When The West Wing was screened from 1999 – 2006, it reminded America of what was possible. Jed Bartlett was a President who spoke Latin, played multiple chess games simultaneously, won a Nobel prize for economics, scored a 1590 on the SAT, drank beer, smoked cigarettes and won staff basketball games by employing American all stars players. Instead from 2000 to 2008, they had President Bush.
It was idealistic, the staff managed to overcome problems by being cute, coming off with sharp witty quips, survived on 3 hours sleep and never having to refer to notes. It was a teenage political nerds fantasy. It was what we hoped politics was like. Such was the influence of the West Wing on politics throughout Europe and the US when Tony Blair was Prime Minister his staff reputedly had the West Wing theme tune as their ring tone.
While Jed Bartlett may have been the President many in the US wished they had during W’s years in the White House, The Newsroom is what they are wishing for in the age of Fox “News” dominance, the general dumbing down of US news and fear of insulting those in power.
The Newsroom began with a promising start, the middle aged news anchor Will McAvoy losing his cool and telling a group of students that he yearns for an age when people aspired for intelligence and didn’t belittle it, great men were revered and that America is no longer the greatest country on earth. Over the weeks it showed the crew of The Newsroom putting together news packages for real news events such as the gulf oil spill, the killing of Osama Bin Laden, Congresswoman Giffords being shot and legislation denying citizens the right to vote as they don’t own a government ID.
This was the beauty, the selling point of the Newsroom and Sorkin’s finest writing. America required a fictional newsroom to report the news that CNN, MSNBC, FOX, ABC and others chose to ignore.
In a later episode, the staff are prepare a bid for a Republican candidate debate. Will and his former colleague reminisce about what they want debates to be; a true grilling by the chairman and the candidates held to account. Maggie (played by Alison Pill) wants to ask Congresswoman Michelle Bachman what God’s voice sounds like and if she is comparing herself to Moses. Congresswoman Bachman had said that God told her to run for President.
Who can forgot John King being scolded by Speaker Newt Gingrich for having the audacity to ask if the accusations of Gingrichs former wife that he wanted an open marriage were true. Candidates are there to be asked questions and to be held to account for their actions, beliefs and proposals. The media is not there to catch them out, the media require intelligent, educated revered men and women to hold politicians and representatives to account.
The problem I noticed with the Newsroom was that all the characters were remolded West Wing characters. Although Republican, Will McAvoy was an idealistic, educated, elitist, grumpy Democrat Jed Bartlett. Charlie Skinner was a functioning alcoholic fixer like Leo McGarry, Maggie Jordan was the sweet, innocent, harmless, love lorn and clumsy was the equally annoying equivalent of Donna Moss. Jim Harper was the up and coming, desperate to prove himself but always remaining in the shadow of his boss, Josh Lyman. Don Keefer could easily be mistaken for Toby Ziegler, the one who plays by his own rules, doesn’t get on with many in the office, always right but needing to be proved wrong.
The West Wing was the White House centre left Americans needed during a time of known and unknowns and the breast (sic) and brightest. The Newsroom is the media that all Americans need during times of media organizations controlled by profit chasing CEO’s that play golf on weekends with billionaire backers and advertisers. They do not need timid and sycophantic news anchors who agree to avoid real issues and accept rehearsed soundbite answers.
There are of course exceptional reporters in the American media; Chris Mathews, Soledad O’Brian, Rachel Maddow, John Stewart and Shepherd Smith to name a few. However, when Bill O’Reilly asks if the President is the Antichrist and John King allowing Governor Romney to give the answer he wants regardless of the question, the American people are being left with a toothless, fear mongering and fearful media. Is it any wonder Aaron Sorkin longs for a newsroom that really is fair, balanced and prepared to ask the tough questions with multiple followups. If only they could get access to the candidates.