Last night brought a new episode of The Newsroom, which meant that I watched it and goaded another reporter into watching it with me. This week's expert/critic is BuzzFeed's Rosie Gray, who covers foreign policy and defense and (maybe the most fun) which bloggers are taking money to flack for shady governments. The early part of this season features a heavy dose of Occupy Wall Street nostalgia (Gray covered that movement extensively for the Village Voice) and 2012 GOP primary drama (she covered that too).
Dave Weigel: I'll defer to you—how realistic and/or powerful was the portrayal of Occupy? Apart from getting the date wrong on the Malcolm Harris-faked Radiohead rumor, I mean.
Rosie Gray: I liked that they took the time to learn what the hand signals meant and seemed to have a basic understanding of what the General Assembly is and how it works. But the idea that any cable TV reporters were onto Occupy before it really got going is absurd.
DW: To be fair, he's just the editor of the News Night website, and apparently the only staffer who reads the Internet at all.
RG: Yeah, but either way—I knew about OWS a month or two before it kicked off, but i was a writer for the Village Voice. People from CNN and so on didn't tune in until it became clear that it was actually a big deal. And I'd like to point out that the Occupiers themselves think it's ridiculous.
DW: They're still on Twitter? That's good. After the Radiohead scene, I went back to find the website that announced the rumor, and was told this: "You attempted to reach occupywallst.org, but instead you actually reached a server identifying itself as celebdial.com."
RG: That's very weird. Hold on, I'm looking up my stories from the Radiohead incident ... wow, this is bringing back memories. The funny thing is, they played down the Radiohead thing in the show, but it was actually OWS's breakout moment. It was the first time there was a legitimately huge crowd in Zuccotti Park. I did think the show got at the gist of what those protests were like on the streets of the Financial District ... chaotic, loud, cops everywhere, people passing by in business suits. But Neal has a basic misunderstanding of what Occupy wanted. He seems to think that their goal was to get money out of politics? In reality they had about a thousand unrelated goals, and that was their undoing.
DW: He was pretty explicit in the first episode that he "wanted to see this succeed." That's been a theme in every plotline apart from the Romney bus one—everyone's pretty blatant about their desire to abuse their privileges to get the stories they want. Don wants to run with a weak story to get Troy Davis out of prison. I guess that's what was happening? Maggie conceals the actual danger of the Africa trip (again, assuming no one else reads anything except the wires, and would not hear about the terrorism in Kampala). Maggie and Sloan conspire to hide her video, by really half-assedly bribing the videographer. That whole plotline—were there still Sex and the City fanbloggers in 2011?
RG: There cannot be. I refuse to believe that there are still SATC fanfic writers.
DW: It seems like an easy thing for Sorkin to make fun of—and on HBO, ha, ha!
RG: Yeah, but that joke is about six years old now. It's also vaguely sexist, but that's Sorkin for you. But back to your other point—you're right, all the ACN people are very open about wanting to get specific things done with their reporting. Exonerating Troy Davis, seeing OWS succeed, etc. I did see some reporters who at least implicitly held that view about OWS. And I don't think that's necessarily wrong. But in the show, it's so preachy, and I cringed watching Neal ingratiate himself with the Occupy activist he's trying to cultivate as a source.
DW: Who happens to be a pretty girl that Neal can fall for/lecture.
RG: Also, for what it's worth, I was never told to leave an Occupy meeting because I was press. Once, they did make all of the reporters raise our hands and say which outlets we were with and then they either fluttered their fingers up or down, depending on how much they hated our respective newspapers.
DW: That's much funnier than anything we've seen in this show.
RG: Yeah—the New York Times got the worst reaction, the Voice was relatively well-received.
DW: There's just so much id spilling all over the place in this season, already. The hyper-adversial relationship between the Romney campaign and the press is just unrecognizable. And look, I'm not saying "it should have reflected the actual, boring Romney campaign!" But campaigns actually work hard to ingratiate themselves, because they can nudge the press more easily that way. If you're on the bus, you're not working the crowd independently, getting irksome quotes from voters.
RG: Plus, embeds aren't competitive like that. They all work together, basically. There isn't sabotage.
DW: No. They're in a foxhole, doing tiring jobs to get B-roll that may appear for 11 seconds on the show that day. Well, OK, these are two stories I sort of know. You know foreign policy reporting better than I do. How's the Genoa subplot holding up?
RG: They're going to have to retract it, and that's why there are those flash-forward scenes with the lawyers, right?
DW: To be fair, it was a story handed to them by an unstable person, vouched for by another unstable person who's working on the show for five seconds before he starts snapping at people for not respecting his intellect.
RG: I read in MoJo that it is based on the coverage of Operation Tailwind. Which was a Vietnam War story. The Genoa plotline lays bare how dumb they all are. I don't see them making a lot of effort to verify it.
DW: They get one veteran on the phone—the phone!
RG: They get cold-called by some dude who claims to have the info, and McKenzie gets that very serious face that she gets.
DW: She's a very serious journalist, as we can tell by how she runs a highlighter over A1 of the NYT.
RG: They're all very serious. We can tell because Don clips out newspaper stories and pins them to a bulletin board with a frown. And of course—Maggie's big pitch. Her pitch is literally "Africa."
DW: Hang on, it's not just stories! One of the items on the bulletin board was a picture of a protest.
RG: How could I forget!
DW: Given how horrible Don is, I'd say Sorkin was trying to send us a message—I remember how the loathsome Pete Campbell was made into a huge MLK fan earlier this year on Mad Men—but, well, every character seems to be about that bad at journalism. Could the message of these two hours so far really be that these people are abusing their roles and either getting or narrowly being spared from comeuppance? I'd think that, if the actions they were taking didn't seem like the ones Sorkin himself would probably take.
RG: Sorkin clearly believes that this is the Platonic ideal of journalism. But he doesn't understand what it takes to put together a news story. None of them ever actually have news stories they want to do, it's always just vague concepts. "Africa," etc. Even Neal's OWS pitch was pretty half-baked. "It's going to be America's Arab Spring!" But the message is not that they are abusing their roles, that's just our reading of it. In Sorkin's world, they're all very brave.
DW: They're stumbling in their pursuit of The Truth, yes. Probably too much to ask that the message of the season be "beware of hubris."
RG: I'm curious to see how they deal with the people's mic in future episodes. I also wonder if they'll deal with any of the not-so-nice things that happened in Zuccotti Park, like sexual assaults and drugs. (I doubt it.) I also hope the SATC blogger/YouTube video subplot is done forever.
DW: I'm looking with dread toward Jim and Maggie simultaneously learning that you indeed can run away from romantic tension by committing to dangerous/boring field assignments. "Dread" because clearly both of them are unable to operate unless they feel the world is against them. And because obviously something horrible will happen to Maggie. Well, er, thanks for discussing this!
RG: My pleasure! I would like to think that this is the last episode I'll watch, but I'll probably hate-watch the rest of the season.
DW: That's the spirit!