Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series The Newsroom is set in the world of cable news, following the staff of the fictional News Night, hosted by anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels). I spent almost eight years working in cable news before I decided earlier this year to exit the industry in a quiet, dignified fashion, so naturally the show piqued my curiosity. The series is getting mixed reviews, but as far as verisimilitude goes, Sorkin deserves credit for nailing a lot of the details of the milieu. But given how many of the little things he gets right, it’s surprising that he gets a few of the big ones so wrong. Herewith, a guide to accuracy of The Newsroom:
What Sorkin Gets Right:
The newsroom itself: The show’s main set, with its soaring ceilings, natural light, and gleaming glass and metal surfaces bears no resemblance to the newsroom at Fox, where I used to work. (That place is a cramped, bed-bug-infested, subterranean former Sam Goody store.) The News Night HQ does, however, look quite similar to the modern, spacious facilities that CNN has within the Time Warner Center. (I was lucky enough to see them a few months ago right before the great Howard Kurtz methodically flayed me alive during an interview.)
The computers: The industry-standard software Avid iNews is clearly visible on the monitors of the News Night staffers. The program is used to create the rundowns—the shared spreadsheet that acts as a blueprint for the show. The rundown contains the script, guest names, lists of video and graphical elements, as well as an estimate of how long each segment will take. As Sorkin shows in the pilot, iNews also spits out story alerts from the Associated Press and other wire services, color-coded by importance—yellow, orange, red and so on. The Newsroom gets this right, down to the correct sound effect the program makes when an alert comes in. (One niggling detail that the pilot gets wrong is the amount of attention paid to the news alerts. Literally hundreds of them come in every day, and roughly 90 percent of the bulletins are something minor, like state lottery numbers. Most producers turn off the sound effects.)
The dress code: In the pilot, the dickish executive producer Don struts around the office in an untucked flannel shirt and jeans, while the earnest senior producer Jim—one notch lower than Don—is nerdy-chic in a suit and an ID badge suspended on a lanyard. The muddled dress code is true to a cable news workplace, where two competing aesthetic dynamics clash: the inherent schlubbiness of journalists and the flashy polish of television personalities. Tech guys in Jets jerseys work side-by-side with anchors in Armani suits, and everyone else is somewhere in the middle. I once had an intern who wore double-breasted suits every day, and when we greeted guests who didn’t know any better they would often mistake him for my boss. It probably didn’t help that I only shaved twice a week.
The Luddite anchor: One of the most effective running gags in the pilot episode involves McAvoy repeatedly expressing amazement that he has a blog, which is run by a young staffer. This is dead on. My old boss has a website, which he’s certainly aware of, since he steers people there every night to buy branded merchandise. It’s still an open question whether or not he’s aware that he has a Twitter account with almost 200,000 followers. (That’s not to say that this is the norm, however. Lots of TV journalists—Jake Tapper, Chuck Todd, and Greta Van Susteren come to mind—are prolific online, writing their own blog posts and tweeting furiously.)
The “back-in-my-day” old guard news honcho: The news division president, Charlie, played by a feisty, bow-tied Sam Waterston, tends to ramble on with stories about the past. (At one point he actually prefaces a story with “In the old days ...”) While this is a well-worn character archetype, it’s also true to reality. Fox News president Roger Ailes is known for regaling staff with stories about his TV past during speeches at company functions. I personally heard at least three retellings of the time he worked for The Mike Douglas Show and had to set up a functioning bowling alley in the studio with less than 24-hours notice.
The relationships: Sorkin nails the boozy camaraderie and constant flirtation that develop between cable news co-workers. The News Night staffers' 8 p.m. live show leaves them little time for a social life aside from drinking with co-workers after the taping. (I once worked for a show that taped at 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Both my girlfriend and my liver hated me the entire time.) He also accurately portrays the strained dynamic between a multimillionaire anchor and his underlings: McAvoy can’t remember the names of any of his crew, and angrily berates them when they don’t do their jobs right. Sound familiar?