"The Newsroom" has a reassuring mantra: "We can do better."
This new HBO series about a cable-news program, starring Jeff Daniels as its newly bestirred anchor, is plenty fun to watch as a workplace comedy. (It premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. EDT.)
But writer-creator Aaron Sorkin has put some serious ideas into the mouths of his characters when they talk about the news media — its responsibilities, its shortcomings and basic ways it could improve.
Hear this pep talk from MacKenzie McHale, the executive producer of the fictitious "News Night," as she calls for "reclaiming the Fourth Estate, reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession ... (championing) civility, respect and the return to what's important. The death of bitchiness, the death of gossip and voyeurism. Speaking truth to stupid."
In a staff meeting, MacKenzie (played by Emily Mortimer) grandly unveils a chart on which she lists key questions for deciding whether stories belong on "News Night":
— Is this information we need in the voting booth?
— Is this the best possible form of the argument?
— Is the story in historical context?
Then yet another question is added:
— Are there really two sides of this story?
In his script for "The Newsroom" as well as in a recent interview, Sorkin argues against the media's penchant for "a false neutrality, a false equivalency."
Sorkin echoes Will McAvoy, the "News Night" anchor he created, when he says, "The news isn't biased toward the left or toward the right, it's biased toward fairness. If the Republican congressional caucus were to walk onto the floor of the House and offer a resolution saying the world is flat," the next day's headlines would likely read: "Democrats and Republicans can't agree on shape of Earth."
What are the chances that the real-world media might get with Sorkin's program?
In researching "The Newsroom," Sorkin says he spoke with numerous executives and producers at news outlets, and asked them two questions on how to get better: "What would a utopian news broadcast be? And, what's stopping you from doing it?"
The responses to the first question varied only slightly, he says, and had to do with narrowing the definition of "news" to mean more relevant, necessary and useful information.
But what was the answer to that all-important second question? According to Sorkin, "It was almost uniformly some version of the word 'guts.'"