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The Mad Profit of the Airwaves

Alex Epstein seems to sum up the verdict of many when he writes:

I'm having trouble with The Newsroom. Dear friends of mine love the show. And yet I find it to be a pompous show about people whose jobs are not really that important.
For those unfamiliar with the show, The Newsroom is Aaron Sorkin's latest "behind the scenes" drama, this one involving a cast of characters behind the scenes at a fictitious news program on a fictitious 24-hour news station. Politically, the show is very much like a dramatic adaptation of the Hutchins Report; The Newsroom loudly and consistently espouses the ideal of the media as The Fourth Estate. In order to answer one of Epstein's main charges, then--that the show is about people "whose jobs are not really that important"--we'd have to ask whether (and why) the fourth estate is important.

The idea that the media is--or rather, that it ought to be--the "fourth estate" entails a couple of interrelated claims. First, the idea makes no sense outside of the context of some kind of democratic society; in Hitler's Germany, for example, the media was a direct brach of government and part of the propaganda machine of the Thiird Reich. The ideal of the media as Fourth Estate draws, in America, upon pre-existing ideas of the three branches of government and the checks-and-balances between them; the media is "fourth" after these three, and it is an "estate" rather than a "branch" inasmuch as it not supposed to wield direct power, but instead is supposed to serve to help We The People keep our elected representatives honest. The Fourth Estate model presents the media as the "watchdogs" of government. Notice too, then, that the Fourth Estate model must presuppose the separation of "the government" and "We The People": it helps "us" keep "them" honest. And so we could say that the "Fourth Estate model" makes the most sense within the context of not just any democratic society, but more specifically within the context of a representational democracy (such as we find in almost every current "democratic" country in the world).

It is within the context of a representational democracy that the Fourth Estate model of media makes sense; but, even granting this context, why and to what extent is it important? There are two major reasons for this importance. The first, as alluded to above, is to keep representatives honest and responsive to those who elected them. In this sense, the Fourth Estate is a piece of management technology: it allows the "principles" (We The People) to keep tabs on their "agents" (our Congressional representatives, the President, etc.). Thus, the goal of the Fourth Estate is absolute transparency of government and the civil arena; it is drawing on this understanding of the media-as-Fourth-Estate that the idea of "the people's right to know" is espoused. We can only hold our representatives accountable if we know what they are up to; thus, the media plays a vital role in reporting back to us what our representatives are doing. This is the whole point of something like C-SPAN: we get not only the announced results of government debates and votes, but we actually get to see the process and hear who says what. When House Speaker John Boehner cut the C-SPAN feed during a debate last December, it was a vivid reminder of not just why C-SPAN exists, but also just how potentially powerful the Fourth Estate can be simply as a tool of transparency.

There is a second way in which the Fourth Estate is important, however, and it is indirectly raised by the example of C-SPAN: how often do you find yourself watching C-SPAN? And for how long? I am not just digging at the tired claim that programming on C-SPAN is "boring"--as if it is our MTv-addled, ADHD generation that is to blame for the sorry state of political education today. Rather, my point is that, in order to keep up with all national events of any importance at all, you'd need to not only watch C-SPAN almost all day, but you'd need to simultaneously be watching both (and sometimes all three) C-SPAN channels, as well as reading the Reuters feed, keeping tabs on local and state politics, etc., etc., etc. In order to be effective citizens, we'd need to both keep abreast of what our representatives are doing and stay up-to-date on matters of both national and international importance, such that we know what to ask our representatives to do, and what to hold them accountable for. In order to be effective as the Fourth Estate, then, the media must take on an educational role: it must not only let us know what our representatives are doing, but it must also bring to our attention matters of relevant public interest and set those matters within a context that gives them meaning. (And here, of course, I am practically quoting the Hutchins Report.) This is what is at stake when people talk about an "informed electorate"; the idea is that, without a properly-functioning Fourth Estate, We The People will not know and understand the things we need to know and understand in order to make decisions. Democracy is impossible without a voting populace able to voice its interests and concerns; but choices made on the basis of limited or incorrect information are antithetical to the very ideal of democracy.

The Fourth Estate is important, then, inasmuch as it is necessary to the proper functioning of a representational democracy. I take it, then, that anybody who believes that democracy is important will then believe that the media's role as Fourth Estate is important. To that extent, I think we have answered Epstein's main charge. The other part of his accusation, however, is more interesting still: is The Newsroom a "pompous" show? There is a certain amount of ambiguity in the claim, so let us take it in two different senses.

