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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Too much news?

Newspapers are shrinking, television news programs are retrenching and reporting is even being moved offshore. So you would think the last thing journalists would complain about is too much news.

Yet that's been one of the reactions to HBO's "The Newsroom," Aaron Sorkin's homage to the era of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley, when news was presented by three networks in 30 minute chunks -- and anchormen were trusted, to the point of being seen as your friendly uncle.

Today's 140-character news cycle is a far cry from those days, which is at the heart of one journalistic lament about the overkill in information passing itself off as "news you can use."

But the number of shots at Sorkin's romanticized look at what a newsroom should be suggests there's more than a bit of jealousy among reporters who know that we can never return to those thrilling days of yesterday. No matter how much we would want to.

Sorkin has crafted programs around the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the Tea Party takeover, offering his idealized view of journalists digging beyond the obvious headlines to the offer the story behind the story.

Last night's episode focusing on the deep-pocketed billionaires behind the supposed grassroots Tea Party movement is a story all but one news outlet has failed to address, settling for Sarah Palin soundbites and illogical quotes from people demanding you "keep your goddamn government hands off my Medicare."

We are also treated to a boardroom discussion with the head of news and the boss of the fictional company, who worried that she would now have to do business with the Tea Party candidates elected in 2010 despite her fictional anchors efforts to expose them as empty vessels.

Critics complain the episodes are over the top, that no newsroom operates like Will McAvoy, an openly conservative Republican who is managing editor and anchorman for a struggling news program and who adopts truth over ratings at the urging of a former lover hired without his knowledge.

While the character sketch is certainly over the top, dramatic license, the basic message is unmistakable and spot on: journalism has lost out to "news," an ephemeral concept that includes stargazing and consumer fluff instead of hard-hitting reporting in line with the industry's idealized motto of "comfort the afflicted and afflict to the comfortable."

You need look no farther than the casting of Jane Fonda, ex-wife of former CNN boss Ted Turner,  as the fearful network mogul to get the picture.

Newsrooms have changed substantially since my days -- not only technologically but in the forces driving them. Once loss leaders, news divisions are expected to generate rating and profits, hence the explosions of talking heads from Hannity and O'Reilly to Anderson Cooper who populate prime time.

Newsrooms have indeed lost their way, but not from the glut of too much news. Sorkin's dramas are shattering journalists own fantasies and that's what hurts so much.

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