Aaron Sorkin’s HBO show The Newsroom deals with the aftermath of a Jerry Maguire-esque epiphany (here) by the formerly vanilla cable news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), leading him to go on a mission to bring intelligent, informed news to the American people. Anyone who has seen The Newsroom will, after a while, feel like they are watching a story set in a world of fantasy and idealism rather than the real world in which newsrooms actually operate. Audience numbers and corporate pressures to protect business partners are ignored as the staff of this newsroom go about their business of saving America. The show has been heavily criticised for this, as well as the patently liberal agenda visible in every plot point. Sorkin is way past the point where he can make a claim to be non-partisan. This is the man who created President Jed Bartlett in The West Wing, one of the most liberal characters in TV history.
The Newsroom however goes far past what Sorkin attempted with The West Wing, and any show that has gone before it: it is set in the real world, reporting real news. While President Bartlett weighed the consequences of battling genocide in Equatorial Kundu and dragging his country into a war protecting Kazakhstan from the crosshairs of Russia and China, Will McAvoy is reporting news from mid-2010 through fall 2011. Actual news stories, from the BP Oil Spill to Osama Bin-Laden via the Arab Spring and the News of the World phone tapping scandal. Actual news footage from his ‘competitors’ at CNN, FOX, MSNBC and others are shown to contrast with what our liberal newsroom staff think should be done. After a few episodes, it sunk in that what Sorkin is doing in The Newsroom: he’s benchmarking the news.
Benchmarking has many different meanings in different contexts. In this instance, I mean it in the way I was taught when studying Competition Policy analysis. In the case when an industry has little scope for competition, such as a natural or state monopoly, and when this lack of competition could lead to a firm (unintentionally perhaps) operating at a suboptimal level, the governments Competition Authority steps in and creates a benchmark. They analyse in-depth the industry this firm operates, then create an imaginary competitor, which the real monopolist is required by law to compete with. The Authority sets the prices this imaginary firm charges, output, costs, everything. In the 1950s the British government went so far as to actually set up a rival company for their own TV monopoly, which is how ITV came to coexist alongside with the BBC. Usually however, it is virtual competition, mostly through best practices and standards, where previously there were only the practices of the monopoly firm. If you don’t hit the benchmark targets, which you would need to do in order to survive in this hypothetically competitive industry, you theoretically go out of business. In reality you just get fined.
While we periodically hear about big antitrust cases in the United States, it is an open secret that the US is much more lax than Europe in its enforcement of anti-competitive behaviour, particularly with regards to benchmarking. In America, the free market is the benchmark. If you can survive in a competitive market alongside a number of non-colluding rivals, then that market needs no benchmarking, it is all just fine. However, industries that have a few companies competing sometimes need a little help performing better too. Sorkin, it seems, believes that the small club of US cable news networks is one such industry. An industry controlled by corporations, advertising commitments and a soul-destroying fear of saying anything remotely controversial. So he kept them there, created his own imaginary news network, reported the same stories alongside them for over a year, and showed how they should have done it.
The best example of this comes in episode four; the news team are covering the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The congresswoman is in hospital, and one source (of many) claims she has died. Sorkin’s team are on air, but refuse to declare her dead since it is only from one source and has not been confirmed. Backstage, the CNN, MSNBC and Fox coverage all report her dead in bold capitals across the screen. A corporate executive of the cable channel is screaming at the news team to pronounce her dead, since the coverage seems out-of-date compared to their rivals, which would lead to viewers changing channels. Two minutes later it is confirmed that Giffords survived, and the other channels had to retract their statements. This set-piece lasts all of three minutes, but is the essence of Sorkin’s vision of what The Newsroom is supposed to be in one sequence. Jeff Daniels’ news anchor cringes every time someone suggests he report about the expectations for the new iPad. Later on, corporate pressure to cover a human interest story (mother killing child) makes everyone involved feel sick, while the opening episode showed our news team, through a little investigation, were the only ones in their cable news club who realised the potential for environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. I get the feeling that Sorkin really wanted to include coverage of a mass shooting in an episode, just to show them how it should be done, but unfortunately the 2011 Norway attacks didn’t make the cut.
The Newsroom is a normative liberal fairytale, setting benchmarks so high that it is unlikely many competitive news channels could achieve them. However it exists as a moral benchmark for modern news teams in America. It is idealistic, romanticising the newsroom and past anchormen such as Edward Murrow and Walter Cronkite. The characters in this show believe they are public servants required to inform America about what they should know about what is going on in their country. It is a benchmark all the same, simply one set very high, and liberal. Sorkin wants the real news teams to feel something like this, not necessarily the liberal part, but like they have a responsibility to their audience to do the best news show they possibly can. It is undoubtedly a fantasy, but if government agencies create imaginary competitors all the time, why can’t a TV writer?