The Newsroom and my faith in democracy

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As if in a vicarious celebration of our daughter’s first day back to school today, last night my husband and I camped out on the couch and watched about 4 straight hours of television.  I realize that for many Americans, that’s not really saying much out of the ordinary, but it’s quite a lot for us, especially outside of football season.

Mostly we were catching up on the new HBO drama, The Newsroom.  This new series by Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing, imagines a news show on a cable television network that veers from the current direction of American media towards the days of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite–real journalism, you know.  The kind of journalism that helped end the Vietnam War and defeat McCarthyism.  The kind of journalism that made a difference.

We had already watched the first three episodes, and then we had to stop.  One of the first items on the plucky team’s agenda is to go after the Tea Party, mercilessly unpacking their network of supporters and financial backing.  And then they exposed fellow “journalists” on networks like Fox News who lie about things like how much President Obama spent on his trip to India.

One of the interesting things about The Newsroom is that it starts two years ago, in 2010.  This means that the news team is covering old stories, but real stories.  Now, I’ve written before about my almost complete boycott of any kind of news, so it’s interesting for me to watch The Newsroom and discover things that happened two years ago of which I was completely unaware.  That Fox News did stories about President Obama spending half a million dollars a day on his trip to India was news to me.

We stopped after the third episode because the truth of what they were reporting on the fictional show was just too upsetting.  Watching right before we went to bed was not a good idea; it’s hard to sleep in a state of simmering rage at the condition of the world.  This is precisely the reason that I pay no longer pay any attention to the news.

Thankfully, the show has subsequently moved on more to focus on the relationships among the characters, with the general crappiness of the world as a kind of backdrop, a formula that has done Aaron Sorkin well in the past.  My husband and I are big fans of The West Wing, but watching The Newsroom made me realize how very much the world has changed in the intervening years between the end of The West Wing and the start of The Newsroom.

In The West Wing, the liberals were largely the good guys.  But the conservatives were not necessarily bad.  They were, like the folks on the other side of the aisle, well-intentioned public servants whose point of view just happened to differ from those of President Barlett and his staff.  In some ways, almost everyone on The West Wing was a good guy.  Now try to imagine a version of The West Wing that includes the Tea Party…

Aaron Sorkin is a great television writer and producer, but I wonder if he’s naive in a way that no longer fits the character of our times.  The days of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Kronkite are gone, and they’ll never come back, because there are no longer any media outlets that are shared by the whole of the country.  If you are liberal, you read The New York Times and watch The Daily Show.  If you are conservative, you watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh.  And these different media outlets might as well be reporting on two completely different dimensions of reality for as much as their coverage and what they assume to be “facts” correspond.

Now, even though I don’t actually watch The Daily Show or read The New York Times, I stand firmly on the liberal side of the line.  And liberal in the old sense of the word, as opposed to the new sense, in which someone is liberal if they don’t believe that we should completely dismantle all forms of government.   So I believe that The New York Times by and large reports the facts and that The Daily Show is not just an instrument of propaganda.  But I know, largely from conversations with my father, that the other side has their own set of facts which they believe, even though those facts appear to me to be some of the most ridiculous and heinous lies I’ve ever heard.

As an academic, I can sigh and point to all of this as merely an indication of our postmodern condition.  There really is no truth anymore, assuming there ever was.  The facts are always contingent, subject to manipulation.  And so of course, journalism is always nothing but propaganda because there is no big Truth out there to report.  Sorkin’s vision of The Newsroom is a pipe dream.  His anchor may be a registered Republican, but he’s not fooling anybody.  He’s still just another mouthpiece for the liberal media conspiracy, just as Sorkin himself is.

But I think there’s something different about our political conversations today.  Surely in the past, our opinions differed.  We could all agree that poverty exists.  We just had different ideas on what to do about it.  And those disagreements could be passionate and messy, but at least we had the common ground of what exactly it was we were arguing about, in part because there was a national media which helped to shape those arguments, rather than the fragmented cacophony of voices screaming in our heads that passes for news today.  It seems the goal of news organizations today is not to present the facts, or even to present opposing opinions about the facts, but rather to convince you that everyone who does not share your view of reality is stupid, misguided, dangerous, and worst of all, evil.

When our argument shifts from the territory of opinion to the territory of facts, I think perhaps we’ve lost something crucial to the functioning of democracy.  Democracy needs reasoned arguments based on some kind of common ground in order to function.  An argument, ironically, is a cooperative endeavor. And if you can’t cooperate, you really can’t argue.  And if you can’t argue, you can’t be a democracy.

Maybe I’m wrong.  I hope I’m wrong. I hope that this is just an ugly blip in our political history, or just another sign of me becoming the cranky old woman who rambles on about how everything was different back in her day.  But if I’m right, and we’ve lost the ability to have a rational and civil argument, than we’re in trouble.  And that’s a problem that even Aaron Sorkin can’t fix.

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