CBC journalists review HBO's The Newsroom

Savagely reviewed, Aaron Sorkin's new cable-news drama The Newsroom has garnered some fan support after Sunday's premiere. But what did CBC journalists think of the debut?
Emily Mortimer as executive producer MacKenzie McHale and Jeff Daniels as news anchor Will McAvoy in a scene from Aaron Sorkin's new series The Newsroom. (HBO Canada)

After successes like The West Wing, The Social Network and Moneyball (and even not-so-successful outings like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), screenwriter and playwright Aaron Sorkin is among the best-known creators working today.

His latest television offering is HBO's The Newsroom, which depicts the behind-the-scenes drama amongst the staffers crafting a daring nightly cable-news program. The 10-episode first season revolves around cable news anchor Will McAvoy (portrayed by Jeff Daniels), who is awakened from a career of coasting by his new executive producer and former flame Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer). McAvoy is surrounded by a bright, youthful staff (including John Gallagher, Jr., Alison Pill, Dev Patel and Olivia Munn) and answers to a news division boss played by Sam Waterston.

Savaged by critics in early reviews, the series has nonetheless garnered some fan support via Twitter after Sunday evening's premiere. Here's what some top CBC journalists thought of the debut.

Carol Off, host of CBC’s As It Happens:

The jingoistic premise of The Newsroom is that the United States is possibly not "the best country in the world" anymore. A down-and-out-but-looking-for-redemption TV news anchor must now restore America to its manifest destiny or at least return us to the good old days of paternalistic, Cronkite-style newsmen.

It’s tedious and navel-gazing — there isn’t a scene, plot development or character in this newsroom that’s even vaguely plausible. What happened to humour and irony at HBO? Bring back Ken Finkleman and at least let us laugh at ourselves.

Eli Glasner, arts reporter for CBC News:

The film critic in me loves The Newsroom’s familiar Sorkinisms: the rat-a-tat rhythms like a screwball comedy for the slash-dot age. But the reporter in me stumbles on the show’s smug "I told you so" concept.

Canadian actress Alison Pill, right, plays a rising assistant-turned-associate producer in The Newsroom. (HBO Canada)

Setting the series two years in the past gives the producers insight juiced by hindsight. If The West Wing was a fantasy of how Washington should work, The Newsroom is what the news should have told us. The mixture of righteousness and intellectual sword-fighting is intoxicating, but it does short shrift to the gradual accumulation of detail it sometimes takes to break a story.

I'd love to see The Newsroom show more of the daily compromises we struggle with, say shrinking and compressing our stories to shave off seconds, while also fighting for clarity. Still, if anything keeps me watching, it'll be the show’s relationships and the amazing Alison Pill.

Mark Gollom, senior writer for CBCNews.ca:

If you wade through all the sanctimony, the self-righteousness, the eye-rolling speechifying in The Newsroom, you’re left with a pretty boring soapbox where characters – like as in so many of Aaron Sorkin’s dramatic creations —  all sound identical and showcase the same rapid-fire, smarmy, look-how-clever-our-references-are type of wit. As for the show’s resemblance to an actual newsroom, well, the fictional ACN network has lots of phones and TVs and computers —  much like the CBC, except that their TV, phones and computers look much cooler. 

I did geek out slightly at the fact that the wire service used on the show looks to be the same as ours. That said, the show’s news staff doesn’t bear much resemblance to CBCers. They seem to place a lot of importance over the colour codes of newswire story alerts. At the CBC, and in most real newsrooms, we don’t care about colours; we care about the facts of the story. When the Associated Press sends out an alert that a tsunami has hit Japan, we don’t need a colour code to tell us it’s a big deal. 

I also found the fictional staff’s reaction to the big story in the pilot — in this case, the BP oil spill — just doesn’t ring true. They all seem emotionally affected and get all serious upon hearing news of the spill. Where are the morbid jokes? Most journalists are a pretty cynical lot: using gallows humour to deal with covering some of the worst tragedies is the norm. 

Besides the network anchor, played by Jeff Daniels, being shocked that he has a blog, online journalism doesn’t seem to have much of a presence on the show. And really, as an online journalist, I find that the most egregious shortcoming of the series.

Carole MacNeil, host of CBC News Now:

I watched The Newsroom a few nights ago. First, let me say, I was relieved to find the media not portrayed as a pack of wolves, ready to hunt down celebrities, exploit the wounded and chase gossip. Instead, the media were portrayed as a weak pup in the herd of democracy on the verge of death... in other words, a weak link in the chain of the American democratic system.

