The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 8–The Blackout part 1: Tragedy Porn

“The choice is to do nothing or do something. If we do nothing, the audience turn to the first guy who’s doing something.”

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After last week’s tight focus on one news story – the death of Osama Bin Laden – this week The Newsroom was firing in all directions, arguably biting off more than it could chew in one episode. The Republican debates, the debt ceiling deadlock, Michelle Bachmann’s ‘divine inspiration’, the Casey Anthony trial, internet trolls, Antony Weiner’s Twitter ‘sexting’, illegal wiretapping and tabloid phone hacking were all in there somewhere, with various characters spouting what were obviously Sorkin’s own views on the issues. Too much? Perhaps, but then this isn’t, as it turns out, one episode. It’s the first of a two-parter, a brave thing to do in just the eighth episode of a prestigious new show.

And yet I suspect it’ll work. The story’s length not only gives all these issues time to breathe, but also means Sorkin can comfortably cram in some more character development without the script feeling too crowded. After the focus on Maggie/Don/Lisa/Jim last week, that thread was completely absent (for now) in favour of some long overdue movement on the Mackenzie/Will thing.

We’ve known for a while that Mack’s breakup with Will was precipitated by her sleeping with her ex, but this episode gave that a mite more complexity by rather surprisingly introducing said ex as a major character. Brian Brenner (Parks and Recreation’s Paul Schneider) is a former Newsweek columnist turned internet blogger specifically recruited by Will for a behind the scenes expose on News Night, presumably to counter the negative stories being planted in the tabloids by his own boss Leona Lansing.

Choosing the man who broke up your relationship with your now-colleague and ex-girlfriend is a pretty odd thing to do, but Will acknowledges that himself with an impetuous trip to his therapist to ask him why he’d do that. Further to his advice on Will and Mack’s relationship a couple of episodes ago, Dr Habib points out that Will has definitely not sorted out his feelings yet, and that, until he does, he’s going to be hurting those around him (“I’m fine with that”), especially Mack herself.

Since this is the central relationship on the show, it’s nice to come back to it after several episodes of bitchy snarking but no actual development. Brian is a pretty cool customer, and obviously a mirror of Will himself, suggesting that Mack has a very definite type. His interactions with both Will and Mack serve as a catalyst to much self-examination and dissection of the past, which will obviously continue nest week.

But he’s perhaps found the worst time to pay a journalistic visit to the newsroom, which is in turmoil (again). The problem this time, as revealed by mother’s little helper Reese Lansing, is a massive drop in ratings because News Night isn’t covering the then-ongoing trial of Casey Anthony, a feckless young Florida mother accused of the murder of her own daughter. Instead, they’ve turned to former prosecutor turned TV lynch mob coordinator, Nancy Grace, who’s covering the story about as exploitatively as possible.

At first, I couldn’t quite see what Mack’s problem was with covering this story. “It’s not news, it’s entertainment,” she declared angrily. “And it’s just, just this close to being a snuff movie.” The murder, and the trial, got far less coverage here in the UK, and I couldn’t see Mack’s problem. Surely the trial of a parent accused of her own child’s murder qualifies as news? It always does here – we’ve even had one in the last few days.

But the US is a much bigger country than the UK. A bit of research, and I discovered that Casey Anthony was propelled to the status of national news item over and above similar cases that occur all the time, and are only reported on at a local level. And further, Don’s merciless analysis of just a few minutes of Nancy Grace’s coverage of the issue was enough to make one fairly queasy. Her selective reporting, clever editing and insertion of damning shots at just the right time to stir the vengeful emotions of the public looked like the skills of a latterday Dr Goebbels. It was an obvious case of trial by television, with Grace having already decided the verdict and cleverly twisting viewers to see it her way.

Casey Anthony was eventually acquitted of the murder charge (after a trial lasting six weeks, a duration Will predicted with the uncanny accuracy of having his lines written from a year into the future). As with OJ Simpson, the public still seem to have a deal of doubt as to her guilt or innocence. But there’s undeniably an issue about the way some news outlets presented the story as ‘tragedy porn’, with constant  live updates making a murder trial more like a sporting event, something for the viewing masses to sit back and watch with a beer and a tub of popcorn. In that sense, I began to see Mack’s point.

But the story was to go on to News Night anyway, much to Mack’s distaste, because the drop in ratings was yet another excuse for Leona to fire Will if it continued. And Will has an upcoming strictly-regulated series of ‘mock debates’ for the then-competing contenders for the Republican Presidential nomination, something he and Charlie don’t want to lose.

Aside from the Anthony trial, the episode showed another trial by news just beginning – the excoriation of unfortunately-named Democrat Congressman Anthony Weiner after he rather foolishly tweeted an image of his underwear-clad groin to 40,000 Twitter followers. This was a blackly comic news narrative in real life as well as on the show. Tweeting the image, however accidentally, was obviously a bloody stupid thing to do for a man in Weiner’s position, revealing the tip of an iceberg (so to speak) of marital infidelity with a string of women. To follow up, Weiner’s squirming, untruthful attempts to weasel his way out of the situation did not reflect well on him as a politician or a person.

On the flipside though, once the news media were done with him, ordinary Americans across the country were reacting to him as though he were the Antichrist, rather than just another politician to cheat on his wife. Bill Clinton survived adultery and actually increased his popularity; Weiner ended up resigning after a couple of weeks of media persecution.

I suspect it was the ‘in-your-face’ sexuality (oo-er) that was a large part of the problem. Clinton didn’t have photos of him in flagrante plastered all over the news, unlike the slavering greed with which they printed the Twitpics of Weiner. Mainstream American culture is, if anything, even more squeamish about explicit sexuality than the British; it’s notable that Labour MP Chris Bryant survived a similar manufactured scandal in the pages of News of the World with his political integrity and Parliamentary seat intact (if not his dignity). Still, Weiner’s inept handling of the issue arguably justified his resignation. When all was said and done, he hardly came across as a skilled political operator, which counts for rather more than fidelity to your wife – as Bill Clinton could attest.

