I really liked how The Newsroom’s Episode 3, called The 112th Congress, began and ended. I just wasn’t quite so enamoured of the circuitous route they took to arrive at the end of the show. In a week where Mackenzie McHale and Sloan Sabbith were basically asked to go stand in a corner and not speak until asked to speak, which basically reduced them to afterthoughts, Sorkin tossed the ball to Will, Maggie and Charlie, asking them to carry the show with assists from Reese, Jim Harper and the CEO, played by Jane Fonda. From a perspective that’s best described as looking back after the 59 + minutes , I do think it worked rather well. This is not say that there weren’t some issues. But hey, who’s counting?
Actually, I’m counting as this is a recap where we comment, describe, quote, and spoil for you, all in one place. What we have in this post is Episode 3 from A to Z, or start to finish if you like that better.
As the show opens we have a video clip of former US counter-terrorism czar Richard Clark apologizing to the American people for the 9/11 terrorist attack. He was speaking to a Congressional meeting on March 24th 2004:
I welcome the opportunity for this forum because now, I can apologize to the loved ones of the victims of 9/11, to them that are here in the room, to those watching on television,
Your government failed you.
Those entrusted to protect you, failed you.
And I failed you.
We then cut to Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) who proceeded over the next 7 minutes to issue his own apologies for his own shortcoming as a newsman. Referencing the clip McAvoy said:
Americans liked that moment. I liked that moment. Adults should hold themselves accountable for failures.
This wasn’t just a talking head. As McAvoy spoke his public mea culpa, the visuals changed from his live speech to a beautifully made montage, where we saw him begin writing the speech on a long yellow legal pad, we saw at conference with Mackenzie McHale and other staff going over the speech, we watched the News Night staff watching the live broadcast over monitors. We saw Will’s typed speech in Charlie Skinner’s hands, and we watched as Neal, Jim, and Don and Maggie, in their homes first saw the topic of the speech in an email they probably got in the middle of the night.
Will’s speech was inspiring in its depth, and its range. He apologized as a newsman for being the head of a program that cared more about ratings than delivering the news in an unvarnished way, or how they added their own slant, spins, and subtext to keep corporate happy. He apologized for as he put it, being in the exact same business as the producers of Jersey Shore.
Will then made a promise to quit the circus that was all about ratings and profits, of soft pedaling the news that required a hard stance, and the circus that routinely delivered a version of the news which did not live up to the standards of democracy by keeping the electorate well-informed. He took great pains to say that he as a journalist was apologizing only for himself, and not for all journalists.
I don’t need to recap the whole speech verbatim. You’ve should have a pretty fair idea of what went down from the thumbnail sketch, I’ve just given you. Will ended his editorial by saying, We’ll be back after this with the news. In real television that would usually be a lead in for a commercial break. Only this time we didn’t get a commercial.
What we got was a darkened board room. There was a Power Point presentation on-screen. News Night Performance Analysis April-November 2010. The guy giving the presentation says, “It would be accurate to say that it started with his on air apology.” Charley Skinner asks, Pardon me, it would be accurate to say what started?
They didn’t tell us in so many words, and if you blinked you might have missed the header on that analysis chart, but this was a meeting that was taking place at least 7 months later. It wasn’t so much of a full board meeting as there were just three main players, Reese, Charlie Skinner, and a woman who just listened for a while.
What was it really? It was Charlie Skinner being called in on the carpet by his bosses and being asked to explain the loss of ratings/revenue. Remember in last week’s show, that both Charlie Skinner and Will McAvoy met with Reese, who I called ‘the ratings guy’. Well, it turns out that Reese is much more than that.
Reese is the fucking president of the company. He reports to just one person, the CEO. And that would be Leona Lansing played by Jane Fonda. Reese and Charley have never gotten along. This is going to be brutal. We don’t know if Charley is fighting for his own survival, or just that of Will and Mackenzie, or all of the above.
Reese: [referencing the apology] Was he aware that he had gone on television and said that everything his network had done up to that point was trash?
Charley: I think he was fully aware of what he said, and that he aware he was on television when he said it, and he also took responsibility for himself, and not the network or the company. What are we talking about?
Okay, while this is just the first of several scenes in that board room, we now have the ground work of how this episode will play out. Over the course of this episode, we will see some of what happened the rest of the spring and summer of 2010, Will and Mackenzie and the News Night staff will tackle many new stories. We, the audience will also have some inside looks at the personal lives of a number of the shows staff. All of this will done via a flash forward and flashback process taking us back to this board room again and again.
