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Remaking News: “Pseudo-Events” and The Newsroom

In 1964, Daniel J. Boorstin, a Pulitzer-prizewinning historian and the twelfth librarian of the United States Congress published a provocative book that is still a staple of sociology courses around the country. In The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America, Boorstin coins the term “pseudo-event” to describe events that serve no purpose other than to be reproduced and advertised, in order to make a scene and to make money. New technology releases, reality television, the 24-hour news cycle, campaign events, celebrities and pundits all participate in “the making of illusions which flood our experience.” This proliferation of shallow “non-events” has unfortunately become part of America’s “honest and most necessary and most respectable business.” We pay others to “deceive us” and in our drive to satisfy our extravagant expectations we have corrupted the “activities which purport to inform and comfort and improve and educate and elevate us: the work of our best journalists.”

I’m not sure if Aaron Sorkin, the creator and writer of HBO’s new television drama, ever read The Image, but The Newsroom seems to be inspired by the very fight against non-event news that Boorstin began. In the face of complex commercial and political special interests, egotistical anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), his executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) and his staff attempt to recreate Atlantic World News’s “News Night 2.0.” This fictional newsroom tries to ignore iPhone releases, sensationalized criminal trials and the weather that was a staple of McAvoy’s career thus far, and instead focus on stories of national and international importance.

Late at night, hunched over computer screens, in karaoke bars and dark control rooms, the team begins their reinvention. They dig deep down to find facts before breaking a big story. They thoroughly vet tips and contacts for accuracy. They go after both sides of the aisle.

But the idealistic newsmen and newswomen hit many pitfalls. Sticky personal predicaments, business vendettas and most demanding of all, the mandate to keep viewers from changing the channel, plague the show’s new vision. When Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda), the CEO of Atlantis World Media, learns of McAvoy’s harsh critiques of new Tea Party politicians, she warns McAvoy to back off for fear of losing friends on the Hill, friends helpful in finding tax loopholes and broadcasting rights. When McAvoy refuses to cover the Casey Anthony murder trial and Anthony Weiner’s various sexual exploits in favor of more newsworthy and more important issues, like the debt-ceiling crisis threatening the US dollar, ratings tank. Lansing threatens to pull the plug. Their idealistic war against “fake news” hits the brick wall of the news world’s business model.

The cast seems to regurgitate familiar tropes. There is, of course, Margaret “Maggie” Jordan (Alsion Pill), a bumbling, cute and klutzy Midwestern associate producer who is dating career-driven Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski), News Night’s old executive producer, who has feelings for the new producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr). As you might have guessed, anchor McAvoy dated executive producer MacKenzie. The only character in The Newsroom impervious to drama is the aloof, almost omniscient and very much lovable Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), ACN's news division president, who is correctly told looks like “balloon salesmen in a bowtie.”

The first season takes us back to the events of 2010 and 2011: the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, the rise of the Tea Party, the Arab Spring and the killing of Osama Ben Laden. All news bulletins and video clips used on this fictitious show are true-to-life and discovering which event each episode will cover is both exhilarating and disappointing. On the one hand, it’s fun to find out how The Newsroom will report events we’ve lived through. On the other, it feels as though Sorkin is preaching to the viewer how news should have gone down and how others news outlets—Fox, MSNBC and CNN, well, screwed up. When the show holds off on broadcasting the death of Gabrielle Giffords until further information is uncovered and Don says, “A doctor pronounces her dead, not the news,” it’s obviously a veiled critique of NPR and NBC for disseminating the wrong news. It’s easy to critique with hindsight.

Sorkin shares Boorstin’s visionary, and let’s face it, sanctimonious tenor when spreading his words of warning. Will McAvoy’s self-righteous diatribes and long-winded dialogues, along with News Night’s highbrow journalism as overseen by an almost all-knowing president, all seem to share one characteristic: they don’t wish to simply report the news as much as tell us what to think about what’s going on. Instead of simply reporting cases of wildly unfair voter ID laws as fashioned by far-right Republicans, Sorkin has McAvoy deliver a rousing six minute speech about how the Republican party is out of line, and how Tea Partiers are out of their minds as to how McAvoy is “Republican in name only” (a RINO). Clips are brought in not to inform the public but to serve as a backup to McAvoy’s ever-more resentful narrative arguments. McAvoy spurts his smug political leanings as a prophet to be revered not a journalist to trusted. Sorkin has downgraded analytic news journalism to confrontational commentary and asks the viewer to revere his fancy footwork.

Sorkin asks us to venerate this new-and-improved journalism, to hope that real news could be told with McAvoy’s boldness and McHale’s insistence on ‘truth.’ Indeed, Makenzie intends to “speak truth to stupid” but perhaps unintentionally, Sorkin treats his real audience as stupid. Cheap jokes, recurring antics and unnecessary flashbacks further the feelings that Sorkin thinks we’re sluggish and that we need guidance.

After a while, McAvoy’s diatribes, the office love triangles, and the ever-dwindling anticipation of finding out which news will be covered every episode wears off. But, though you might find yourself hating a show too drunk on its moral righteousness to get its romances straight, there is still much to love in the first ten episodes. Sorkin’s dialogues, as fans of The West Wing know, are so quick, witty and brilliant that you might need to rewind to appreciate fully. Those versed in both People Magazine and Politico will appreciate Sorkin’s mastery of pop and political events.  If you agree with McAvoy’s intellectually honest, pragmatically minded but disillusioned Republicanism, the show is a thrilling ten hours of political validation. But you don’t need to be a “RINO” to appreciate McAvoy’s anchoring. Liberals and (many) conservatives can agree that as conceited as McAvoy’s observations are, he is ultimately ‘fair and balanced’ in going after Tea Party extremism on one hand, and Obama idealism on the other.

In the end, The Newsroom goes deeper than the story of one anchor’s quest to remake himself. If you are tired of “pseudo-events” being reported as news, if you think that covering national crises is more important than reporting irrelevant sex scandals, and if you think that television news can and should be an “honest and most necessary and most respectable business,” then The Newsroom is a must watch.