having a rapport with them, we’d be willing to hear their side of why they did what they did. And even if their actions are indefensible, we’d still be conflicted about them being held accountable because that would mean they’d have to leave the show. But by making it a guest star, especially an unlikable one, it makes it easy to dismiss them and their actions.

Further, by making the crime so egregious and easy to expose, the show has avoid any kind of ends justify the means debate. Here’s what they should have done: Genoa really did happen, that the US Army had used chemical weapons. But they cannot air the story because they don’t have enough on the record sources.

One of the staff feels so strongly about needing to make the public aware Genoa that they distort some facts so they can meet the quota of on the record sources needed to air the story. And they do it in such a way that nobody can refute the story, like manufacture a confession from a dead soldier.

After the story has aired the producers realize they’ve been hoodwinked by the staffer. They then have to decide if they should retract the story even though they know it’s really true and nobody can prove they used falsified information.

In the real world we of course expect journalists to be completely ethical, but this is fiction where we can play out these ends justify the means scenarios without consequences.

Great TV will create situations that really test what we believe, where lying, cheating and even murder seems justifiable.  The Newsroom just doesn’t seem to realize that its fiction and can do whatever it wants.

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