What’s Wrong with the News?: The Newsroom, Jon Stewart and False Balance

Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series, The Newsroom, is politely labelled ‘critically contested’. While it’s been lambasted for sexism, general awkwardness, smugness (and dodgy use of Coldplay), it also has its prominent defenders, who cite Sorkin’s idealism, intelligence and screwball romance.

The Newsroom is another in Sorkin’s series of television shows about the making of television shows. (Following Sports Night, his first foray into television, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, set behind the scenes of a comedy show much like Saturday Night Live.) There are also comparisons to The West Wing; both shows present idealised versions of institutional workplaces where, in reality, cynicism rules. And in both shows, the men at the helm prioritise ethics over politics or personal gain.

Aaron Sorkin's *The Newsroom*: Artificial intelligence or setting up an ideal?

Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom: Artificial intelligence or setting up an ideal?

The Newsroom’s first episode opens with self-described ‘affable’ news anchor Will Macavoy (Jeff Daniels) snapping during a journalism school panel. Asked by a bright-eyed young student to explain why American is the greatest country in the world, he instead delivers a scathing, articulate rant on why it’s not. His outburst makes news headlines – and prompts his boss (Sam Waterson) to co-opt him on a crusade to make a ‘good’ news show, based on facts rather than sensationalism. The kicker? The producer hired to do the job, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) is Will’s ex-girlfriend, just back from Iraq, setting the scene for a romantic sub-plot that runs parallel to the show’s workplace-based quest for truth in journalism.

The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum set the tone for the critical response early on. ‘Clever people take turns admiring one another,’ she wrote, criticising its talkiness as ‘artificial intelligence, predicated on the notion that more words equals smarter’. Nussbaum’s colleague, film critic David Denby, offered a defence on the New Yorker’s blog.

‘Life may not work this way in the real world,’ he wrote, ‘but Sorkin’s complaint about America is that intelligence is in a semi-apologetic retreat, while emotionalism and stupidity are on the rise – in public policy and in the media. He’s setting up an ideal.’

Sorkin himself places The Newsroom in ‘that place of wish fulfilment’.

Jon Stewart: ‘I’m a comedian first’

Some have compared The Newsroom’s fictional show-within-a-show to Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. It’s a comparison Stewart would probably quibble with. In an interview with Fox News anchor Chris Wallace last year, he was careful to emphasise the difference between his show and news programs. ‘I’m a comedian first. My comedy is formed by an ideological background,’ he said. ‘The embarrassment is that I’m given credibility in this world because of the disappointment the public has with what the news media does.’

The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart goes head-to-head with Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, in a thoughtful and surprisingly serious interview about modern news values.

Stewart’s job description may be distinct, but his views are not dissimilar to Sorkin’s (or the fictional Will McEvoy’s). ‘My agenda is at times liberal and at times conservative. It’s about absurdity and it’s about corruption. And that is the agenda we push. It is an anti-corruption, anti lack of authority, it’s anti contrivance and if I see what in one area more than the other, well then.’

Stewart derides the mainstream media’s bias ‘towards sensationalism and laziness’, preferring gossipy stories like the release of Sarah Palin’s emails or the Anthony Weiner sex scandal to policy-based stories on jobs, the economy or healthcare.

‘Sometimes the truth doesn’t lie in the middle’

One of the themes of The Newsroom is the media’s false bias towards balance. The show’s news division president Charlie Skinner says, at one point, ‘the facts are the balance’.

In an interview with USA Today, Aaron Sorkin said, ‘Most of us have been raised to believe that there are two sides to every story, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. And that’s simply not always the case. Sometimes there are five sides to a story, but sometimes there’s just one. Sometimes the truth doesn’t lie in the middle, it lies squarely on one side or the other. But you’ll never hear the word ‘lie’ on network news when something is plainly a lie.’

Things seem to be changing, at least a little, during this election campaign, with the media seemingly rallying against the statement from Mitt Romney’s campaign that ‘We will not allow this campaign to be dictated by fact-checkers’. James Fallows is just one of those who have been collecting and celebrating examples of reporters calling out falsehoods.

Given that The Newsroom’s news stories are taken from life (with an 18 month delay) and that the show has been renewed for a second season, it will be interested to see whether this new trend makes its way onto the screen.

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