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.”


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.


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…

The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 7–5/1

“America thinks Bin Laden’s alive. If I can make him dead one minute sooner, my entire life in journalism will have been worth it.”


It didn’t take long to work out what big news story from a year-and-a-bit ago The Newsroom would be covering this week. If you didn’t get it from the portentously earnest date-only episode title, the opening scene let the cat out of the bag fairly early on. After a sub-Watergate mysterious phone call to Charlie (“I’m not calling you Deep Throat, that name is sacred.”), we were ushered into a party at Will’s to celebrate “one year and one week” since the first broadcast of “News Night 2.0”.

It looked like a fun bash, though some of the US party games left this Brit a little baffled. What was that thing with everyone flapping their arms up and down? I was on more familiar territory when Will was presented with a bag of highly strong ‘hash brownies’, only to disclose that he’d already eaten two. After taking Vicodin. This set in motion a slightly bizarre but rather funny plotline of Will being pretty much baked throughout, leading to a beneficial state of Zen-like calm only hampered by his inability to tie a tie or distinguish between the names ‘Osama’ and ‘Obama’.

For indeed, as Charlie waited anxiously for the call from the White House promised by his mysterious informant, the clues began to stack up that this was, definitely, the night the President announced Osama Bin Laden had been shot dead by US Special Forces. It was interesting to see how this announcement played out, since it took place in the middle of the night for us in the UK, and we awoke to find it leading story on the early morning news.

But as I saw from this episode, it was played very cagily by the White House in the US, as they announced that the President would be making a very important broadcast (important enough to interrupt Desperate Housewives), but wouldn’t tell anyone what it was about ahead of time. This led to the basic plot of this episode, which took place over a mere three and a half hours of time, as the ACN crew scrambled to try and work out what was so important.

If you had worked out what the story was going to be already (and did The Rock really scoop everyone with an enigmatic Tweet hours before the announcement?), then there wasn’t much suspense in watching them trying to figure it out. But I suspect that wasn’t really the point; what Sorkin was doing here was showing what happens in a news room under such dramatic and unusual circumstances. Well, in the ultra-perfect ACN news room anyway – he couldn’t resist a dig at Fox News by showing the contemporaneous clip of Geraldo Rivera confirming that the President was about to announce the death of Colonel Gaddafi.

It was clear that, for an American news outlet, this might be the biggest story they could ever broadcast, so they had to be sure. This led to a scramble of research into any likely contingency – and I do mean any. Asked to think “outside the box”, Neal (predictably) suggested that the President was about to announce first contact with extra terrestrials (“get back in the box, Neal.”). The other, more plausible story was the death, as announced by Fox, of Muhammar Gaddafi (“Why can we never reach a consensus on how to spell his name?” Will asked, rhetorically).

But Will had already ruled this out with a call to the NSA (while buying a falafel to sate his munchies), so clearly Bin Laden it was. With other news outlets beginning to gain confirmation, Mack was impatient to run with the story, but Charlie had more caution. He remembered broadcasting missile locations during the 1991 Iraq war, and thereby giving the enemy exact targets to aim for. The point was clear – the White House could be embargoing the story for a reason, perhaps involving danger to troops in the field, and it shouldn’t be broadcast until the go-ahead was given.

Which it actually had, but Will had been too stoned to remember to check his email and discover the message confirming this from none other than Joe Biden (apparently they used to play softball together). So it was on with the story that Will went, intoning the news solemnly with a short but distinguished speech that (with contrived convenience) happened to end at the exact second Obama stepped up to the lectern to begin his address. This being a story of great import, Sorkin made the decision to let Obama’s speech play out over the end credits, which might have worked better if there’d been a climax to end on rather than just fading the President into the distance for the HBO logo.

It was a somewhat uneven episode, its convincing attempt to show a news room hard at work in a crisis rather undermined by the reverence for the story’s subject matter. This is the first time the show has done an episode dealing in depth with a single news event, and while this was a good candidate to do that with, the air of mounting jubilation as the certainty grew about the President’s announcement left me faintly uneasy – as uneasy, in fact, as I was at the time, watching frat boys partying in New York streets to celebrate their leader’s execution of a major criminal without due process.

Now, I can see that this might come across as ultra-liberal whinging from a Brit who was thousands of miles away from the emotively charged crime of the 9/11 attacks. I can also agree that we in Britain acted in a pretty similar fashion on April 30, 1945, after hearing of the death of Adolf Hitler. But Hitler had been raining death on the UK, Europe, Russia and Africa for the last five years, and his death was at his own hands. I still think it would have been far preferable to bring him to trial at Nuremberg, alongside his lackeys.

And I felt/feel the same about Bin Laden, who (unlike Hitler) had not been consistently killing thousands more since his initial attack, but hiding away. Yes, finding him was (as it should have been) a matter of paramount importance. But not state-sanctioned execution without trial. To be fair, the details of what went on that night in Pakistan are still hazy, and it may well have been that the Special Forces troops had no other option than to kill him. But at the time, even suggesting the alternative was tantamount to admitting support for Al Qaeda, as though it was a binary choice – you either wanted Bin Laden killed without trial, or you supported him.

