Late last fall, as our country became somehow more divided after the last presidential election, a video started circulating on social networks (something videos have a tendency to do). In it, Jeff Daniels as his Newsroom (HBO) character Will McAvoy answers a college student’s question about why America is the best country in the world by telling her and us that it isn’t. He rightfully points out that just having freedom alone (something we as Americans cherish, but something we also have a tendency to fetishize) doesn’t make the U.S. the best, and neither does our dismal standing in all the measures of quality of life that he goes on to cite.
What was surprising however was who was sharing the clip. In a time of increasing ideological polarization, the video was being shared as a rallying cry from both sides. It seemed that those whose beliefs drifted more toward the ends of the political spectrum were unified in their dissatisfaction with the direction our country was moving even if they didn’t agree on how to fix the problems or what a “better” America actually looks like (something reflected in polls from a multitude of opinion research groups). And while some may roll their eyes at the nostalgic portrait of a bygone nation, most across the spectrum would probably agree that the idealized newscaster of yesteryear, the Murrow’s and the Cronkite’s who informed the national electorate of all the issues they needed to know about in order to be good citizens are all gone, if they were ever there to begin with.
Just like many other things in this once great(ish) land, the media is broken, or at the very least there is something very wrong with it.
Aaron Sorkin seems to understand this, and like his other political drama there is what amounts to an idealized longing for things to be the way they once were – a romanticized America in which one could trust their elected officials and the newsmen who cover them. Will awakens to this after his blowup at Northwestern, and The Newsroom centers around this paradigm shift, as if Will and his staff accept their calling as the keepers of the flame of actual journalism and abandon the conventions that have weighed them down ever since they became “journalists.”
From the initial speech which appeared to be boiling up in Will for quite some time, we see a man who realizes that although his audience liked him, he wasn’t saying much…and he certainly wasn’t reporting the news in a way that was providing the public with the context or information they needed to make informed decisions. It’s not that he had been misleading or biased; it’s just that he was “soft.”
Will, along with his newly hired executive producer Mackenzie Mchale (who in a very classic television way is also his former lover) and the staff he was able to keep on following his virally-spreading tirade (characterized as a meltdown) set out to restore integrity to a profession that once served a necessary function in our society. Although spurred along by Charlie (played here terrifically by Sam Waterston); who as a vestige of the old guard appears slightly surly and cantankerous, while still righteous and wide eyed; the crew of fictitious Atlantic Cable News’ fictitious prime time network cornerstone “Newsnight with Will McAvoy” face obstacles nearly every step of the way. Sometimes it’s from politicians and those that help shape policy in Washington and other times it’s from their network parent company who wants them to toe the line and report the news without ruffling any feathers of the aforementioned political and corporate elites.
That’s almost the point of The Newsroom: showing us how we got from the glory days of the hero-journalists that worked hard to pull back curtains so as to expose the wizards lurking behind; to an era of bland journalism that has modern day reporter always chomping at the bit to break big stories yet ultimately facing some types of constraints from a host of parties whose interests are maintaining and growing a news agency’s position in the Journalism industry. Like Sorkin’s The West Wing, he gets the viewer to empathize with the characters that he presents as “fighting the good fight.”
Along the way though he addresses a multitude of problems that while not explicitly stated, seem to be inherent in our current system; problems that have most likely existed even in the times of Murrow and Conkrite. He also shows what it would look like if the media acted a little more fearless and fully embraced its role as the watchdog that seeks to color our various systems of ruling forces transparent, the alternative to the current landscape. His methods of doing this – setting the action far enough in the recent past to allow for the ACN news team to take the high road and “get it right” when dealing with some of the biggest newsworthy events of the past three years – has also been one of the loftier criticisms that have been lobbed at the show; critics pointing out how easy it is to cast judgments over actual news outlets handling the same events.
They are missing the point though and Sorkin illustrates this particularly well in Season Two by showing the gang making some of the exact same missteps that plagued our national media in the wake of the Travyon Martin shooting as well as Benghazi. In case of the latter, he at least showed how newscasters sometimes make decisions to report (or not) on a story based on other events that have transpired, that event here being the fictional epic screw-up causing the team to proceed with caution and not step too far outside of the general narrative permeating throughout the rest of the media.
It isn’t even that The Newsroom is a “great” show. Fans of Aaron Sorkin’s writing style and the type of humor tinged drama that he creates tend to love it, but even I have to admit that when compared to what has become the standard list of “great television” in the past decade or so The Newsroom is just “good”, maybe even just “OK”. There are a lot of moments where I find myself groaning at what I perceive to be lines and sentiments bordering on cheesy. Some scenes and even full episodes are actually great, as Sorkin has a knack of writing interesting characters and top-notch dialogue; however there are times when it just sounds too perfect. Characters say things that sound as if they had been prepared far in advance but without skipping a beat. It is classic television which can sound a little weird if you have become unaccustomed to that style. No one would dare call it groundbreaking.
But it kind of is, maybe not in style but in content at least. That might lead one to take pause and say “But there have been plenty of other movies and television shows about both print and broadcast news gathering” and I would concede that. The Newsroom, like the 1976 film Network (a film also depicting a news anchor losing his cool and unable to keep his anger contained any longer), illuminate the limitations and problems with providing a comprehensive account of the news that we rarely think about when consuming it.
So what are these problems and limitations? What is it that is preventing us from getting the news we need from people we can trust? In short, it’s “bias,” but even that requires a closer look.
