In a recent preview for The Newsroom on HBO, Aaron Sorkin revealed that the manner in which news is delivered today is more entertainment based than the traditional news formats of the past. Interestingly, as Sorkin elaborated on the consequences, news within an entertainment based format is not necessarily good for us as a whole. Sorkin added that the characters in The Newsroom are somehow trying to do the news well but also make it popular at the same time.
Following a network anchor (played by Jeff Daniels), his new executive producer (Emily Mortimer), the staff and their boss (Sam Waterston), The Newsroom tracks their idealistic and largely unrealistic mission to do the news well in the face of corporate and commercial obstacles.
The first wave
The Newsroom takes me back to my early days in industry when I was part of the first wave of online entertainment journalists from 1996 to 2001 on the former number one movie website called Coming Attractions. In fact, we were dubbed online renegades, rebels, at a time when when most people were reluctant to embrace the internet.
It was also a time when we had control over online entertainment news coverage and the studios and networks didn’t have a clue what to do or how to use the internet to their advantage. Boy, how the times have changed. It only took a decade for the powers to figure out how to reclaim the entertainment world with so many people online.
A key conversation
But The Newsroom reminds me of an online conversation I once had with a television news anchor on our messageboard back in 2000. It was shortly after I had reported that the major cable news networks were switching from the traditional news format to a more edgier, hip and entertaining style of delivering news. At the time, the sad reality was that people were bored by news broadcasts and networks were losing viewers by the day. In an era when less credible but sensational, entertainment style magazines were beating the nightly news in ratings, the entertainment based competition was quickly forcing news divisions out of business.
Given the rise of cable television, and with the internet still in its infancy, traditional news broadcasts with stiff, cardboard-like anchors were putting people to sleep. Viewers just weren’t tuning in to the nightly news.
But that one online conversation I had with the news anchor back in 2000 has always stayed with me simply because it was an in-depth and ongoing discussion about how switching to an entertainment based format could potentially blur the line between factual news events and news as entertainment.
News vs. entertainment
For weeks in the messageboard, in what became a popular thread (think Twitter only with 140 million characters), we debated the pros, cons and consequences of the major news shift to an entertainment style format. It was a debate that raised a question of whether luring people to the facts through entertainment was more important than the facts themselves.
For me, the big question was: where do you draw the line between facts and popularity in terms of what’s truly taking place in the world? Will the facts eventually be overshadowed by a gimmick? For the news anchor, it was all about delivering the facts in a way that people want to see and hear them. If people want to be entertained, why not change the delivery?
At the time, I remember thinking about a potential future where it could be difficult to separate fact from fiction and news from entertainment. If people were bored by real world events in favor of being entertained, what type of reality would we be living in? Perhaps more importantly was the question of how far networks would go to make the news popular. Would viewers get all of the facts or just some of the facts since entertainment took precedent over the events themselves?
In the 20th Century, news was sacred. Until the shift to a “news as entertainment” format, television journalists still adhered to the reporting standards of legendary newsmen like Edward R. Murrow and later Walter Cronkite who were unwavering in their quest to tell the facts. And up until 2000, nightly news broadcasts were treated as necessary divisions of a credible network.
Interestingly, Jeff Daniels’ character in The Newsroom, Will McAvoy, anchor of News Night on the fictional ACN, wants to inform the nation about important and significant events. Aaron Sorkin raises the issue of how a nation of people can be well-informed if they’re not given all of the facts within a sophisticated, intelligent fair and balanced format. As actress Emily Mortimer, who plays News Night executive producer Mackenzie Hale, revealed in a preview for the show, The Newsroom exposes how that seems next to impossible to find in today’s news programming.
The political shift
Perhaps the biggest, most noticeable (and shocking) shift in television news reporting came during the 2008 Presidential election when news networks drew their political lines in the sand. Both the major mainstream networks and cable news giants let their political allegiances be known through their news coverage. If people questioned whether the days of unbiased news coverage were over from 2000 to 2007, the 2008 election put the final nail in the traditional news format coffin.
So, in the post 2008 news world, viewers now have both “news as agenda” and “news as entertainment.”
Accuracy vs. entertainment
After witnessing the shift as a first generation online entertainment journalist, it makes me wonder whether this is what people truly want from news coverage. Do people really care about the news, or are they too distracted by entertainment? And given the normalization of such shamefully inaccurate online databases of information such as Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database, which millions use as reference each day, it makes me wonder whether people care about accurate facts at all.
The online world is another great example of how news organizations have evolved. How many of you can tell when the writer is trying too hard to be funny instead of giving you the facts of a story?
But what if the highly entertaining news that people consume through television and the internet isn’t quite as accurate as it should be? How many facts can you stick into a news story and still have room to be funny? It’s not a stretch to think that there are now millions of people walking around in a false but entertaining reality based on innacurate facts and ambiguous information.
Twelve years after my online conversation with the news anchor, the future feels a lot like the past. Imagine what the world may look like when true reality exists somewhere between the boring facts and entertaining fiction.
How do you feel about the state of cable news and how news is delivered?