Climax time for the series thus far. The ACN network and its news operation—despite reservations—went ahead with a report that U.S. troops had used poison gas—lethal sarin— during an operation inside Pakistan. Soon after the investigative exclusive aired, there were revelations that wrecked its credibility.
This is every good news operation's nightmare. Now "The Newsroom" staff must live it. It is one thing if a controversial investigative story is widely criticized and comes under attack but is true—and the news organization's corporate or other owners can and do stick by it, and back their reporters and their reporting. It's quite another when the news operation and the reporters themselves have to admit that—even in their own opinion and to their own knowledge—their reporting is fatally flawed and the whole story they've been pursuing may be totally untrue.
Early scenes of this chapter have corporate attorney Rebecca (Marcia Gay Harden) again taking depositions from the newsroom staff, trying to piece together everything that happened leading to the decision to put the "Operation Genoa" special report on the air. Also, how did revelations after the story aired lead to an on-air retraction? Among other things, the "true believer" producer/reporter Jerry had done some clearly unethical things in his zeal to get the network to run the original story.
It is important to note here that what Jerry did here was unethical and unacceptable in any quality news organization, large or small. No doubts. Period. (He dishonestly edited what a key interview subject—a General—had said about sarin gas to support the desired story line; he juggled words and pictures—recut them—to have the General appear to be saying what he so desperately wanted him to say. His rationale, his excuse given later, is that, well, the General had said it off-camera to him so it felt it was okay to edit what he actually said on-camera to fit. Not okay. Not in anyone's newsroom worthy of the name and of public trust.)
Jerry, the producer had become so obsessed with the story and so convinced that it was true that he, among other mistakes, pushed too hard too fast and got the story aired without sufficient checking and double-checking.
Any reporter who has done much hard-edged investigative journalism knows of cases such as this. So does every news organization that has had much experience in handling major investigative stories. Sometimes one or more of the news operations very best reporters ("reporter/producer" usually in television) becomes what the late philosopher Eric Hoffer called a "true believer". In television news, and much of journalism, a "true believer" is often a reporter/producer who wants so badly for a story that they have found to be true that they cut corners, make errors of omission or commission (or both). They go overboard to try and shame their colleagues and superiors into going with a story that, it turns out, is not true. Sometimes the reporter wants so badly for the story to be true because he or she believes it will be a big scoop, career-maker; sometimes because the story fits their pre-conceived notion of what is politically or ideologically or morally correct (or some combination of those,) and sometimes just because they exhibit too much zeal without using enough of the fundamentals of their craft.
Perhaps the most telling, most revealing and most authentic line in recent episodes was when the news division president (played by Sam Waterston), under pressure to green-light the story and asked by his hyperventilating, overheated producer Jerry (played by Hamish Linklater) "Are we there?" (words to that effect) the news president answers, "The story appears to be true but we're still about two stops from being able to prove that it's true." (Approximate wording.)
Some version of this scene and this dialogue has taken place at one time or another in every quality news operation that has even tried to sustain important investigative reporting. It's an example of why I have liked "The Newsroom" so much from the beginning - and continue to. There is an authenticity to the program: the sets and scenes look, sound and feel like those of real newsrooms; the dialogue is spot-on in the way reporters, producers and their superiors talk and act, and the situations portrayed are like the ones that real TV journalists experience and live. No other drama—on television, in the moves or on the stage—that I know of — has ever come this close to television news reality as what Sorkin and his excellent cast are accomplishing now.
Unfortunately, for the ANC network they eventually ran the story, found its flaws too late and had to pay the price. After the network retracts the story, anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and a few others go to the owner (played by Jane Fonda) asking her to accept resignations of a few staff members. Under the circumstances of this situation, in the real news world, heads would roll. People (at least one person, the reporter/producer who did the flatly unethical deeds) would have at least been suspended and probably fired.
But remember: this is a television show, and it's Aaron Sorkin's vision of how television corporate owners, their news operations and their journalists should behave—how they should be and act—in a perfect corporate and journalism world. It's a fantasy about the ideal. Not unlike Sorkin's "West Wing": a television version of what a near-ideal White House run by a near-ideal President might be like.
So in this case, with "The Newsroom" the corporate owner (the Fonda character) declines to force or even accept resignations. Her stated reasoning is that there's a Presidential election campaign nearing an end and she needs her team intact to cover it well, to be the best in the business. Unstated (in my view) is that she understands the pressures, the temptations and the vulnerabilities that go along with investigative reporting —especially the kind that takes on powerful institutions like the Presidency, the government and the military. Also, that she understands that everybody makes mistakes—even the best among us—and that it is important that corporate superiors stand by, and stand with, their news divisions and their reporters, even when they have been less than perfect. Especially if they come under heavy political and/or ideological attack.
Yet another reminder: this is portrayal of an ideal. In the real news world, this kind of top corporate ownership and management attitude toward television news divisions and reporters has rarely existed. (In my 65 plus years of reporting I have known one or two corporate owners and/or top leaders who perhaps came close to meeting this ideal. And, from other journalists, I have heard about perhaps another one or two. But all were a long while ago. Now, like the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, they apparently are extinct, although rumors of one here or there surface from time to time. And I'd like to believe the rumors.
As to Sorkin and his "The Newsroom" reminding us—-journalists and other citizens alike—of what could be, should be: applause and respect. If it doesn't inspire (which I hope it does) it does, at a minimum, inform and educate. Sorkin, bless him, insists that he's only trying to create good dramatic fiction and entertain. That he does. Lays down aces doing it, along with his excellent cast and other good help on the show. We're asked to accept that anything else, all else, we derive from this series is an unintended bonus. Intended or not, I'll take it, be happy for it and think about it a lot long after this episode and later the whole series is gone.
Footnotes and reflections:
Back in episode 16 Anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) hires his own political-campaign and advertising "focus group" hoping to find out what the audience thinks of him—-hoping, as all anchors do, to discover some way to increase ratings and improve his show's demographics. While many corporations and companies have done this—usually in secret and unknown to their "anchor talent”, I know of no anchor who actually has done it. I also know of no major, big-time news anchor to whom the thought has not occurred, no matter how fleetingly. Pressure is so great and unrelenting to deliver ratings and demographics in order to stay in the job, that regardless of how much quality and integrity the anchor believes he or she is delivering, there is always an inner voice whispering, "The big bosses don't care about quality journalism, they just want the numbers."
Also in episode 16, the anchorman was also persuaded to make some public and television "morning show" appearances to soften his image; to not come across as such a serious newsman, more as, say, a family friend. Ah, any dedicated journalist who's ever anchored for very long has been through some version of this. Not always with the humorous but humiliating results as seen in this fictional program, but often close; sometimes very close. With many self-described "news consultants” and the corporate leaders or station managers who hire them, the mantra is "soft news with a soft presenter will always beat hard news with a serious, real journalist." Perhaps I’ve overstated this, but if so, not by much.
Dan Rather is anchor and managing editor of Dan Rather Reports. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter. He will be recapping each episode of the second season of HBO's The Newsroom; older recaps can be found here, here, here and here.