NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. television news has become as predictably sensational as reality shows, while journalism in general is failing democracy and its crucial role in intelligently informing the public.
That's the message behind a reimagining of what the news could and should be as shown in writer Aaron Sorkin's idealistic new show, "The Newsroom," which premieres on cable channel HBO on Sunday.
Just as Sorkin's "The West Wing" romanticized Washington politics, "The Newsroom" finds optimism in the very industry whose flaws it seeks to expose.
It stars Jeff Daniels as a cynical, middle-aged TV anchorman who shoots for high ratings through pleasing stories before teaming up with his producer ex-girlfriend, played by Emily Mortimer. Together they shake up his nightly news show in an attempt at "reclaiming the Fourth Estate. Reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession."
Mortimer's character informs the young staff members in an early episode that: "We don't do good television, we do the news," while Daniels apologizes on air for recent wrongdoings including miscalculating election results, hyping up terror threats and failing to keep watch on the financial industry.
Driving home what he sees as journalism's current failures, Sorkin uses real news events in his story lines to highlight failings of how events were actually covered. They include taking too long to recognize the huge environmental disaster of the 2010 BP oil spill and exaggerating the 2010 Times Square bomb threat.
"Everything is hyped up to such a loud volume, because they are not doing the news anymore, they are doing reality TV. And they badly want to get you involved with the ongoing story of Casey Anthony or the ongoing story of this person who was mean to that person," Sorkin told Reuters in an interview.
News shows, he added, "have, in a lot of cases, all but abdicated their responsibility to a democracy to inform the electorate."
The 51-year-old Emmy- and Oscar-winning writer extends his criticism to journalism as a whole and how the quest for balance and objectivity has meant that, at times, media outlets have failed to point out the facts. They are, in the words of Will McAvoy, the anchorman played by Daniels, "biased towards fairness."
McAvoy laments in one early episode that for example, if Republicans introduced a bill saying the earth was flat, newspapers would lead the story by saying that both major parties could not agree on the shape of the earth.
"It was that relevant, timely, smart attack to try to look at an industry that needs to tell the truth," Daniels said in explaining why he took the role. "He (Sorkin) opens up a mirror to a lot of different factions in this country."
In an opening monologue in the pilot episode that is an homage to "Network," the 1976 movie satire on the news business, McAvoy uncharacteristically explodes in a tirade against America's lost standing in the world, and criticizes the polarization of American politics as well as cable TV news.
"You can speak to your base and you can spend some time on air ripping into it and you will make your base happy and they will keep buying the products of the people, of the companies who advertise with you. It's all money," Daniels said.
In Sorkin's more ideal newsroom world, Mortimer's character promises just "the facts," while Daniels' McAvoy takes up his new crusade to point out what he sees as hypocrisies in Arizona's immigration law and the Tea Party movement, while taking a potshot at Sarah Palin and other conservative critics of the "media elite."
Sorkin, who won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for "The Social Network," the story of Facebook, is often criticized by U.S. conservatives. He said he knows "there are many on the right who will quickly jump to a conclusion that this will be a lot of Hollywood liberal hogwash. I hope they give the show a chance."
A bigger obstacle to the show's success may be that, according to some early reviews, it goes downhill after the pilot episode. "If the storytelling were more confident, it could take a breath and deliver drama, not just talking points," observed The New Yorker.
Sorkin said the characters, who include a chief executive played by Jane Fonda - once married to CNN founder Ted Turner - are not based on any real-life news figures.
"This is an idealistic, romantic, very optimistic, look at television in general and the news in particular," he said. "I can only write the way I write. So, there is an authorial voice to these things."
Reporting by Christine Kearney, Editing by Jill Serjeant and Eric Walsh