“Newsroom”: Like watching the inner lives of people who hate me

by Nancy French |

I sat down with my laptop, a cup of coffee, and a little trepidation for Newsroom, HBO’s drama about Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels), an anchorman who apparently — in the first season — decided to save network news by telling the truth and covering only “important” stories.

I’d hesitated to plunge into the depths of the drama, because I didn’t trust Aaron Sorkin’s handling of the subject. Then, when offered the possibility of writing a weekly critique of the show for a magazine, I decided to test the waters. After all, I loved Sorkin’s The West Wing, which occasionally would provide a pretty good representation of a conservative point of view. Plus, writers in this economy rarely turn down the opportunity to make a little money! This HBO show had promise — by providing an interesting analysis of why the heck everyone knows Casey Anthony’s name, but can’t explain what happened in Benghazi. When I realized this season is set in the middle of the 2012 Presidential campaign, however, I cringed.

“Do you think this is going to bad,” I asked my husband, whom I’d dragged to the television. “Or, could it possibly be beneficial since we saw all of that so close up?”

By “close up,” I mean we had worked on the Romney effort since 2006. My husband and I (along with some dear friends) helped organize straw polls, we started Evangelicals for Mitt, and I was even briefly employed by the Romney campaign as a delegate coordinator for the state of Tennessee. We were on the 2008 National Faith and Values Steering Committee and were delegates from the 4th Congressional delegate to the 2012 Republican Convention in Tampa. I even had the honor of riding on Ann Romney’s campaign bus through South Carolina. Once, I remember talking to Ann, barreling down the interstate at about 75 mph while a CNN film crew caught up with us, a cameraman hanging out of their SUV. It was quite an experience to be around the media, the boom mics, the energetic supporters, and — of course — the Romneys.

I guess I should also confess that the last time I watched the news was Nov.6, when I stood in a Boston convention center awaiting the results of the election. Perhaps this show was custom made to push all my buttons.

“Oh, it’ll definitely make it worse,” my husband said, since he knows my acute sensitivity to the subject.

The show’s self-important musical scale sets expectations high for the first episode of the season.  The plot goes something like this: anchorman McAvoy doesn’t regret comparing the tea party to the Taliban on air, and the networks execs are feeling the heat from angry viewers and upset lawmakers who are limiting their access.  In a move that strains credulity, a Romney campaign staffer refuses to allow on reporter from their network onto the media bus. Really?  Though the clean-cut staffer was perfectly cast, we’re expected to believe he’d single out some poor reporter because he was employed by the same network of some guy who critiqued the tea party?  The media has said so many slanderous, terrible things about the Romneys, the bus would be completely empty if they started limited seats to media representatives who hadn’t said terrible things about them.  Plus, the tea party didn’t buy into a Romney campaign until the very end. (This episode was set in the pre-Rick Perry debate meltdown moments.)  Surely Romney’s people wouldn’t kick off this reporter – while letting HuffPo ride along – because of a comment by another person aimed at a constituency he never really commanded.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Honestly it doesn’t. Unlike The West Wing, the season premiere of the Newsroom never tries to portray conservatives accurately. Instead, the “American Taliban” comment goes by unchallenged and is even supported by network execs.  This is particularly ironic since the government has since illegally targeted these groups in perhaps the biggest political scandal of our time. It was designed to affect the outcome of the 2012 election in which the show is set. How would Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), and his new executive producer, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), and McAvoy handle this real scandal?  Probably by having a few fist bumps in the newsroom, putting on some weak willed, inarticulate conservative pundit while feeding pro-IRS talking points into the host’s ear, and by congratulating themselves for “speaking truth to power” about the tea party before they ever realized the government was on their trail.

The show doesn’t “deal” with the media’s liberal bias, it simply is there like ambient noise in the background of all the scenes. When McAvoy hosts a show that allows several “talking heads” to discuss drones, the math is obvious: there are two liberals commentators, the anchor who called the tea party the Taliban, and the liberal producer McHale who speaks counterpoints into the anchor’s ear during the show. Four against one. (My husband – who’s a Constitutional attorney, a soldier, and an expert in warfare – has been “that guy” on the “talking head shows” trying to get a word in edgewise while being outnumbered by liberal guests, anchors, and producers on shows.) On Newsroom, the conservative is told he’ll never be back, because his manner was considered off-putting after he managed to speak uninterrupted. Watching it happen as a way to reveal character development — not as a moment of to critique the lack of true debate — was a little close-to-home to be entertaining.

Perhaps the most revealing moment is when a reporter is sent to a nascent Occupy Wall Street meeting, which is full of idealistic, peace-loving Americans. After calling the tea party the “American Taliban,” the harshest critique they can muster of Occupy Wall Street is that they are too idealistic, too earnest, too overreaching? It’s telling that the Occupy representatives — there are no leaders, because they believe in a “horizontal power structure” — are portrayed so sympathetically, even though in a few short months there would be rapes at their gatherings, public defecation on police cars, and other atrocities.  In other words, the real-life Occupy Wall Street did some real-life horrifying things.  What did the real life tea party do to earn the “Taliban” moniker? Search your minds for one second — do you remember the incidents of violence since the movement began on Feb. 19, 2009 when the CNBC financial journalist catalyzed it from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange? Me either.

Nevertheless, at the end of the meeting, the reporter tells the Occupy Wall Street person, “I’m for you,” and proceeds to give her advice on how to be a successful movement. One gets the feeling there might be romance in the air for the two. Maybe?  Is this something we should care about? Is it possible to really care about their romantic lives when they are people who would mischaracterize me, slander me, and try to silence me just because of my political beliefs?

After it was over, my husband leaned over and asked, “Why would I want to watch a show about people who hate me?”

He wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. And so, I spent an hour of my life watching the condescending, self-aggrandizing show, and then decided to turn down the magazine’s offer for a weekly gig reviewing it.

You — quite literally — couldn’t pay me to watch that again.

Nancy French is a New York Times best selling author who lives in Tennessee.

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