Words by Dana Rose Falcone
Students in the country’s number one journalism school sound off on HBO’s latest hit, The Newsroom.
On June 24, Amanda Quigley tuned into HBO, curious as to how her experiences as a journalism student at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications stood up to those Aaron Sorkin created for TV.
“I was a part of CitrusTV when I first got here, and I wanted to see how accurately they portrayed a newsroom,” says Quigley, a junior television-radio-film major. “Most of the time when there’s a TV show about a TV show, it gets overdone.”
Though the first episode opens at Northwestern University (one of Syracuse University’s journalism school rivals), the first season of The Newsroom took on serious, real-world issues, including dealing with an anonymous source and making decisions about which stories to cover. The 10-episode series employs real news stories, beginning with coverage of the BP oil spill in April 2010, and leaving viewers in Sept. 2011 with the attempted take-down of the Tea Party and new voter ID laws. The Newsroom features actual events and centers around News Night 2.0’s anchor, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), and executive producer, Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer).
Though the show garnered somewhat negative reviews from critics at NYmag.com and The Huffington Post, among others, Quigley believes McAvoy and MacHale’s idealistic way of covering the news gives aspiring journalists an ethical standard to follow. “They’re trying to give the best story that they can, despite character flaws,” she says. “They’re trying to make a point.”
McAvoy is on a “mission to civilize” and MacHale is dedicated to running only stories that inform the electorate. Those ideals reflect Newhouse Dean Lorraine Branham’s goal, as the school’s website states, to educate “students who are curious about the world and who want to change it for the better by using the enormous power of mass communications.” As the country’s top journalism school, according to Dec. 2011 NewsPro rankings, Newhouse is responsible for training and inspiring a rising crop of journalism students that will fill newsrooms like those on the program.
Tim Bunn (’72) agrees that the show encourages students to pursue hard-hitting journalism. “If you take the time to study reporting and you take the time to hone your craft of writing and study it seriously,” says the former Post-Standard deputy executive editor, “it seems to me that that’s best put to use in something other than this fictional TMI or People magazine.”
But Sorkin’s signature writing style — with its hyperbolic speeches and romanticized characters — often overpowers the show itself and may delude aspiring journalists. “If any student watches that and thinks that that’s how a newsroom runs, they’re sorely misled,” Bunn says.
Based on his 33 years of experience in print journalism, Bunn cites two major issues with how The Newsroom portrays a real-life newsroom. “They’re all children. Not everyone in a newsroom is in their 20s. There are a lot of old geezers.” He also thinks the show doesn’t show enough of a functioning newsroom’s behind-the-scenes elements. “With TV, the people who go out and cover stuff come back and sit in a film booth and edit stories and do voiceovers,” he says.
Though Sorkin’s portrayal may have faults, Bunn trusts that Newhouse students are smart enough to know the show doesn’t present the type of environment they’ll be working in after graduation.
HBO picked up The Newsroom for a second season after only its second episode, and fans and journalists hope it develops a better plot and more believable characters. One of the most common criticisms of Sorkin involves his inability to craft a female character. From Mackenzie’s misuse of an email listerv to Will’s female assistant’s misunderstanding of what “LOL” means, examples of Sorkin’s sexism pop up frequently throughout the series — NYmag.com now includes a “Sorkin Sexism” count at the end of its weekly recaps.
But the show still maintained a large audience throughout its first season. The Newsroom premiered to an audience of 2.1 million, and 2.3 million watched the season finale, according to Nielsen ratings.
“As good as the homilies are,” Bunn says,“the various preaching that we’re subjected to in the first season, that can’t last long.”
Quigley hopes to see coverage of the 2012 election in the second season, set to air in 2013. “Because of Will’s political views, I want to see how they portray that,” he says.
Between the upcoming election and events such as the Aurora, Colo., shooting, Sorkin has a lot to work for this next season. If he keeps the preaching to a minimum and beefs up the plot, the two million viewers should return, and season two may give student-journalists a more reliable view of their future career paths.