Journalistic Passion: Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom presents television news and current affairs as it should be. But Sorkin, like all artists, draws his inspiration from reality. The fictional Will McAvoy's (above right) exploits follow very real historical precedents, and there are heroes every bit as idealistic in our own newsrooms.
THE FIRST SEASON of US screen-writer, Aaron Sorkin’s, The Newsroom has just ended. Like its predecessor, The West Wing, Mr Sorkin’s latest offering shows America as it should be by taking for its subject matter America as it is.
The question Mr Sorkin expect his viewers to ask at the end of every show is: “Why can’t real life be like this?”
Why, for example, can’t the producers of our nightly current affairs shows provide us with the sort of searing interrogation of newsmakers that the fictional viewers of News Night regularly witness?
Why have Television New Zealand and TV3 been unable to find an anchor-man like Will McAvoy, the strongly principled, fearsomely intelligent (yet politically conservative) journalist who heroically refuses to “dumb down” his show for the sake of the ratings?
Why, Mr Sorkin wants us to ask, are our own news-rooms not populated with the sort of young journalists who set News Night’s news-room afire with their idealism and an absolute determination to uncover and broadcast “the truth”?
And what about the characters Mr Sorkin places further up the hierarchy of his fictional Atlantis Cable News? What about Charlie Skinner, the president of ACN’s news division, or Leona Lansing, the CEO of the network’s parent corporation, Atlantis World Media? Without the backing of these two, neither Will McAvoy’s journalistic integrity, nor the crusading zeal of his “EP” (Executive Producer) McKenzie McHale, would ever make it to air. What about them?
It’s a formidable skill Mr Sorkin possesses; this ability to hold up the real against the ideal and make us rue how little the former resembles the latter. Why weren’t the all-too-real Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama more like Mr Sorkin’s fictional President, Jed Bartlett? Why can’t real journalists be as enthralling as News Night’s?
Well, as McKenzie McHale tells Will McAvoy in the pilot episode: “We could be”; “We were once”. Mr Sorkin’s hard-drinking, bow-tie wearing Charlie Skinner and the hard-nosed Leona Lansing closely resemble the two pivotal characters in that greatest of all American news stories - Watergate. Not the two journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who broke the story, but The Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee, and the Post’s proprietor, Katie Graham. They were the ones who gave Woodward and Bernstein the time, the resources, and (most important of all) the backing, to tell the Watergate story.
Real Life Heroes: Carl Bernstein, Katherine Graham and Bob Woodward discuss the Watergate expose in the newsroom of The Washington Post.
The sort of journalism Mr Sorkin champions in The Newsroom is possible. It has happened. It’s history.
Nor is it fanciful to claim that high principle, fearsome intelligence and conservative politics can be combined in a single news-man. I know they can, because I used to work for just such a person. His name was Warren Berryman and he was the founding editor of the weekly business newspaper, The Independent.
Warren loved free-market capitalism and he was the implacable foe of anyone who brought it into disrepute. What’s more, if you had “a good yarn”, Warren didn’t give a damn what your political leanings were. It was the story that mattered.
And though he may not always deliver the scintillating dialogue which Mr Sorkin puts into the mouth of Will McAvoy, our own John Campbell regularly presents TV3’s viewers with the sort of fearless advocacy journalism that makes The Newsroom such compelling viewing. Not forgetting Pip Keane, Campbell Live’s McKenzie McHale, or TV3’s very own Charlie Skinner: that indefatigable champion of his network’s news and current affairs; Mark Jennings.
It might be stretching a point to call them “young”, but the very real New Zealand investigative journalists, Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson, are every bit as committed to uncovering the truth as News Night's idealistic staffers.
Elaborating the ideal; revealing its meaning and presence in our daily lives; this has always been the duty of the artist. But we should never forget the crucial role reality plays in shaping the artist’s vision of a better world.
Truth is not only stranger than fiction – it’s more inspiring.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 October 2012.