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Was the Second Season of ‘The Newsroom’ Better Off Following a Fictional Story Than Real Ones?

Was the Second Season of 'The Newsroom' Better Off Following a Fictional Story Than Real Ones?

The second season of Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama “The Newsroom,” which wrapped last night with an episode entitled “Election Night, Part II,” continued to weave in the real news stories the show has used as guideposts along its rerunning of recent history — the Mitt Romney campaign, the execution of Troy Davis, the Trayvon Martin shooting and, most crankily, the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement. But this season the series took as its backbone a fictional story (inspired by fact) — that of Operation Genoa. It’s one the “News Night” team followed, researched, built up and finally reported on — a blockbuster report about a rescue mission that supposedly involved U.S. use of sarin gas on a village full of civilians in Afghanistan, but that turned out to be false. It was, as “The Newsroom” so often is, a combination of smart and exasperating, a plot that showcased how the series could explore the process and ethics of good journalism, combined with some histrionic personal drama.

“The Newsroom” has been a better show in its second season, one that less often transparently uses its characters as mouthpieces for Sorkin’s Feelings on Contemporary Life and Media (though there were a few doozies, especially in “News Night with Will McAvoy,” with its thoughts on exaggerated feminist outrage). This year, the show even allowed some nuance into its ideas about the right way to go about coverage in an era where that’s increasingly complicated. Jim’s (John Gallagher, Jr.) frustrated speechifying about the way riding on the Romney campaign bus meant agreeing to play by the rules in terms of access, for instance, got him and two colleagues who couldn’t afford it kicked off. Don (Thomas Sadoski) was able to do nothing to save Davis in the last minutes.

And the team not unreasonably underestimated and mocked OWS in its early stages, though Will’s (Jeff Daniels) trampling all over Shelly Wexler (Aya Cash) in an interview in order to make himself look more fair and balanced seemed an expression of pure, curmudgeonly frustration from the show’s creator about a movement that refused to make itself more media friendly by being easily categorized. (That the series never returned to the storyline as the effort gained momentum made the treatment seem a little more thin, too.) The 2012 presidential campaign was, in a welcome way, allowed to serve as a backdrop for the final episodes rather than the focus, enabling some entertaining back-and-forth between Will and Taylor Warren (Constance Zimmer) during the live coverage. And it’s as backgrounds or markers of time that these actual news events have been better served, rather than as a way for the series to, with the comfortable benefit of hindsight, show how they should have been reported. It’s seemed more like a drama and less like a platform this year.

But “The Newsroom” was increasingly about Genoa as it neared its end, and Genoa was riveting until it was ridiculous. What was insane about Genoa were its origins — it was a strategically falsified story about a violation of the Geneva Protocol by U.S. Marines not because of some political machinations or inter-agency power play or misplaced desire to steer media conversation toward chemical weapons use (which would have made the series accidentally timely). No, it was created and given to “News Night” because Shep Pressman (Frank Wood), Charlie’s (Sam Waterston) D.C. contact, blamed him for the death of his son because they fired him from his internship. Shep falsified a document and legitimized the story separately to Charlie and to Will out of revenge for not keeping his recovering addict son on board after he broke company rules, for not doing him the solid of letting the kid slip. So, not only was the reason behind the faked story conspiracy ludicrously narrow and personal, it was also unfair. The “News Night” team did the right thing, because they always do the right thing. It’s one of the show’s worst qualities.

“The Newsroom” isn’t “Breaking Bad” or even “Scandal” — its characters aren’t morally ambiguous, they’re struggling but shining examples of journalistic good in a murky world. And that’s fine. Not every cable drama has to take the questionable protagonist approach. Those old school qualities are part of the charm of “The Newsroom,” along with Sorkin’s not-so-secret cheeseball side, with Will and Mac (Emily Mortimer) getting engaged in last night’s finale after bickering their way through chaste romantic tension for two seasons and Sloan (Olivia Munn) planting a kiss on Don after figuring out he bought her boring academic book at the charity auction. (Jim and Alison Pill’s tiresome Maggie were fortunately spared their own moment, with Maggie instead reuniting in friendship with roomie and former love triangle rival Lisa.)

But “The Newsroom” remains so afraid to tarnish its characters that even when it centered itself on a storyline about their making legitimate mistakes, like the Genoa one, it filtered the process through two wild-eyed villains — Shep and Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater), the D.C. producer who fudged the interview at the heart of the story. Jerry, who was brought in to replace Jim after he fled to New Hampshire to escape heartbreak over Maggie, is the outside force who pushed for Genoa to happen and who insisted, when there was reluctance from the others, that they were too in love with the current administration to look at its actions critically. He’s not one of the golden team, of which he has been acutely aware throughout the season, but then he went ahead and proved himself not one of them by editing the raw footage of the key interview with General Stomtonovich (Stephen Root) so that it sounded like the man was saying what he needed him to say — that sarin gas was used. It was a major break with journalistic ethics, compounded by Jerry’s nasty lawsuit that provides the framing story, in which he claims he was unfairly fired for his breach.

Mistakes do get made in journalism, even by Will McAvoy, and “The Newsroom” did manage to do a few very worthy things this season in its treatment of that fact. It demonstrated how the process of reporting a difficult story like Genoa would work, and how errors can get made even by the most responsible of reporters, with Mac leading her interviewee into giving answers he wasn’t really able to confirm, Neal (Dev Patel) taking the sudden silence of a Twitter feed in the wrong way and, in an earlier incident, Maggie hastily cutting an audio clip of the George Zimmerman 911 call in a way that suggested he volunteered information that was specifically asked of him. And it demonstrated how an outlet can respond to those mistakes in a conscientious fashion, whether in the team’s decision to play the call audio out in its entirety to make up for potentially manipulative editing or by retracting the Genoa story and issue a legitimate mea culpa and correction as soon as the problems with the sources became clear.

Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda) swooping in, high, to giddily refuse to let anyone resign was amusing, but also a somewhat odd, hurried ending to a slightly abbreviated season. If “The Newsroom” comes back for a third round, something Jeff Daniels tweeted was happening and HBO will not yet confirm, it’s set itself up to do so with the “News Night” team to dig themselves out of another hole. Even with its flaws, the Genoa plot line suggests the show’s better and less strident when it isn’t obligated to stick so close to the actual timeline and when it submerges itself in a story we don’t already know the ending to because it actually happened.

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