The Newsroom returns for its third season next month, looking to arrest a ratings slump that set in over the course of the last season and ended with the season two finale pulling almost one million fewer US viewers than the finale of 2012’s opening season (1.9 million v 2.8 million).
The reason for the sliding numbers isn’t really a fault with the show. It’s a reflection of the way we see politicians and the media — and how much that has changed during the last 15 years.
While there have been various complaints about The Newsroom, it’s scenes like the one in episode “Red Team III” featuring the Jane Fonda as Leona Lansing, the CEO of Atlantis World Media, that stretches belief. In it, Lansing tells the heads of her struggling news division that not only will she will not accept their resignations after they slander the United States Marine Corps, but that she is proud of their work. It’s all a bit much.
That’s not as obvious a statement as it might appear. After all, that kind of “I know you made my job hell, but you’re doing the right thing and I’m the kind of morally upstanding leader this country needs” shtick is what The West Wing (1999-2006) was built on, and everyone loved that.
It appears then that Aaron Sorkin hasn’t changed a great deal since he wrote his last line of Jed Bartlet dialogue in 2003. But we have.
To understand why The Newsroom is failing we first need to understand why The West Wing was a success. The differences between the two shows created by Sorkin are not so much internal, as about the world at the time were created and public attitudes to their subject matter.
In 1999, when season one of The West Wing aired, nearly half the American public approved of the job being done by Congress. President Bill Clinton, after dipping to the low personal approval rating in the 40% range, hit an all-time high approval of 73% in early 1999. In a Gallup poll taken on April 13 and 14 that year, 45% of respondents said they viewed Congress favourably, which was close to the record highs of mid-1998.
Congressional approval numbers through 1998 and 1999 were higher than at any time since Gallup started polling in May of 1972, and if you discard the outlier of 84% approval in the wake of September 11, they are still the highest numbers ever recorded.
Into this Democratic love-fest strode Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, a literary, intellectual president who took a nuanced approach to complex international issues, never reached for military solutions without exhausting diplomatic channels and let his daughter date a black guy. He was everything that progressives wanted a president to be, but crucially, he seemed to set a standard that was vaguely achievable.
Would the same show, released now, be met with the same acclaim given current US congressional approval ratings? Congress hit single digits in November 2013, while more Americans approved of polygamy (11%) and porn (30%).
President Barack Obama is rapidly approaching approval levels only ever achieved by the post-Watergate Nixon, Bush Sr. after Desert Storm, and Bush Jr. during his second term. Today’s politically interested young people can barely imagine a congressional/presidential relationship that operates effectively, let alone one that might allow a majestic creature in the mould of Jed Bartlet to exist.
The Newsroom is currently learning this lesson the hard way. Although journalists have always been rated somewhere between used car salesmen and people who are fond of king-hitting in the public trust rankings, in recent years they (perhaps I should say we — I have a minor administrative position in a large Melbourne newsroom which isn’t Crikey) have, as an industry, plumbed new depths in the public’s estimation.
In the US — where the statistics are far more comprehensive than here but are generally mirrored by general attitudes in this country — trust in the media hit an all-time low in 2012, with only 40% of people expressing a “great deal” or “fair amount” of faith in the accuracy of mass media coverage. Dig deeper into that number, however, and you find that only one in four Republicans expressed the same sentiment, while 60% of the total population thought that mass media coverage was skewed too far to the Left or Right, with only 36% believing that coverage was generally unbiased.
The Newsroom asks viewers to believe that a contemporary, mainstream news organisation could choose to ignore stories that were attracting a lot of attention because they were not newsworthy, and instead broadcast stories that had actual consequences for public policy.
It requires viewers believe that the corporate side of a massive media business could be held at bay while changes that are expected to lose viewers are made in the name of journalistic integrity. It’s not that we don’t want news networks to operate like this, just that we don’t believe they do.
If The Newsroom wants to win back our cynical eyeballs it needs to lower its sights and come back to reality.
Maybe Neal Sampat — the resident 20-something who runs the newsroom’s website — could pitch a story entitled “42 Times Chrissy Teigen Was The Realest On Social Media” in a story conference.
If it’s good enough for BuzzFeed why shouldn’t it be good enough for ACN?
*This article was originally published at Daily Review