I cover live and breaking news events on an ongoing basis, often without a script, including the BP oil spill in the Gulf. I thought The Newsroom was as close to reality as I have seen portrayed on television (which may not be saying much). We often get alerted to a big story from the wire services, and then decide what to do with the information.

A couple of observations, out of order: I look around at Sorkin's newsroom and I think, what year is this? The newsroom seems very white and overwhelmingly male. I look about our CBC News Network newsroom and our floor is chock-a-block full of people with extremely diverse backgrounds. Does someone speak Spanish? Check. Translation for Mandarin? Check. French? You bet. Muslim, Jewish, Christian, atheist, woman, man... all of us live here in the CBC newsroom.

Dev Patel's resourceful Neal Sampat is among the talented young staffers depicted in The Newsroom. (HBO Canada)

But in Sorkin's bland newsroom, we see mostly white men, one woman and a girl. The anchor comes out of his office onto the floor and yells at the one guy of colour and calls him "Punjab." Really? Not funny, and a good indication of just how white this place is, and for a man that, underneath, is supposed to be whip smart, it's saying something quite the opposite.

We also endure a lot of preaching about the importance of journalism, in that Sorkin machine-gun style: "The U.S. is not the greatest country in the world..." Ratatatatatat! "Journalism is very important to democracy..." Ratatatatatat! Facts, figures are rattled off in a speedy, yet monotone way that is impressive once but gets tired quickly, because there's no intimacy to the conversation.

So, in the end, what happened? The News Night program (did he take that name from the BBC's Newsnight program?) gets the story from reading it on the wire. (Yes, that is usually how it happens.) Someone's Spidey sense tingled —  there was more to this explosion in the Gulf than just a search-and-rescue operation. They figure it out, and they dedicate their whole hour to the explosion and the spill, having put together before anyone else that this will be the worst environmentally threatening accident the U.S. has ever seen. Great! Well done! Hmmm. What, I wonder, were they doing before? Not reading the wires? Not willing to throw out a show lineup in favour of going with breaking news? Were they the last ones to piece it together?

Sorkin's main target here seems to be lazy journalism, or at the very least, those who play it safe, like my fictional counterpart, Will McAvoy. Sorkin seems to be saying, forget the celebrity culture in the media. The real enemy of democracy is sleepy journalism that takes what it is given without a second or deeper thought. I agree with that concept. So now we have a news anchor that went from being someone who was successful because he didn't "bother anyone" to an aggressive inquisitor who's in their face (like Jeremy Paxman, the BBC's Newsnight perhaps?). But now that he's "fixed" the newsroom, where will the plot take us next? Who will he turn his news hounds on to, now that they have their fire back? Then we'll see where Sorkin is really going with his Newsroom. I'll check out the next episode for sure just to see.

Dianne Buckner, business journalist for CBC News:

I enjoyed watching The Newsroom.  A lot of it was over-the-top and overwritten, but as someone in the news business, I'd hate to be too critical of a series where a character makes an impassioned plea to "reclaim journalism as an honourable profession!" This is a program where journalists are heroes, struggling to find the truth and promote democracy.  Yes!

Of course, it was also incredibly unrealistic. In this first episode, a producer and a couple of junior associates blow the lid off the inside story of 2010's Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in a matter of minutes and with a couple of phone calls. A massive corporation is accused of negligence, but no lawyers are consulted. So unrealistic, but fun to watch. 

If only all investigative journalism could unroll with the speed of time-lapse photography. But I suppose a lot of professions aren't portrayed with complete accuracy when producers try to make an engaging drama —  just ask the police about CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.    Why, though, does the voice of intelligence and honesty always have a British accent!? The female lead (Emily Mortimer) is a brave foreign correspondent who wants to deliver "the real story," not engage in pack journalism or celebrity gossip — in her plummy accent, of course. And Jeff Daniels' character is SUCH a jerk! I've worked with a number of top anchors and none of them have been so relentlessly nasty — certainly not Mansbridge. 

Leanne Hazon, producer for CBC News:

First of all, I laughed aloud when The Newsroom’s new executive producer (EP) MacKenzie McHale walks in with a large Louis Vuitton bag slung over each shoulder. Most producers I know don't make enough money to afford one small Louis, let alone two large ones. I don't think a journalist supposedly embedded with U.S. troops in a war zone for 26 months would suddenly start carrying one of the biggest symbols of luxury and tote it around a newsroom in which she’s trying to make an impression as the new EP.

Stage actor John Gallagher Jr. portrays a star senior producer with an instinct for news. (HBO Canada)

That said, I did like the character of Jim Harper, the senior producer who comes over with MacKenzie. I loved how Jim got excited when the first alert about BP hit the wires: even though he technically wasn't employed yet, he couldn't help but start to work the phones, try to get at the story and own it for the network. I've done that a few times myself, with stories that are just breaking and that I haven't been assigned yet.

