I’ve been watching HBO’s The Newsroom lately, and it’s struck a chord with me (and not just because of its idealized portrayal of journalists as ethical geniuses). Sorkin’s script, as well as Daniels and crew, are meant to portray belief in a higher journalistic ideal, and I find that supremely attractive. Having worked in a student newsroom and seen the potential professional and ethical pitfalls, I am aware that Sorkin’s vision is fantasy. I just believe it is one of the best fantasies I have seen in a long time.
Partially, I am fascinated by the show because my time in a newsroom was full of ethical dilemmas that I did not know how to solve. I had neither the training nor the innate brilliance of Daniels and his staff, and time after time I let big stories slip away or settled for reporting mediocrity. Sometimes I protected my friends, and sometimes I protected my enemies because I felt uncomfortable with the alternative. I dug for truth, but never the way I should have. I wrote stories that were funny instead of stories that were important.
I told myself I wasn’t a real journalist, so it was okay.
It’s not as if every newsroom resembles Sorkin’s. Not all of us have the resources or the scope to constantly chase the big, exciting stories from around the world, or root out misdeeds wherever we find them. In fact, I am constantly shocked by how sweet and innocent Sorkin’s journalists are compared to their real world equivalents (some claim The Newsroom has the least obligatory sex scenes they’ve seen from HBO in years. Personally, I’m just glad the swearing is about a tenth of what I heard around my office). They are people of character, people who value truth and justice, people I understand. Their dilemmas are interesting to me because, on a general level, I have practically experienced them, and I am desperately interested in seeing someone else’s solution.
We live in age of inherent complexity coupled with informational saturation. Stories are developing all around us: politically, economically, socially, spiritually. When Daniels decides that he is henceforth only going to pursue stories that matter, he creates a formula for something exciting. His vow is not uncommon, but it is rarely kept or even successfully attempted. It is not a vow I would take ase there are many meaningless and frivolous things that I enjoy (at least meaningless from a straight news angle). Still, I am learning about the effort and sacrifice needed to create a story that matters from a question that anybody can ask.
And I wish to do it properly. The explosion of news sources in the last two decades has forced the consumer to make significant choices as to which sources to pursue. With the explosion comes a reduced incentive for any one source to focus exclusively on straight news, and therefore encourages an excessive sideshow of colour pieces, slant stories, and pop-opining. When Daniels’ character resists filling his show with iPad speculation and Weiner sexting, he is avoiding the wide and well-trodden road. When Daniels’ character commits to true journalism, he also resists a far more nefarious path – that of the bigot and polemic.
The power of the press to shape public opinion mystifies me, as does the power of perceived consensus among social groups. I remember a time, pre-2008, when dozens of pseudo-news sources (as well as most of the internet) were hell-bent on convincing us that George W. Bush was an incompetent Texan buffoon. Those voices (especially in Canada), were so successful that to this day my generation considers a derogatory slur against Bush to be acceptable in almost any social context. Many of these people have as much understanding of American politics as they do the mating habits of African swallows, and yet they have been convinced that society and the universe in general (as defined by the internet) unanimously support this perspective.
Bush may have been a poor politician, and perhaps a poor president, but he wasn’t an idiot. The fact that the majority of society is convinced that he was is a potent example of the sheer power of ‘news’. If the fictional Newsnight can reach ten million viewers an evening and convince a tenth of them of the importance or scope of a salient political issue, the collective result of a few months of coverage is a presidency or perhaps a war. The news feeds perceived public opinion, and perceived public opinion creates artificial consensus. We are a product of both our journalism, and our desire to be relevant.
Which, of course, is another reason I admire Daniels. He takes the hits from the gossip columns, and watches a torrent of negative press create a public doppelganger threatening to his work and his reputation. He realizes the power of the machines arrayed against him, and yet vows to provide unrelenting, unapologetic journalism. His unshatterable convictions and his flexible opinions make him the best kind of newsman – yet still a dinosaur in an age dominate by Gawker and HuffPost.
When I go back to my newsroom, it won’t be to try and create a Sorkin-like image of journalistic utopia. Real people don’t live like actors reciting a written script. I will, hopefully, be able to ask the secondary questions, find the all-important source, and seek balance not for the sake of balance, but because I honestly want to know where the best argument lies
I will, hopefully, be more idealistic and less entrenched than when I left.