You know one minute it is a news broadcast in May 2010, then we jump ahead to that meeting. Then we’re back to June 2010 to meet some of Will’s dates as well as other news stories. Then they cut back to that meeting, and so forth repeated multiple times. It is kind of tricky, and requires you to pay attention.
Well it is now right after Will’s apology broadcast. Don comes into Jim Harper’s office. He’s kind of drunk and he says that he saw Will’s show in a bar, and he admits to being ‘overserved’ but he has a question for Jim, “How much did you have to do with writing that opening tonight?” Jim deflects the question – it was something that Will wanted to do…
Don says that he’d love to have been a part of that. Jim replies that he can still do it (on Don’s 10:00 o’clock show). Jim says he has a mandate to bring viewers to 10:00 o’clock. If I don’t, they’ll bring someone else in until it someone does. Jim says, You can do it… Don interrupts… You guys just set me up to look like an asshole before I even started… Jim – that wasn’t the intent. Don leaves and bumps into Maggie. “That’s what you were reading on your Blackberry, right? Maggie is slightly flustered or embarrassed. She says, ” Yes…It said it was eyes only, Baby… Don – I’ve got eyes and he walks off.
Back up on the 44th floor, Charley is still being grilled. The guy with the Power Point presentation says, The Apology was a Monday. The following Saturday was the Times Square bombing [JMM: prevented of course]. We had all the facts by Tuesday. This is the kind of story that makes people want to turn on the news. So you want to take advantage of it…
Reese: [playing his card]That’s News 101 right?
Charlie: What is this meeting?
Reese: [pressing for an answer] Is it News 101?
Charlie: [highly indignant] To artificially hype the threat of a bomb? You’re confusing it with Douche-Baggery 101.
Charlie doesn’t quite get it. His neck is being readied to receive an ax. He fights on, without really understanding that the cards are stacked against him. Reese instructs his man to continue.
By comparison, CBS News opened their show with Katie reporting from Times Square, while News Night gave it three minutes and 20 seconds, saying that there nothing to be concerned about…only referencing that one of the people involved with reporting it to the police was a Muslim
Reese: That’s called squandering an opportunity [The implication is that Will and crew dropped the ball on that story].
This is the lead in for the flashback to how News Night handled the story. The Muslim is being discussed. Mackenzie asks, How come we’ve not heard about him? Maggie replies, Two reasons – One – He didn’t make the call. Turns out that the his involvement was that he was the one who alerted Lance Orton who then called the police. This Muslim was a Senegalese street vendor whose English wasn’t that good, and that he had no credits left on his phone, so he alerted Lance.
Mackenzie says, What was the second reason? Maggie – He’s a Muslim. The room goes silent. Mackenzie asks Maggie where she got that story. From a Pakistani blog. “Not the most trustworthy source.” says Will. Maggie says, “I know, so I confirmed it with the NYPD, and it’s true. The Times of London has it online, so I think that if the religion of the bomber is important, so is the religion of the guy who saved everyone’s lives.”
After a lengthy pause, Will says, “So do I‘. Mackenzie says, “Okay three twenty [instead of just three minutes] at the top.
Back to the 44th Floor Charlie is still being grilled about the lost viewers and lowered ratings. Reese has another angle to insert. “Wasn’t it about this time that Will had an epiphany about the Tea Party?”
Next we have a flashback. Will is in Charlie’s office talking about that. Will says that he’s been up since 2:00 AM going over some polling data from the Republican Primary race in Utah. Somebody faxed me the data, I don’t know who, but it doesn’t matter.
Will feels that this one candidate (Mike Lee) for the Republican Senatorial seat has taken a position even more to the right than the incumbent Bob Bennett. Charlie says how is that even possible. Will then gives us a lengthy history lesson going back to 1968, the SDS, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, the yippie’s protest, yadda yadda. In short – the beginnings of the Progressive movement which would last 40 years.
It is pure Sorkin, grandstanding again, tossing us opinion, facts, mythology, and suppositions all in one speech. Charlie listens, occasionally tossing a question back to Will.
Anyway, Will leads us to the promised land – he claims that The Tea Party is the grandchild of the Yippies – only it has been co-opted by The Republican Radical Right – which as it turns out, in Will’s opinion, is BIG BUSINESS. Will states “The Tea Party is being hijacked right in front of our eyes in real-time. We should be scared shitless. How is this not our lead story every night?”
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