'The Newsroom': Critics Nay, Viewers Yay
When The Newsroom debuted last year on HBO, reaction was strangely schizoid.
Viewers liked the show about a brilliant, tempestuous cable news anchor (Jeff Daniels) and his idealistic young staff. The August finale drew 2.3 million people. And strong online and on-demand interest bodes well for the second season, which begins Sunday (10 p.m.).
But the show drove TV critics apoplectic. Perhaps they felt its creator, Aaron Sorkin, with his Emmy (for The West Wing) and Oscar (for The Social Network), needed to be taken down a peg. No one approaches that task with as grave a sense of duty as the grumpy guild of media analysts.
Plus, it's set in an arena -- TV news -- they see as their wheelhouse. For his hubris in presuming to enter, Sorkin would be made to pay a heavy price.
But how do people who work in or teach TV news feel about the show?
"My reaction was probably not much different from a lawyer, police officer or judge watching Law & Order or any other police procedural: 'It doesn't work like that!'," says Peter Jaroff, a news producer at 6ABC for 25 years before becoming an assistant professor at Temple.
For Jaroff, plausibility was jettisoned before the entire cast had even been introduced.
"The opening premise -- that the producer of Will McAvoy's high-profile news program wants to leave the show because McAvoy has yelled at him and embarrassed him in front of the staff -- is plainly ridiculous to anyone who's worked in a large newsroom," he says. "You have to have much tougher skin than that to make it to the big show. If Will had pushed him down a flight of stairs or bludgeoned him with a computer monitor, Don [Thomas Sadoski] might have had a case. But he still wouldn't have quit the show."
Barbie Zelizer, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School says by e-mail that she didn't expect the show to "mirror what the news media look like in the real world. But that's not necessarily or even primarily what TV fiction is about -- it's there to engage us, push our imagination, make us think and feel about something we hadn't previously cared about. And in this, Sorkin succeeds."
Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, is of similar mind.
"I think newsrooms are notoriously difficult to capture in an entertaining way that is also real," he says via e-mail. "So I don't insist on 'real' and put the weight on 'entertaining' -- but with an embedded reality that is created from a fertile mind like Aaron Sorkin's, I would say by that standard The Newsroom is right on the money."
Those who have worked in or taught broadcast journalism say the show explores some of the business's fundamental issues.
"One ongoing theme in The Newsroom is the conflict between stories the public needs to know more about and stories that grab bigger ratings," Jaroff points out. "The Debt Ceiling versus Casey Anthony."
"They capture the atmosphere in The Newsroom between what some might call 'old-school news,' " says Larry Stuelpnagel, laughing at the quaintness of the phrase, "and those more into the ratings-driven side of things."
Stuelpnagel, longtime reporter in Camden for WNJN and now an assistant professor at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, finds the heated workplace exchanges true-to-life. "Newsrooms, in my experience, can be pretty blunt places where people don't shy away from telling each other what they think," he says.
Larry Kane, known as the dean of Philadelphia TV anchors for his tenure at all three of the city's network affiliates, says the "constant battle about getting the news on correctly versus getting it on first is the best theme of the program. This is a major problem on national news."
Opinion is split on Sorkin's decision to build his plots on recent headlines.
"The play to real-life events feels smug and manipulative," says Zelizer, "but it helps reveal the profound difficulties and inconsistencies that drive contemporary broadcast news organizations."
Stuelpnagel, however, feels replays just make the show more compelling. "It's brilliant," he says.
One thing all agree on: Sorkin's mouthpieces talk too much and too well.
"It's remarkably authentic, especially the editorial decision-making," says Joseph Angotti, former executive producer of NBC Nightly News, now a visiting distinguished professor at Monmouth College of Illinois via e-mail. "But no one in television news is as articulate as the characters in that series."
"I love the series. I take the real with the unreal," Kane says. "The only thing is, how can people talk the way they do? Nobody is that intelligent."
Not every veteran of the news wars has jumped on The Newsroom bandwagon.
"I watched the first episode and didn't make it to the end," says Marc Howard by e-mail. He famously replaced Kane at KYW in 2002. "It struck me as a silly, overdramatized version of what somebody thinks TV newspeople are like."
And that's the way it is.
10 p.m. Sundays on HBO.