Working on a 24-hour news channel is a bit like working on the railways in the age of steam. All eyes are focused on whistling across the country at great speed, making quick stops at key stations along the way.
The furnace must constantly be stoked with dtls and two-ways, pictures and packages – television jargon for live interviews and reports – or the whole train risks grinding to a halt.
Sometimes the journey is enlightening, exciting even, but it can be frustrating and on occasion, utterly pointless. It has even been known for the news train to set off in the wrong direction altogether, but it usually manages, somehow, to stay on track.
I spent ten years on the “railways”, in my case the BBC News Channel, and like most big newsrooms, it was busy, noisy and fairly chaotic. It was also careful and thoughtful about how it covered news but forget the lofty ideals, staying on air is what counts.
As one former colleague wryly put it one night: “It’s like a like a runaway train. And it’s our job to stop it crashing.”
Not exactly a comforting thought to share with your co-presenter, but true nonetheless.
However, enough of life on the news railway, allow me to transport you (sorry) to a far more glamorous setting, and one that’s probably a lot more familiar, too.
Yes, I mean the wise-cracking, fast-talking smart Alecs who inhabit the newsrooms of my imagination still, and all the best films.
It’s been a while since we’ve had a glossy glimpse of life in a fictional newsroom and I had high hopes for the new HBO drama, the Newsroom. Written by the West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, it promised dazzling dialogue and snappy plots but it has already caused a bit of ripple in the States. Putting it bluntly, it has been panned. So, what’s the problem?
Well for a start, some TV journalists, on both sides of the Atlantic, have taken it as a personal attack on what they do. It’s been described as preachy, posturing, sexist and best of all, “liberalism in a box”. For obvious reasons, I had to tune in.
The action revolves around former war reporter MacKenzie McHale – we know she’s got integrity because she’s been shot at in three different countries – and disillusioned news presenter, Will McAvoy. He’s a big shot “anchor” going through some inner turmoil. She’s been brought in to rescue his show and the ratings after he has a public meltdown.
After a bit of prodding from her, “Let’s reclaim journalism as an honourable profession!”, the pair bicker and argue on air with a big, breaking news story. The drama uses the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to make its point – this is a newsroom that has stopped caring.
When the first news wire story snaps on Associated Press, it’s dismissed – something that definitely wouldn’t happen in a real newsroom. But one keen producer gets a call. Suddenly there’s talk of sources, booking geologists and, lo and behold, they’ve established what’s happened within minutes of it happening.
I worked on the story from the comfort of a newsroom, and it just didn’t happen like that. It was complicated, news dribbled out and BP remained tight-lipped.
Yet our jaded news anchor is able to take “British Petroleum” and Haliburton to task so quickly, I’m surprised he didn’t have a nose bleed.
The reviews were right, it is preachy. It’s also unrealistic. I can just about take the bored news team, the drunken managing editor and even the smoking in the office but the sermonising main characters are a big turn-off.
But then again, we’re talking about an American newsroom. The fair, balanced, accurate reporting which is the norm here, isn’t guaranteed on all the US news channels.
The Newsroom is I suppose, a well-intentioned pop at journalists everywhere, a gentle prod at the conscience. It’s also a love letter to the past, before breaking news and the internet but the central dilemma – can TV news be good and popular – rings hollow. There’s no doubt in my mind that it can.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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