Another less than skilful politician, aspiring Republican nominee Michele Bachmann, got served by Sorkin fairly early on, with an offended Maggie lambasting her for her claim to have been told by God to run for President. “What did God’s voice sound like?” she angrily demanded of a cowering Jim, who was roleplaying Bachmann for interview prep. “What language did he speak in? Hebrew? Aramaic? If you make those claims, those are absolutely the first questions you should be asked.”

Bachmann, one of the Tea Party’s more extreme doyens, was obviously trying to court the large Christian vote in the US (or she was just plain nuts). And Maggie’s point was absolutely valid – as a Christian, you should be offended if someone claims to have been spoken to by God for purely political ends. Either the claim was true, in which case Bachmann was a genuine prophet (unlikely unless God has suddenly chosen to concern Himself with issues like deregulating the financial sector); or it was cynical opportunism, which should be offensive to Christians everywhere. It was another case of Sorkin’s voice coming through loud and clear above the actual fiction of the drama, but the point was well-made.

Meanwhile, Sloan was running around the newsroom like Chicken Little, desperately trying to get anyone to listen to her concerns about the impending doom of the debate on raising the US debt ceiling. As we now know (and Sloan can spider-sense from the year into the future in which her lines are written), this is a huge deal; it’ll be the first real demonstration of the now-standard procedural deadlock in which partisan US politics have been locked since the Tea Party took the Republicans hostage.

Although ultimately resolved, it will lead to a massive loss of financial confidence in the efficacy of American government, and the downgrade of the country’s treasured AAA credit rating (for what that’s worth). Mack says she knows all about it (she plainly doesn’t), but there are more important things to deal with. I’m betting that next week will prove her wrong.

But for me, the most interesting part of this week’s show was Charlie’s lengthy clandestine meeting with his NSA source from last week. Yes, it was dramatically clunky; the source, Hancock by name, was mainly there to spout shady, top secret exposition in a manner inescapably similar to Donald Sutherland’s shadowy defence official in Oliver Stone’s JFK (a resemblance so obvious that Sorkin just shrugged at the typewriter and had him actually mention it).

However, the information he had to impart was pretty explosive, both in reality and in the context of the show’s ongoing story. It’s a double whammy of stories for Charlie. First up, Hancock has been trying to oppose an NSA data mining program known as ‘Global Clarity’ (you can almost picture The X Files’ Smoking Man saying it while exhaling a cloud). This program has been routinely data mining and wiretapping innocent US citizens, without warrant or process, since the inception of the PATRIOT Act, and with no oversight is prone to shocking abuse and invasion of privacy.

I’ve been able to dig out no information on a program of that name in my research (though if it exists, the NSA would hardly broadcast the fact). But it is true that the PATRIOT Act legitimised exactly this kind of behaviour post 9/11, all in the sainted name of ‘National Security’. Sorkin, speaking through Hancock’s mouth, put it extremely well: “I fought the Soviets. The way that government made their people live their lives made them worth fighting. After 9/11 we started doing exactly the same thing.”

Hancock’s aggrieved that no amount of testifying before Pentagon and Congressional Subcommittees on the subject has had any effect, so he’s prepared to turn whistleblower to Charlie and have it all exposed on the news. And there’s a bonus for Charlie, a vital titbit discovered during the data mining that could be explosive for ACN – its parent company, AWM, has been engaged in exactly the kind of phone hacking the News of the World was then being found out for. The orders went all the way up to Reese Lansing, son of the CEO, now obviously an analogue for James Murdoch. The difference is that, unlike with Murdoch, Hancock claims to have actual proof that Reese gave the orders.

This could massively tip the balance of power in the struggle between Will and Charlie’s quest for integrity and Leona’s quest for political influence and profit.

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But Charlie being the good egg he is (he dresses like the Eleventh Doctor after all), he at least tried to get Leona to drop her vendetta in a last ditch meeting at the door of her limo. Back for the first time in weeks, Jane Fonda was as formidable as ever as the ruthless CEO, now revealed as a female version of Rupert Murdoch (as if that wasn’t obvious before). Leona’s having none of it; she plainly hasn’t a clue what Charlie’s got. Or does she? To be honest, I wouldn’t want to play poker with either of them…

The ep came to a dramatic climax as Will started to prerecord an interview with another Weiner gold-digger claiming to have been ‘sexually harassed’ by the lusty Congressman, and the studio was plunged into unexpected darkness. Well, it would have been unexpected if not for the episode being called ‘The Blackout’ and various characters having warned that the excessive summer heat could easily knock out NYC’s power grid. Expect some Sorkin-preaching on climate change next week, and hopefully some more focus on the characters, what with the news gathering equipment all out of action. Oh wait, there’s always their Blackberries and iPhones…

5 thoughts on “The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 8–The Blackout part 1: Tragedy Porn”

  1. “Global Clarity” is a pseudonym for the TV program.

    The actual U.S. Federal Government program most closely comparable to Hancock’s description is “Total Information Awareness”, or TIA. Searches using that name will be fruitful.

    There was an earlier program named “Carnivore”, as well.

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    1. Thanks for the info Joe. You’re right, that did yield a lot more results. Seems to be some doubt as to whether the program is still being funded, but wouldn’t surprise me at all if it was. Scary stuff indeed.

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  2. I just watched this episode. How did Sorkin get so much correct regarding the NSA surveillance program. It is creepy. He must have known!

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