Friday, December 12, 2014

The Newsroom Review: "Oh Shenandoah" - Rage Against the Dying of the Light

Sam Waterston finally loses his cool in "The Newsroom"

Hundreds of thousands of words have already been written about this past Sunday’s penultimate episode of The Newsroom, focusing mainly on Sorkin’s misguided attempt to address the story of campus rape and its tenuous relationship to media.  The plot, which involves Don trying to dictate to a rape victim how she should be allowed to tell her story, was paternalistic, utterly lacking in empathy, and grossly tone-deaf.  It also had the misfortune of hitting the air just days after Rolling Stone publicly disavowed its shocking but familiar article on a brutal gang-rape on the campus of the University of Virginia.  But not even better timing could have saved this lead weight of a story.

I do not believe that I am properly equipped as a writer to deal with this particular part of the episode.  I have never in my entire life lived under even the vaguest threat of sexual assault.  I have never been told to take my keys out before I walk to my car.  I’ve never been taught not to accept a drink I didn’t see prepared.  I’ve never carried pepper spray.  I’ve never felt even remotely threatened.  I live a privileged life in that sense and it leaves me utterly incapable of feeling competent in discussing the many, many problems with how Sorkin deals with the subject.  Fortunately, there are a great many writers who are capable of writing about this part of “Oh Shenandoah” and I would highly encourage you to read their fine work.

What I do feel comfortable discussing (and would like to discuss) is the death of the one storyline I was really enjoying, and for that, we must talk about the death of Charlie Skinner, who was literally killed by the conflict between old media and new.

All season long, and really all series long, Sorkin has been exploring that space between the old vanguard and the new wave of media, typically falling, obviously, on the side of the established elite.  And that’s fine.  This is a show, after all, about the heroes of cable news.  We should expect them to be the best at what they do.  But the last few episodes have been asking a much more interesting question: what if being the best isn’t good enough?  What if the war has already been lost because the old guard spent so much time fighting the new guard without ever realizing that they weren’t the real enemy – the audience was?

It seems to me that the fight between old and new media was lost the moment people began to curate their own news – as soon as it stopped being “the news” and became “my news.”  This transformation didn’t start with Facebook and Twitter, though they certainly accelerated it.  You could argue that it started with Fox News and the politicization of the news.  Certainly, they too have been the target of The Newsroom’s wrath, but I think Sorkin misses the point in attacking politicized news, or internet news agencies, or Twitter.  None of these entities is the problem; they are the symptoms.  The disease is our desire to dictate what news we see.

I get most of my news through Twitter today.  For local news I follow the education and political reporters for my local paper.  For national news I follow reporters from the Huffington Post, the Washington Post, USA Today and other publications.  I realize, however, that I am an outlier.  For most people “the news” is funny cat videos, “life-changing gift-wrap hacks,” and “Scarlett Johansson’s secret to getting skinny.”*  All of these examples were taken from my Facebook feed this morning.  This is the type of “news” that most people care about these days and it’s clearly the future that The Newsroom most fears.

* Spoiler Alert: it’s exercise.

What Sorkin fails to realize is that this battle has already been lost; it was lost the moment the audience was allowed to receive only the news it wanted.  What has marked the best news organizations, then, in the modern world of “giving the people what they want” is their ability to marry the new media and the old.  I may give CNN crap for clickbait headlines on its website like “Swastikas on holiday gift wrapping?”* or “Why he’d leave NFL, $7m to retire.”**  But the network is still the best source for unbiased cable news, even if sometimes that “news” is 24/7 coverage of a missing plane.***  While Buzzfeed may be known mostly as the place to go to find out “18 Times Tumblr Summed Up Christmas Perfectly” or to see the “10 Celebrity Moments that Basically Broke Twitter in 2014,” the site does have a legitimate news arm that has exposed, among other things, the practice of imprisoning the victims of domestic abuse when their abusers attack their children.  The Huffington Post, whose Ryan Reilly put out some of the best on-the-ground reporting during the Ferguson protests still has a page dedicated to sideboob.****

* It’s an accidental inclusion in a larger pattern.
** Spoiler Alert: It’s Marshawn Lynch and the article actually contains the line: “The Lynch retirement rumor is almost pure speculation.”
*** Thank God we’ll never have to see Sorkin’s take on that fiasco.
**** Yes, the tag is supposedly a joke, but it’s still there more than two and a half years after the “joke” was relevant.

What these sites all have in common is their ability to give the people both what they want and what they need.  Sure, many people will stick to the quizzes and the .gifs, but they just might learn something along the way.  The fight between traditional and new media is not a zero-sum game, as Sorkin apparently thinks.  That opinion is never more obvious than in “Oh Shenandoah,” as we fast forward eight weeks from the last episode to see what BJ Ryan’s Lucas Pruit has done since taking over ACN.  The arguments here are completely insane - the main one being Pruit's decision to greenlight a celebrity stalker app that Gawker tried and killed seven years ago (which the show explicitly acknowledges).  For comparison’s sake Sorkin’s last show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, was still airing when Jimmy Kimmel famously berated Gawker editor Emily Gould on CNN, the exact moment that Sorkin is attempting to recreate.

I get it.  It must be frustrating for a group of people on “a mission to civilize” (and who have largely been succeeding in their goals) to have to give up control to a bunch of interlopers, but Sorkin takes it way over the top.  Successful news organizations figure out how to embrace change and negotiate the space between the past and the future.  But The Newsroom sees only an army of Perez Hiltons coming to kill his Edward R. Murrows.  For ACN there is no negotiating between old media and new because you don’t negotiate with terrorists.

Maybe that’s the unintentional moral of The Newsroom.  Maybe the lesson to be learned from this show is that this is the fate of all those institutions whose hubris leads them to believe that they can dictate what the audience will watch.  Some will rage against the dying of the light, willing to burn the institution down before seeing it fall into enemy hands.  Others will merely retreat to a cold, quiet balcony where they can bitterly mumble nonsensically to themselves about page-view bonuses.  There truly are no winners in The Newsroom’s world, only those who survive to move on.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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