I recognize that instinct and the rush of excitement that comes with a breaking story, as well as the push to get it on the air as fast as possible, with as much relevant and up-to-date info we can. The chase is one of the most exciting parts of the job and one of the most fulfilling. In my experience, the newsroom does pull together when there's a breaking story and there's an element of excitement generated that is really fun to experience.

I also laughed when the team starts making calls and the new EP asks who their geologist on-call was. When the young staffer Neal lists two names, MacKenzie says: "Whoever calls back first." That's so true! Whoever calls back first on a major story (provided they have something worthwhile to say, of course!) gets on-air because we’re racing to a deadline.

Peter Mansbridge, chief correspondent and host of CBC’s The National:

Twenty-five years ago, the Toronto Star asked me to review a new movie about television news. It was called Broadcast News. I’d spent 20 years as a reporter in the field at that point and had just started anchoring, so I guess the Star saw some similarities to the plot line around the news anchor that actor William Hurt was playing in Broadcast News.

Aaron Sorkin is seen on the set of his new drama The Newsroom. (HBO Canada)

I made the mistake of taking the movie too seriously. It was a good film, and it made some legitimate points about how TV news can fall off the rails, but it was hardly a documentary on how our business works. I ended up isolating what I saw as incidents in the movie that would never happen in the real world of my profession, instead of looking at the bigger picture.

Now a quarter century later, and at least from the early, very critical reviews of Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series The Newsroom, a lot of people seem to be making similar assessments. I’ve had the opportunity to screen the first four episodes and to me it’s what it’s supposed to be — entertainment. I’ll admit to being a Sorkin fan — I enjoyed The West Wing and The Social Network. And quite frankly I’m not minding The Newsroom and the blunt hammer it uses in decrying the state of U.S. cable news. And really, is it that hard to wield that hammer?

But some of the criticism spills over into conventional network news programs as well. At its core, the show is constantly trying to come to grips with what a lot of us in television news try to do every day — define what is news. Is it what’s entertaining and being talked about, or is it what’s important for people to know? And when it’s both, how do you prioritize and handle the balance?

I think the series captures well the intense energy and excitement that surrounds a good newsroom when a major story hits and journalists dig deep to drive the story to air. Ditto its brief glimpses into what editorial meetings can be like when dark humour can often get you through some difficult discussions. And while I work at a public broadcaster, where we often worry about how the executive level of the corporate structure deals with its contacts with government, I’m assuming The Newsroom’s portrayal of private network’s executives worrying about their multi-layered corporate ownership and connections to advertisers is probably pretty reflective of what happens there.

But as in any television drama, a lot of license is taken to make all this a fast-paced and interesting production. If investigative work unfolded as rapidly as it does in the first episode, with single-source information, on-air ready in moments, Richard Nixon would have been forced out of office the day of the Watergate break-in, not more than two years later. I’ve never worked in or visited a newsroom (or any office for that matter) where people talked, consistently, in the overly hyped way these characters do. It’s like Sorkin poured a dozen energy drinks into each actor before shouting "Action!" And I’ve watched a lot of very good anchors over the years, in networks around the world, but I’ve never seen one who could absorb detailed, and often confusing, whispered-in-their-earpiece data seconds before air, the way the Jeff Daniels character, Will McAvoy, does. (Or maybe it’s just that whenever I see Jeff Daniels, I can’t shake the image of Dumb and Dumber.)

By episode four of The Newsroom, character lines are established, you know who doesn’t like whom, who wants whose job, who’s sleeping with whom, and who wants to sleep with whom. And with that guide beside you, you may be in for the long haul —  even if the show by then has turned into a kind of glitzy rip-off of the last days of former MSNBC anchor and Sorkin pal Keith Olbermann. Every studio moment becomes a tirade against the American right and the emergence of the Tea Party, while upstairs in the executive tower, the McAvoy "eject" button is being considered.

But the bottom line for me is I’ll probably keep watching The Newsroom for those moments where it does capture the spirit and the debates of our often crazy and tense workplace. And yes, for the soap opera moments that any show like this has to deliver if it’s going to survive. If those early reviews are right, Sorkin may need to build more in, if survival is his aim.

Hey, it’s not a newscast, it’s entertainment. And you have to keep reminding yourself of that.

The Newsroom is seen Sundays at 10pm ET/MT on HBO Canada.

Actors John Gallagher, Jr., Emily Mortimer and Alison Pill appear in The Newsroom, which depicts the behind-the-scenes drama of a nightly cable-news show. (HBO Canada)