Sunday, July 15, 2012

What American fiction Says About America: The Newsroom.

One of the most powerful elements of American fiction is its ability to deal with current social and political issues.

For obvious reasons, TV series prove particularly reactive to the news and a great medium to reflect the talk and anxieties of the nation. Think of police procedural crime dramas like Law and Order, (read my posts here and here), or even sci-fi series like Galactica or V, or of course political shows like Aaron Sorkin's highly praised The West Wing
Now Sorkin has a new show on cable television called The Newsroom, and after watching the first 3 episodes, I am amazed at  how much he has furthered his ability to use fiction to talk about important yet controversial issues in the United States. 

The Newsroom is about a fictional  cable news network (Atlantis Cable News, ACN) and its news program  "News Night", whose anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and staff decide to transform by prioritizing the truth over ratings. 
Charlie, (Sam Waterston) who heads the news division, declares that he wants "news for the center. ... We don't pretend that certain facts are in dispute [just] to give the appearance of ‘fairness' to people who don't believe them. ‘Balance' is irrelevant to me. It doesn't have anything to do with truth, logic, or reality." (source)
The words "fair" and "balance" are clearly a direct hit at Foxnews (which is anything bu, as Jon Stewart has shown many times). 

As you might expect given the pitch, it is a show about journalism, corporate power and politics. But what is most impressive is its mix of fiction and reality, including the criticism of actual politicians. 

The last episode (Episode 3, "The 112th Congress") is particularly amazing - it is supposed to take place during the 2010 mid-term elections. Will McAvoy who claims to be a Republican, wants to take on the Tea Party for driving his old-time party to the right. He tells his boss, Charlie that he initially understood the initial impulse of the Tea Party as a grass root movement but that it's been co-opted by corporate interests, specifically the Koch brothers. 
This is interesting because the Koch Brothers are REAL very powerful American industrialists who are also political activists. They have been financing the Tea Party and right wing issues through organisations such as Freedomworks, or Americans For Prosperity (see my posts here or read this NYTimes article) and have influence up to the Supreme Court
It goes even further by portraying the owner of the cable news network that broadcasts News Night, Leona Lansing, threatening to fire Will for going after the Koch brothers. It is not that she cares about ratings because the cable channel accounts for less than 3% of her corporation’s profits, but rather it was her other business ventures, unnamed, that were potentially in peril."  I have business before this Congress,”, she ends up saying (source). 

The irony is that Leona Lansing is (very convincingly) played by Jane Fonda, who is known for her liberal views,(she is continuously called 'Hanoi Jane' by FoxNews) but also the former wife of CNN founder Ted Turner. 

Clearly the show has it flaws: it has been (probably rightfully) criticized for its somewhat sexist depiction of its female characters (here and here), for being too preachy (which it is) and unrealistic (which remains to be proven... but who cares... this is fiction after all!) (here), or for its middl-school soap opera tone at times (which is true - and annoying-  but not unlike many American shows). It also smacks of nostalgia, (especially in Episode 1), as if the time of Edward R. Murrow ever was this perfect time when the United States was "the greatest nation" on earth.

Despite its flaws, the show works for me because it has balls and tackles current issues heads on. It is precisely what makes American fiction far superior to any other. No other country in the world, not even in Europe, and certainly not in France would have the guts to use reality in fiction to such an extreme. even though Senator Mike Lee has taken on HBO over the newsroom allegation, it gives me hope that freedom of expression is not dead in the United States.
After all, whether you agree with its political bias, which is clearly to the left, (and granted that most conservatives must be turned off after episode 3), this show has the potential to make people think about the broken state of media and politics, and its incestuous relationship in today's America. In fact, it is not about a news channel, it is about America itself.

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