I know that this was felt very differently in American culture than it was here, with a proud country still smarting from the realisation that it was neither invulnerable nor impregnable, and catapulted into fear and paranoia as a result. I can see how Bin Laden’s death came as a huge catharsis. But getting drunk on the streets? Smiling as though you’ve been given the best news of your life? It made me uncomfortable then, and it makes me uncomfortable now.

Even at the time, there were voices saying this, even in the US, and I’d hoped Sorkin might be even-handed enough to address that. For a moment, it seemed that he had, with Neal’s girlfriend Kaylee (The Middleman’s Natalie Morales) leaving the room quietly. But no, it turned out that she only felt it a huge anticlimax – her father had died in the Twin Towers, and the perpetrator’s death hadn’t been the all-purpose cure for her grief that she’d expected. Still, it was a note of scepticism, and we should be grateful for that.

All that aside, the big news story angle meant that there was little room for the ongoing ‘romcom’ aspects of the show. But they weren’t entirely absent. The Don/Maggie/Jim/Lisa ‘love quadrangle’ was a major player for screen time, with Jim having to admit that he’d been surprised by Lisa’s declaration of love for him into saying that he reciprocated the feeling. Which he didn’t, leading a horrified Maggie to insist that he should break up with Lisa immediately.

As it turned out, Lisa had worked half of this out (from seeing Maggie’s horrified expression in the background of her and Jim’s Facetime conversation), and graciously but improbably offered Jim an out. She could tell (like every character on the show and its entire audience, but not the characters concerned) that Jim and Maggie were made for each other, and offered to stand aside in their best interests.

This seemed slightly less than believable. Yes, I know we’re often prone to saying “I love you” a bit too early for one partner in a nascent relationship, but it’s usually because the partner saying it really has that depth of feeling. I’m doubtful whether that would be so instantly negated, or whether the partner concerned would bow out of the relationship quite so sanguinely as Lisa did. It smacked a little of a disturbingly male-compliant fantasy woman. Still, I thought, at least the plot’s finally working itself out. One down, one to go – we only need Maggie to realise what an asshole Don is and get together with Jim instead. But then – d’oh! – Jim feels guilty enough to offer Lisa another try, with a new ‘first date’. Damn, I thought this thing was working itself out!

And Don certainly was being an asshole this week, in a surprisingly effective B plot which saw him, Elliot and Sloan stranded on the tarmac at La Guardia, unable to exit their plane, while the biggest news story of their lifetimes unfolded without them. Early indications of Don’s continuing assholery came as he turned on his phone while the plane was still in the air (“I can see the runway. Do you need navigation to drive from your garage to the street?”).

This unfortunately led to him, Elliot and Sloan finding their emails as to the Bin Laden story, and trying frantically to swap seats so they could confer about it confidentially. Opposing them was a harried cabin stewardess who initially seemed like a bit of a jobsworth for not letting Don undo his seatbelt on a stationary plane. But I’ve worked in the service industry, and I’ve had to deal with customers as obstinate and annoying as Don was – my sympathies were with the stewardess the whole time.

There was also much frothy toing and froing with their seatmates, stuck unwillingly between them. Sloan had to contend with the attentions of a cute (but far too young) guy called Lester, played by Ashton Moio – usually a stunt player, but on this basis, I’d like to see more of him.

It was a fairly disposable plot that could have been excised without any detriment to the episode, but it worked both as a counterpart to the frenzy of the news room and as a piece of drama in its own right. Don was finally convinced (again) to have some sort of empathy with his fellow human beings by the sight of the Captain’s wings and name badge – not being a frequent flyer, I had to Google it, but yes, it was United Airlines. Recalling the bravery of the 9/11 aircrews finally gave Don some sort of perspective, and he quietly explained to the crew what was happening rather than peremptorily broadcasting it himself to the concerned passengers.

As I say, a slightly unbalanced episode, if undeniably exciting, though this probably comes as much from my own misgivings as any fault of the writer’s. I had expected a little more perspective from Aaron Sorkin, but I recognise that, for many Americans, there is no bad side to this story. My perception is that of an outsider, and one from a different culture at that.

Still, at least during the drama, we had the seeds of another plotline which sounds really interesting, and definitely a subject for timely debate. Charlie’s mysterious NSA informant, it transpired, had only forewarned him of the White House announcement to prove credibility for his real revelations – that ACN’s parent company AWM has been merrily hacking people’s private phone messages with the gleeful abandon previously displayed by News International.

With the various inquiries into this issue still ongoing in real life, together with the show’s own gossip magazine’s vicious campaign against Will, I can see this being an interesting twist that could come back to bite the network’s would-be saboteurs of Will and Charlie’s campaign for integrity.  Not to mention being a very interesting subject for debate about the press’ right or need to intrude on privacy in the public interest…