What Sorkin Gets Wrong:
The Newsroom can be read as Sorkin’s attempt to cure what’s ailing the news industry, but he’s misdiagnosing the patient. In the universe of the show, the biggest knock against News Night is that Daniels’ McAvoy is too safe, too middle-of-the-road, too afraid to offend or rock the boat. (He’s repeatedly, disparagingly compared to Jay Leno.) McAvoy’s new executive producer MacKenzie (Emily Mortimer) urges the anchor to take more risks, become more opinionated, and stop covering fluffy stories, ratings-be-damned. McAvoy, who has been enjoying the highest ratings at the network with his tame, anodyne broadcasts, worries that if he turns into a tough guy his viewers will flee in droves. But ultimately he goes along with the new plan, rebooting News Night with an on-air apology to his viewers for not covering more substantial topics. He starts to get more confrontational, and feels invigorated by the change, but—as he feared—the numbers start to drop.
Of course in reality, the problem with cable news isn’t that anchors are too timid, or loath to offend for fear of losing viewers. It’s the exact opposite. Most modern cable news hosts are actually quite eager to stir the pot, believing that opinion and controversy are the things that drive higher ratings. And the data backs up that view: Fox, with combative anchors who are drifting even more to the right as the election approaches, is still No. 1, while the decidedly straight-down-the-middle CNN hit record-low ratings last month.
The Newsroom also fundamentally misstates the centrality of ratings in the cable news industry. When News Night’s ratings dip due to McAvoy’s new on-air persona, it draws the ire of Reese (Chris Messina), a reptilian corporate stooge with his eye on the bottom line. He tries to convince the anchor to moderate his stance to win back viewers. To keep his colleagues in the dark about his desire for increased popularity, McAvoy insists on meeting with the executive in secret, outside the office, Deep Throat style. In the world of The Newsroom, the quest for ratings is portrayed as shameful, something that only the bean counters should care about, and that any serious journalist should ignore.
But in the real world, every single cable news employee, from the CEO down to the lowliest intern is acutely aware of—or in some cases obsessed with—the numbers. At Fox, every afternoon at 4:30 p.m. an email goes out to a massive distribution list of senior staff and talent; attached is a spreadsheet with 20 pages of ratings data from the previous day’s programming, for every show on the network, as well as every show on CNN, MSNBC, and Headline News. The data is broken down into 15-minute increments then sliced and diced into various categories—total viewers, viewers aged 25 to 54, live viewers, DVR viewers, and so on. Producers, executives, and, yes, anchors, pore over these numbers with Talmudic devotion, and adjust the programming accordingly. I’ll let other people argue whether this practice is good or bad for journalism. But for Sorkin to ignore this aspect of the industry is baffling.
Not that any of this ruins my enjoyment of the show. I agree with a lot of the early criticism of The Newsroom, but I’m also a lot more sanguine that Sorkin can turn it around by the end of the season. Then again, maybe it’s impossible for me to be objective about a show that portrays my old profession as heroic, when I departed that profession in such a less-than-heroic manner.
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