What last night's "The Newsroom" gets wrong about "disruption" in media

By David Holmes , written on November 24, 2014

From The News Desk

Few television shows in history have elicited the strange combination of hatred and obsession that HBO's "The Newsroom" has. Viewers, particularly those who live and work in the media world that Aaron Sorkin's fantastical weekly drama vaguely resembles, are simultaneously enamored and repulsed by the show's loud, overwrought ruminations on news, politics, technology, and workplace relationships. Maybe that's because 21st century journalists love nothing more than thinking about themselves, and like Narcissus, are unable to look away from the mirror Sorkin holds up to our industry, even if the reflection is often distorted beyond recognition.

It's possible too that our fascination with the show may stem from a simpler impulse. Like the "hatereads" offered up by sites like Thought Catalog and the New York Post, "The Newsroom"'s complete wrongness only serves to reinforce our own "correct" beliefs.

But there's something stranger even than that at play here -- "The Newsroom"'s broad philosophies are sound, at least to any good Howard Zinn-reading liberal. But the delivery of these ideas is so shrill and unbound to reality that it almost makes me want to vote Republican. The Toast's Nicole Cliffe perhaps put it best when she said, "I am a progressive sucker but every episode of the newsroom makes me want all of these people to be sent to conservative re-education camps."

For these reasons, "The Newsroom" is a valuable work of pop culture trash to watch and discuss, despite how unremittingly bad it is. And last night, the show took on a topic that's become unavoidable when debating the new economics of media: What happens when tech billionaires start funding the news?

From former PayPal exec Pierre Omidyar's First Look Network to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' purchase of the Washington Post, tech money and media money have become irrevocably intertwined. That's without mentioning the numerous news startups, like Buzzfeed, Gigaom, and yes, Pando, that have raised money from Silicon Valley VCs. These investors already own a hefty chunk of the apps and platforms used to consume and produce news -- Now they also want a piece of the news (or content) itself.

In "The Newsroom," this narrative arises after Leona and Reese Lansing (Jane Fonda and Chris Messina), the respective CEO and President of ACN's parent conglomerate, decide the best way to save the network is by spinning it out. The prospective buyer is 43-year-old Lucas Pruit, a tech billionaire played with arrogant zeal by "The Office's" BJ Novak. Apparently his company makes "wi-fi accelerators," though they might as well make tiny speakers for smartwatches for all the show cares. As for why Pruit wants to buy the network, ACN president Charlie Skinner explains, "Running a news network’s cooler than owning a location detection software company."

Here, the show misses one of many opportunities to discuss the real reasons tech barons buy news outlets. The "cool" factor is grossly overstated -- billionaires buy boats and space shuttles because they're cool, not newspapers. And in any case, ACN, modeled as it is off of CNN, is certainly not hip. While some tech luminaries invest in unprofitable bastions of journalism out of nostalgia and traditionalism, it's disingenuous to ignore the reality that wealthy corporate-types, despite claims of editorial independence, often invest stakes in journalistic organizations for the opportunity to shape news coverage.

Technology giants may also utilize the content published by their media holdings to push other products sold within that baron's empire. For example, last week Amazon Kindle Fire owners were given free exclusive access to a new Washington Post app. As Pando's Nathaniel Mott put it, "Bezos has turned the Washington Post into a public relations tool for Amazon tablets."

"The Newsroom" may explore these issues in the future -- we've only just been introduced to the Pruit character -- but so far, he's painted less like a cunning capitalist looking to manipulate the media, and more like a clueless and possibly autistic Silicon Valley dweeb with a penchant for buzz phrases like "user-generated content" and "crowdsourcing the news." (Though, to his credit, he does invoke "Danny Glover" as a possible savior of the news industry. This is worth exploring further, you guys). Anyone familiar with Sorkin's borderline-creepy fixation of nostalgia won't be surprised that Pruit's speech on "disruption" is met with a parade of eye-rolls from Skinner, an old-timey holdover from a "better" era of journalism, when manly men read the news and women still weren't allowed to wear pants.

This has become a common theme in Hollywood and television's depiction of Silicon Valley. Tech entrepreneurs, especially on HBO's popular series "Silicon Valley," are often portrayed as awkward losers who lucked into a billion dollar payday simply because they stayed inside playing computer games as kids instead of riding their bikes. It's as if society still hasn't graduated from its 1980s "Revenge of the Nerds" mentality. But while there's truth to every cliche, the act of turning these rich kids into objects of ridicule glosses over the well of sociopathic greed they drew on to make their companies so successful in the first place. Sure, some tech founders are lovable geeks. But the capacity for evil is just as large in Silicon Valley as it is in any other corporate environment.

And finally, let's talk for a moment about "user-generated content" and "crowdsourcing the news." These would have been revolutionary "disruptive" concepts in 2006, maybe. But today, everyone from the New York Times to ProPublica integrates reader content into their stories. Yes, this content should be vetted and presented in such a way that truly improves a piece of journalism. And indeed, two episodes ago "The Newsroom" depicted the Reddit witch hunt in the wake of the Boston Marathon, one of the most colossal failures of crowdsourced reporting. But Sorkin's unshakable belief that a talking Jeff Daniels reading news off a teleprompter is the apotheosis of journalism is as antiquated as the writer's sexual politics.

The worst part about watching "The Newsroom," which is set in an environment I have some familiarity with as a journalist, is that it makes me question my admiration for the writer's other projects. If I had ever worked as a White House aide would I be equally annoyed by "The West Wing"? Does my lack of experience in Major League Baseball front offices make it impossible for me to objectively evaluate "Moneyball"?

But then I remember that those works contain eminently likable characters, along with clever, pleasantly brain-buzzing dialogue. "The Newsroom" lacks both of these qualities. Yet, like a trainwreck, I can't look away. If you feel the same, join me every Monday when I'll recap the best hate-watching television has to offer.

[illustration by Hallie Bateman]