September 1, 2013

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

By MEREDITH BLAKE, McClatchy Newspapers

(Continued from page 2)

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Emily Mortimer and Jeff Daniels in “The Newsroom.”

HBO

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

Courtesy photo

"If the characters would spend more time doing journalism instead of talking about journalism, it would be a far better show," says Joseph Saltzman, director of USC Annenberg's Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture project, who watches the show out of a sense of professional obligation but finds its didacticism tedious. "Almost every news story covered in Season 1 was accompanied by a melange of self-righteous rants, long-winded monologues and speechifying about and around the issue involved."

One perceived flaw of Season 1 was an over-reliance on coincidence -- a tendency that some say undermined the potential for drama.

In "The Newsroom" pilot, Jim is able to predict the scope of the Deepwater Horizon disaster within minutes of the first wire report, thanks to a serendipitously placed college roommate at BP and a sister at Halliburton. This was a missed narrative opportunity, says former "60 Minutes" producer Solly Granatstein.

While at the CBS news magazine, he produced an in-depth report about the BP spill, one that "took a team of seven journalists working around the clock" several weeks to put together. "I understand the need to collapse events to make fictional TV pace-y," Granatstein says, "but perhaps 'The Newsroom' pilot cheated viewers of the opportunity to see the painstaking and collaborative nature of real investigative reporting."

That's why this season's "Operation Genoa" arc has earned "The Newsroom" begrudging praise from even its most vocal detractors. Inspired in part by the "Operation Tailwind" scandal, CNN's discredited report of alleged war crimes perpetrated by American forces during the Vietnam War, the fictional conceit has allowed the series to take a dive into the investigative reporting process and illustrate just how easily even seasoned journalists can be led astray.

The idea for the story line came from industry veteran Rick Kaplan, who was president of CNN when the Tailwind controversy erupted in the late '90s. A longtime Sorkin fan, he lobbied hard to become a consultant on the series, exchanging countless emails about his experience with the writer and spending several days on set.

"I wish 'The Newsroom' had a hundred share. I wish everybody watched, so they would understand the Fourth Estate and maybe have a little more patience and skepticism -- an honest skepticism, not a partisan skepticism," he says. "Lifting the veil on what happens in a newsroom and doing it in an honest way helps people become better citizens."

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