Tuesday, July 17, 2012

THAT Scene: the problem with The Newsroom's use of real news

The News Night team's coverage of the Gabrielle Giffords tragedy doesn't just sap dramatic tension; it exploits real grief in the service of its own message.

Jeff Daniel's Will McAvoy reports on the shooting of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on The Newsroom.
THAT Scene is a recurring feature that takes a closer look at a single scene that exemplifies a particular show, theme or moment in time. The scene might be good or bad, but it will always be memorable and worth talking about.

Television Without Pity's recaplet of the (pretty terrible) fourth episode of The Newsroom, "I'll Try To Fix You," hits the nail on the head when it comes to the biggest problem with the series' much-discussed decision to have Will McAvoy and co. cover actual news stories from the recent past: in this case, the shooting of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The results were not only uncomfortable to watch, but also undercut any point the sequence was trying to make about how the news should be covered:
When the other outlets start reporting that Giffords is dead but there hasn't been any official confirmation, Will has to decide if he should join them and risk being wrong or hold off and risk being the last news outlet to report Giffords' death. Of course, we all know that she survived, and Will's decision to wait is the right one, even though Reese is screaming at him to join in and pronounce her dead. Reese is the Bad Guy. Charlie, Will, and his staff and even Don are the Good Guys, so they realize that Giffords is a person and shouldn't just be used for news ratings or as part of a race to report the news first. No, although apparently it's totally cool to use her for an HBO show's sleazy and hypocritical attempt to elicit an emotional response from the viewers, titular Coldplay songs and all.
The entire sequence, which begins with Maggie (Alison Pill) sprinting to tell Will and MacKenzie (Emily Mortimer) and ends with Will's refusal to announce Gifford's death vindicated by the news that she isn't actually dead, is a perfect example of the ways in which reporting on real news can be incredibly damaging, both to The Newsroom's dramatic structure and the show's credibility as a moral authority. (And if you think the series isn't aiming for moral authority status, re-watch the episode and count the number of times Will says he's on a "mission to civilize.")


One of the major problems with using actual news stories as fodder for a fictional show is the inherent lack of dramatic tension. When Will insisted on reporting on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill there was no sense of risk, no wondering if the gamble would pay off or fail, because everyone already knew the outcome. Similarly, the argument that Will has to report Gifford's death as soon as the other networks do so he won't lose viewers by not having the most up-to-date information - an argument that, for the record, is certainly flawed - holds even less water than it normally would, because everyone knows that Giffords survived the shooting. If the News Night team were reporting on a fictional occurrence there might actually be a possibility of failure, a sense that these people were not infallible. Without the possibility of a decision blowing up in their faces, Will and MacKenzie's commitment to "real" journalism doesn't seem brave or admirable, but obvious, and anyone who tries to make an argument for any other approach is easily dismissed as a fake, ratings-driven poser.

The dichotomy between "real" news and the fake stuff is drawn early on in the sequence (1:25 in the above video), when the News Night set is wheeled into the studio, pushing out a female entertainment reporter who is reporting People's Choice Awards red carpet. The episode uses this transition (and the similar moment at 1:42 where MacKenzie watches all the monitors switch from red-carpet footage to images of the shooting's aftermath) to hammer home the show's message about the importance of actual reporting and the frivolity of tabloid journalism, a theme that was particularly strong in "I'll Try To Fix You."

Given The Newsroom's well-documented tendency to reduce its women to unstable, incompetent ditzes, it's no surprise that every person in the episode associated with tabloid journalism - the gossip magazine reporter who Will lectures at a New Year's Eve party, another one of Will's dates who cops to liking The Real Housewives of New Jersey, the female entertainment reporter who is literally shunted aside to make room for the man who does the real news - is female. Even the episode's running joke about Neal's (Dev Patel) obsession with Bigfoot is contrasted favorably to the uniquely feminine vapidity of caring about Jennifer Aniston, because trying to prove the existence of a mythological creature is obviously more worth one's time than reading about Angelina Jolie's engagement ring.

The show's weird sexism comes to a head (in this episode, anyway), five minutes and 50 seconds into the clip. After learning that Giffords is, in fact, still alive, and that they were right not to pronounce her dead despite the odious Reese's (Chris Messina) insistence that they should, Will and Charlie (Sam Waterston), vow to continue being real newsmen no matter what their corporate bosses think. Leaving aside the crassness of using a very real tragedy as a springboard for a triumphant fuck-the-man moment, Will and Charlie's triumphant outburst is quickly followed by Mackenzie's hysterical apology for... something:
WILL: Mac-
MACKENZIE: I'm sorry.
WILL: It's not your fault.
MACKENZIE: I fucked everything up!
WILL: It's going to be okay.
Besides the obvious (and extremely prevalent) problem of Will, again, acting as the male savior who will rescue MacKenzie from whatever mistakes she has made as a result of her stupid feminine brain, it's completely unclear what she's apologizing for. Is she sorry that Will got smeared in the tabloids because of altercations with the three separate women he lectured on their stupidity? Let's assume she's apologizing for the fact that Will added a three-year noncompete clause to his contract - a clause that could leave much of his staff unemployed if he gets himself fired, let's not forget - so that he could fire MacKenzie at the end of every week. Because the petty, childish way that Will lets his personal life endanger the livelihoods of his co-workers is obviously Mac's fault.

Really, though, the major flaws outlined above don't even come close to the problem of exploiting an actual tragedy in the service of a message about how to report the news. The entire thing, up to and including the use of Coldplay's "Fix You" to pile on the emotional manipulation, is blatantly offensive to a very real woman and her ongoing recovery. Television Without Pity's characterization of the whole thing as "sleazy and hypocritical" is right on the money. If Will McAvoy and MacKenzie McHale actually existed, they would be appalled.


  1. Okay, I stumbled upon this trying to figure out where they shot this series but I just want to note that you have no idea what you're talking about.

    Maybe you're right about this supposed misogyny but you certainly don't know anything about good storytelling. Dramatic tension is not dependent on NOT knowing the outcome (hi, Titanic) but the journey!

    As far as exploitation - I would really love for you to come up with a better way of reflecting on the lack of honest journalism in America today. If you use "fake stories" based on reality, everyone knows what you're talking about anyway and complains about the veiled commentary. If you use totally made up stories then you need the episodes to be 2-hours long to create intricate plots that demonstrate the profound and complex nature of politics and news today without the benefit of commonly shared real-life events.

    Maybe there is a better way but your honest criticism lacks the follow through to consider how unwieldy alternatives would be.

  2. Aside from this fanatical article being obviously written by a overly-sensitive feminist, it made a few good points in support of the show. However, it seems as though Alex completely missed the opportunity to fully explore the insightful ways The Newsroom exposes shallow and devious tactics used by major news organizations worldwide, and instead clouded the article with her own personal insecurities and extremist feminist views with regards to a common trait amongst women in the workplace - bringing personality and drama into the workplace.

  3. "The entire thing, ... is blatantly offensive to a very real woman and her ongoing recovery."

    And yet Gifford's husband wrote to Sorkin thanking him for the way he had portrayed the incident. Apparently he and his wife had watched the show together and found it very moving.

    Way to whip up a storm in a teacup.