The Newsroom: The Medium vs. The Message

the-newsroom-season-2-promoCanadian media theorist and philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously coined the phrase “the medium is the message.” The premise of the phrase is that medium influences the message of a piece of media.

Sometimes, this influence works to enhance the message. Just look at video games like Spec Ops: The Line and Hotline Miami that break the fourth wall to make you question violence of video games.

However, the medium and the traditional expectations of the medium can have the opposite effect and hold back what can be a great message. If there’s a key reason why The Newsroom is hated and hate watched by so many, it’s because of the requirements of the medium of dramatic TV.

the-newsroom-will-mcavoyMost critics of The Newsroom have many different reasons that they tend to focus on when explaining why they hate. The first is the fact that Sorkin has trouble writing female characters. Go back to the critically acclaimed Sports Night and you’ll see some cringe-worthy moments. A tiger can’t change his stripes. Some critics don’t like Sorkin’s liberal political views making their way into every episode, though often this comes off as being anti-Republican in the “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” views of society. And let’s not forget the news media thinking that journalism isn’t being accurately portrayed in terms of News Night’s astounding accuracy and Sorkin’s hindsight bias in reporting the news.

All of these are valid criticisms and are problems that I have with the show from time to time. When you get down to why these issues exist, it’s not because Sorkin is a terrible writer. Sports Night and West Wing are considered two of the best TV series of all-time.

The biggest faults of The Newsroom come down to the medium. The Newsroom often wants to be both a docudrama and a news media critique with both elements interwoven throughout an episode, especially in the show’s first season.

The problem is that you’re not to make a show that lives up to the pedigree of HBO shows but something that I’d expect to see on PBS or the CBC. Unbiased docudramas aren’t really an HBO thing. Even Behind the Candelabra was a dramatized biography of one of Liberace’s relationships rather than something along the lines of a docudrama. That’s why The Newsroom tends to be more of a drama than the love letter to the media that Sorkin wanted it to be.

the-newsroom-jim-and-maggieThe big issues with The Newsroom come from the needs of a TV drama series. An accurate factual recounting of important events in recent history doesn’t need a cast of characters to tell the story. A TV drama does. An examination of the media doesn’t require the critics to have subplots dedicated to their relationships and personal flaws. A TV drama does.

That’s not to say that Sorkin is always doing a bad job with these characters. When the dialogue is allowed to flow at normal conversational levels and the attempts at slapstick-ish humour are left to the side, there are some great character moments.

The best parts of the drama side of the show are when people just talk at in a normal conversation. Sure, we love when Sam Waterston starts yelling and is on the warpath like D.A. Jack McCoy but great little moments like a quiet conversation between Sloan and Don or Don and Mac give an endearing human side to the characters. It’s too bad the office relationship side of their characters tends to be facepalmingly bad.

The bad relationship writing, however, doesn’t make this the worst show on TV. While hate watchers (who are really wasting their time watching a show they hate but if they can’t admit that they secretly love watching the show, they’re just lying to themselves) might call it the worst show on TV, they forget that we live in a society where we hang on every episode of The Kardashians, turned Honey Boo Boo’s family into stars by laughing at them and keep CBS’ sitcom lineup on the air thanks to high ratings. All of these are more likely to lead to the downfall of society than The Newsroom.

the-newsroom-season-2-poster-mackenzie-mchaleWhat some of the bad writing does is obscure the message because of the needs of the medium. The message makes The Newsroom one of the most important shows on TV. Sorkin’s love letter to the media shows how dedication to ratings undermines the nightly newscasts and 24-hour news channels you watch. We’ve learned about the importance of getting the facts right so that people know the real story and not the spin. Hell, we learned what the debt ceiling actually is.

None of these were things that people talked about prior to last summer. The last Presidential campaign saw fact-checking become a massive part of news reporting. Maybe it was just a coincidence that Sorkin emphasized the importance of the news being right and the advent of fact-checking as a critical part of campaign coverage. Similarly, how much time was devoted to how big news stories are covered. Just look at how CNN has taken a battering over its coverage of any major news story over the last 6+ months.

The Newsroom suffers from the medium being a part of the message. A news satire media critique like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report doesn’t have to worry about the message being obscured because the show is about news and politics. As a result, the message isn’t completely lost because of the medium used to get that message out.

If The Newsroom was a comedic parody of a terrible news organization, I don’t think that the message wouldn’t be lost because of the medium. However, having to wrap the message that our news could and should be done better than we currently get in the guise of a TV drama dilutes the message.

So while McLuhan may be right that the medium can have an impact on the message, sometimes the medium overwhelms the message. That’s the case with The Newsroom.

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