“Media Bias” has come to be defined as the real or perceived tendency of journalists to report the news from a non-neutral viewpoint, either actively by endorsing one view over another, or through the omission of a other perspectives altogether. The argument is that because it is nearly impossible to report on every story from every angle, then there will always be inherent bias in what journalists choose to include in the greater news narrative. Most see the bias as not born from the decisions of individual journalists, but instead as widespread and pervasive: permeating through the media in a totalizing manner that is a result of individuals internalizing beliefs and practices and that affecting the decisions they make. Others see it as possibly conspiratorial where overt censorship and meddling from editors, advertisers, executives and sometimes government officials effect what we are informed about. Other factors include the tendency of the media to gravitate towards the sensational as well as industry pressures to compete leading to a more homogenized landscape, and also a proclivity towards reporting viewpoints that can be summed up in a concise manner while ignoring or downplaying views that require a more expository look. Most frequently, however, bias refers to an ideological slant.
Typically the word “bias” when being used to describe the media is almost always preceded by the word “liberal.” In some circles the two words are tied together and are accepted as a doctrine – like truth, something beyond the reach of any debate. We see this in the first part of the Season Two “Election Night” finale when Taylor Warren –a fictional, former Romney strategist – makes the comment that “The liberal media bias is so clear that it’s not worth arguing about.” Will calls her on this, saying that he can’t let her “float an allegation like that and then pretend it’s so well agreed upon that it’s past debate.” When pressed for evidence she quotes a survey that is always quoted when this issue comes up that shows the voting habits of journalists as skewing almost overwhelmingly to the left. Elliot –the Greta Van Susteren to Will’s Bill O’Reilly- mocks the allegation as “15 year-old survey,” but the truth is that the survey’s findings about the voting habits and political allegiances are true, a fact that has been repeated in numerous surveys and studies since.
But what does that REALLY say? Simply: journalists tend to vote for Democrats. That’s it. Period. The surveys don’t prove that personal ideologies affect the ability to report the news objectively, or that journalists insert their beliefs into their work, just that there are more that identify themselves one way politically speaking rather than another. (It actually leads one to wonder WHY this is; that is, why they aren’t as many self-identifying Conservatives in the average newsroom) Warren, inadvertently turns the tables on herself by questioning McAvoy’s negative reporting on Republicans ( like his incendiary broadcast that referred to the Tea Party movement as the “American Taliban”) as anecdotal evidence to back her claim…despite the fact that he has always been a Republican. Will IS a Republican who isn’t letting a desire to promote an ideology that he agrees with dictate his actions in respect to his role as a reporter. As a utopian ideal of a “newsman” we expect him to ask tough questions of everyone and expose the truth even if it negatively impacts someone or something that the reporter holds in high regard.
(One should note that it is Sorkin here speaking through Ms. Warren and the dialogue, setting up her argument to be shot down and I guess one could say that he is inserting his own bias into the narrative. I wouldn’t argue with that because he probably is, but it doesn’t really matter in this case because it is a weekly hour long drama and not the nightly news that people take as fact. And…its mostly true.)
The implication, I guess, is that Will isn’t being truthful about what he actually believes, which is unfortunately a common way that people who want to paint the picture of a completely biased and uncredible media tend to do. If he is verbally tearing into a Republican, then it must mean that he is biased; and if he DOES call himself a Republican then it must be some sort of ruse in order to at least project some semblance of objectivity. It is as if one cannot question the actions of politicians and other elites without some sort of overarching motive – some grander agenda.
A lot of bias that we perceive as skewing to either end of the spectrum is probably all in our head according to a number of studies. Albert Gunther and his colleagues have led the charge in using empirical data to shed scholarly light on the phenomenon known as “hostile media perception,” or as Gunther et al. put it “the tendency for people highly involved in an issue to see news coverage of that issue as biased against their own point of view.” That our own beliefs and partisanship act as a filter when we are presented with new information is not very shocking. If you believe at all that we are naturally prone to process stimuli of any kind in a subjective manner in attempts to fit the information into the scheme that we’ve already organized the world into, then “hostile media perception” isn’t really a stretch. It actually makes perfect sense and makes it clear that one has to “work on” objectivity by consciously working to suspend one’s knee jerk reactions to news stories and see only that which is factual.
But what happens when an entire news organization decides that the bias they perceive needs to be counteracted, that in order to ensure the objectivity we all crave from the media as a whole there needs to be a concentrated effort to tell the story from the side that is supposedly left out of the “mainstream media” narrative? (MSM – an acronym familiar to anyone who has looked at the comments on conservative web sites)
Obviously, you start reporting news with an OVERT bias and call it “Fair and Balanced” as if your conscious decision to publish stories that purposefully elevate one stance on an issue over another is something that is justified and even necessary. Position it as “reliable” and “trustworthy” in comparison to the MSM that is unequivocally corrupt and in the pocket of the liberals, and people who also perceive the actual media bias as something concocted by evil liberals will tune in to you instead of the competition. Because why would they watch anything else if everything else can’t be trusted?
That is what has happened. Surveys showing the voting patterns of journalists have morphed into “the liberal mainstream media is working for the Democratic party to advance their society-destroying agenda.” When you convince people that you don’t report on events the same way that the MSM does, somehow it gives you “credibility”…even if you are doing the exact same thing that you are accusing the rest of the news industry of doing.
The problem is that it fails to address the fact that as an industry that is dependent on the same people that they are reporting on, Journalism has to contend with institutional biases that goes beyond ideology or political belief. Not one news outlet will report on that.