Why can't journalism be more like TV?

Last updated 05:00 26/10/2012
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MORE OF THIS: Why can't real journalists be as enthralling as those in Newsroom?

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Chris Trotter

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OPINION: The first season of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom has just ended.

Like its predecessor, The West Wing, Sorkin's latest offering shows the United States as it should be by taking for its subject matter the US as it is.

The question Sorkin expects his viewers to ask at the end of his shows is: "Why can't real life be like this?"

Why, for example, can't the producers of our nightly current affairs shows provide us with the sort of searing interrogation of newsmakers that the fictional viewers of News Night regularly witness?

Why have Television New Zealand and TV3 been unable to find an anchor-man like Will McAvoy, the strongly principled, fearsomely intelligent, yet politically conservative journalist who heroically refuses to "dumb down" his show for the sake of the ratings?

Why, Sorkin wants us to ask, are our own newsrooms not populated with the sort of young journalists who set News Night's newsroom afire with their idealism and an absolute determination to uncover and broadcast "the truth"?

What about the characters Sorkin places further up the hierarchy of his fictional Atlantis Cable News? What about Charlie Skinner, president of ACN's news division, or Leona Lansing, chief executive of the network's parent corporation, Atlantis World Media?

Without the backing of these two, neither McAvoy's journalistic integrity, nor the crusading zeal of his "EP" (executive producer), MacKenzie McHale, could have made it to air. What about them?

It's a formidable skill Sorkin possesses – this ability to hold up the real against the ideal and make us rue how little the former resembles the latter.

Why weren't the all-too-real Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama more like Sorkin's fictional president, Jed Bartlett?

Why can't real journalists be as enthralling as those in Newsroom?

Well, as MacKenzie McHale tells McAvoy in the pilot episode, "We could be"; "We were once".

Sorkin's hard-drinking, bowtie-wearing Charlie Skinner and the hard-nosed Leona Lansing closely resemble the two pivotal characters in that greatest of all US news stories, Watergate.

Not the two journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who broke the story, but Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and the Post's publisher, Katharine Graham.

They were the ones who gave Woodward and Bernstein the time, the resources and, most importantly, the backing, to tell the Watergate story. The sort of journalism Sorkin champions in The Newsroom is possible. It has happened. It's history.

Nor is it fanciful to claim that high principle, fearsome intelligence and conservative politics can be combined in a single newsman.

I know they can, because I used to work for just such a person.

His name was Warren Berryman and he was the founding editor of the weekly business newspaper, The Independent.

Berryman loved free-market capitalism and he was the implacable foe of anyone who brought it into disrepute.

What is more, if you had "a good yarn", Berryman didn't give a damn what your political leanings were. It was the story that mattered.

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Although he may not always deliver the scintillating dialogue which Sorkin puts into the mouth of McAvoy, our own John Campbell regularly presents TV3's viewers with the sort of fearless advocacy journalism that makes The Newsroom such compelling viewing.

Not forgetting Pip Keane, Campbell Live's MacKenzie McHale; or TV3's Charlie Skinner, that indefatigable champion of his network's news and current affairs, Mark Jennings.

It might be stretching a point to call them young, but the very real New Zealand investigative journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson are every bit as committed to uncovering the truth as The Newsroom's idealistic staffers.

Elaborating the ideal, revealing its meaning and presence in our daily lives has always been the duty of the artist.

However, we should never forget the crucial role reality plays in shaping the artist's vision of a better world.

Truth is not only stranger than fiction – it's more inspiring.

- The Dominion Post

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