The Newsroom , or The Return of The West Wing

27 July 2012

Aaron Sorkin is best known as the writer of the award-winning “The West Wing”, the US political drama series of the early 2000s where the Democrats , in the shape of Martin Sheen’s  President Jed Bartlet, held out in Hollywood while real America moved to the Right.

Sorkin’s thesis was that Government is a good thing and that the Barlet Way was how the Clinton administration should have governed when in power, with his main characters delivering monologues and soliloquies on the human condition and the state of society throughout the series.

His latest venture is “The Newsroom” ( SKY Atlantic, Tuesday evenings) .

TV news is an important political battleground since most people regard it as their main news source of the day.

The lead female character, Mackenzie McHale believes that, “ we don’t do good television, we do the news”.

In the opening episodes, she sets out the criteria  that would provide viewers with a news programme where viewing figures don’t matter. 

What matters is providing people with the information that they need to make to make sense of the world, and deepening their understanding of how politics affects almost every feature of their lives.

Important criteria for news reporting include :

Is this information that voters need before they go to the polling booth? 

Is the story set in its historical context ? 

No gossip  

People’s personal lives are not to be used as entertainment . 

These are important criteria , particularly in a real-life period of sustained low turn outs at elections, reflecting disinterest in and disengagement from politics.

In his book, “Media Democracy”, Thomas Meyer argues that :

“Politics and the media have formed a partnership to conduct their main business: adopting well-tested formulas from the theatre to media productions. The public begins to respond to politics as an aesthetic phenomenon, losing sight of the principles that make political action unique and sustain autonomy and democracy. “

Thus, media events are all important – appearance on a TV programme to answer a few questions ranks higher than a political debate in Parliament or a 1-hour long public meeting.

The demands of TV scheduling require instant answers to questions about complex, long-term issues that simply cannot be provided in the space of a 5-minute interview.

The business of politics as portrayed on popular TV channels is not the daily deliberations of institutions such as Parliament. (too slow, too long, too detailed )

Parliament is the backdrop  - the theatre – with  the politicians cast as actors as protagonists at Prime Minister’s or First Minister’s Question Time.

These weekly images give the false impression  that politics is of limited relevance  to people's everyday lives.

The 24/7 news cycle and its demands of immediacy has fashioned  a new dominion of commentators, media pundits, celebrity interviewers, media-aware pressure groups, displacing politicians still further from the centre of the political stage .

Then there’s “poli-tainment “– the blurring of politics and entertainment  - where the personal is the political , and where a politician’s life style, family, clothes, tastes in food, music , football team and any accompanying soap opera are deemed to be influential enough in determining how people might vote.

If such information is irrelevant to your choice of plumber, electrician or newsagent, why should it be important in deciding who represents you in Parliament? 

As Sorkin’s male lead character, Will McAvoy,  says, “Nothing is more important to a democracy than a well-informed electorate.” and he sets out his newsroom ‘s principles as “ ..the champion of facts, and the mortal enemy of speculation, innuendo, hyperbole and nonsense.”


The Newsroom



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