September 1, 2013

Television: Sorkin's 'Newsroom' has a different feel in second season on HBO

By MEREDITH BLAKE, McClatchy Newspapers

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Emily Mortimer and Jeff Daniels in “The Newsroom.”


Aaron Sorkin
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Aaron Sorkin enlisted 13 consultants to weigh in with their suggestions for “The Newsroom.”

Courtesy photo

Whether Sorkin, who declined to speak for this article, was intentionally trying to win over the press or not, reviews for the second season have improved. "The Newsroom" remains appointment viewing among portions of the chattering classes, even if disagreement about its merits persists.

John Miller, senior correspondent for CBS News, calls "The Newsroom" his favorite show and suggests his fellow reporters are being overly pedantic. "Media people are the quickest to criticize, the first ones to call something in a negative way, and the most thin-skinned when it comes to examination by anyone else. This is probably really good for them," he says, noting that, as a former law enforcement official, he's used to suspending disbelief by a "measure of at least 50 percent" when it comes to depictions of his profession.

Shushannah Walshe, a digital political reporter at ABC News and a consultant this season on "The Newsroom," notes the dissonance between the largely positive reactions on her Facebook feed (comprising mostly friends and family) and the snarkier sentiments voiced on Twitter (mostly other journalists). While she readily admits the show has its implausible moments, Walshe doesn't view this occasional lack of realism as a bad thing. "Truthfully, I think the show is aspirational," she says.

Others take a more skeptical view. "The thing about 'The Newsroom' that's funny and frustrating is it's such an idealized version of the media that it's unrecognizable," says David Weigel, an MSNBC contributor and political reporter at Slate, where he and a guest journalist scrutinize each week's episode in a feature aptly called "Trying to Tolerate 'The Newsroom."'

Weigel contrasts "The Newsroom" with the decidedly more cynical HBO comedy "Veep," which also employs veteran media consultants and, he says, does "a really good job" depicting the symbiotic relationship between the news media and Beltway politicians.

"What they present as a highbrow way of doing the news wouldn't get past most news directors and managing editors in any local newsroom or network newsroom that I've worked in," agrees Garrett Haake, a reporter at KSHB-TV in Kansas City, Mo.

While the kind of high-minded conversations depicted in "The Newsroom" do happen, according to Haake they tend to take place in social settings and not at production meetings, where the priorities are more along the lines of "OK, how can I present this in a minute and 40 and do it in a compelling way?" (And where, presumably, not everyone is able to quote Cervantes from memory.)

Haake, who followed Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign for NBC News, also has a few quibbles with a story line involving "News Night" senior producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.), who volunteers to cover the GOP primary race in New Hampshire. There, he clashes with his unusually sharp-elbowed colleagues, including a young female reporter (Grace Gummer), who when asked for help intentionally positions his camera at a bad angle. "We wanted to scoop each other, but no one would have ever done something that un-collegial," he says.

He does appreciate the small atmospheric details the show does get right, like the omnipresent beep of the iNews system in the ACN newsroom, the turkey sandwiches doled out on the campaign trail and the curious bubble of life as an embed reporter. "You're trapped on the bus and you're covering events and you see a very small portion of the campaign," Haake says. "The sense that you're stuck on a roller-coaster that they're controlling, they do a good job of presenting."


This is a common refrain among journalists: that "The Newsroom" is better when it dials back the pontification and focuses on the nuts and bolts of reporting, when it strives more for "All the President's Men" than "Network."

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