First, one could claim that The Newsroom is a show full of pompous people. This, of course, is not enough to make it a "pompous show"--many great comedies are also full of pompous people, but are not pompous themselves inasmuch as the whole point of the comedy is to "take down" these pompous characters; I think of many British sitcoms, e.g. The Office. Let us add, then, that The Newsroom presents us with a bunch of pompous characters in a way that sides with these characters; essentially, the show says "these characters are right." This claim is interesting to me inasmuch as there is something unabashedly elitist at the heart of the Fourth Estate model of media. In an early episode of The Newsroom, Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) says, "We're the media elite." This moment is given not as a setup for a fall, nor as a moment of hubris, but as the banner behind which the main characters of the series will rally: Daniels's McAvoy and Emily Mortimer's MacKenzie McHale are presented as elites, and the rest of the cast follows them because of their superiority--both professional and ethical. To see how this elitism is rooted in the ideals of the Fourth Estate itself, just look at the difference between the first and second reasons I laid out above: like C-SPAN, the media can make government transparent passively, without any independent judgment calls. All that is required for transparency is a media staffed by people who will not rest until all civil structures of power are made transparent. The second role, however, requires a lot of independent judgment on behalf of the media: in order to function properly as the Fourth Estate, the media must be staffed by people able to decide for themselves what is important, what we should care about, and what we need to know in order to understand both the issue and its importance. The "educational" role of the Fourth Estate is thus one of unabashed elitism: journalists are relied upon to be better informed and better educated, in order to chase the right stories and present the right contexts. Furthermore, unlike the three "branches" of government, we do not elect our "media representatives": they are self-appointed (or, at least, peer-appointed) guardians of the public trust, set "above us" in order to better defend "our interests." It therefore strikes me that, to the extent that one believes in the importance of both representational democracy and the media's role as Fourth Estate, one will therefore think that such media elitism is indeed correct! We would expect, therefore, that Sorkin's show, as a defense of the ideals of the media as Fourth Estate, would also side with its "pompous" main characters. (The only difference being, of course, that this elitism would not be called "pompous" by those who believe that these characters really do have important jobs--inasmuch as Epstein cannot see the importance of the Fourth Estate, this elitism would also strike him as pomposity.)

A second version of Epstein's charge, however, migh hold that, over and above the characters themselves, the show The Newsroom itself is "pompous." What, exactly, would this mean? In her review of the show for The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum seems to make just such a claim. She writes:

Sorkin’s shows are the type that people who never watch TV are always claiming are better than anything else on TV. The shows’ air of defiant intellectual superiority is rarely backed up by what’s inside—all those Wagnerian rants, fingers poked in chests, palms slammed on desks, and so on. In fact, “The Newsroom” treats the audience as though we were extremely stupid.
Nussbaum offers several compelling supports for her claim, but essentially it comes down to this: The Newsroom puts drama and genuine character development on the back burner in order to continuously lecture its viewers:

Sorkin’s fantasy is of a cabal of proud, disdainful brainiacs, a “media élite” who swallow accusations of arrogance and shoot them back as lava. But if the storytelling were more confident, it could take a breath and deliver drama, not just talking points. Instead, the deck stays stacked. Whenever McAvoy delivers a speech or slices up a right-winger, the ensemble beams at him, their eyes glowing as if they were cultists. The series turns Will McAvoy into the equivalent of the character Karen Cartwright, on “Smash,” the performer who the show keeps insisting is God’s gift to Broadway. Can you blame me for rooting for McAvoy’s enemies, all those flyover morons, venal bean-counters, sorority girls, and gun-toting bimbos? Like a political party, a TV show is nothing without a loyal opposition.
If I am correct, and Sorkin's show is not just a representation of people who believe in the Fourth Estate model of the media, but is rather itself an assertion of this ideal, then the lecturing aspect of the show makes more sense: if representational democracy cannot function properly without a properly-functioning Fourth Estate media, then the fact that our own media fails in this regard becomes a reason for our own malfunctioning democracy. Sorkin then steps up to present himself and his show as one of those "elites" we so desperately need. This is why Sorkin has chosen a rather surprising tactic: instead of setting his fictional news show to cover fictitious news, The Newsroom is set in the recent past of our real America, covering the news as it should have been covered.

Of course, this same strategy sets up a rather tricky problem for The Newsroom, and this one goes far beyond charges of pomposity and weak character development. Sorkin's diagnosis--and the reason for his championing of the Fourth Estate model--seems to run thus: We do not have a properly-functioning Forth Estate in this country, therefore the electorate is not properly informed. Because we have an ignorant or misinformed electorate, we are making bad electoral decisions and we have a disfunctional democracy. (This, I think, is why so much of Sorkin's focus has been on the "Tea Party"--these seem to be clear-cut cases of misinformed voters making bad decisions.) By offering us, in his fictitious America, a news program that does function as a proper Fourth Estate, however, Sorkin must necessarily put his own claim to the test. If a proper Fourth Estate leads to an informed electorate that makes better decisions, then Sorkin's America should rapidly start to differ from our own. However, the more The Newsroom's America differs from ours, the less it will be able to set itself as the "backseat driver" to our own. (Would Mitt Romney still win the Republican primary in a Better Informed America? Would he still even run? And, if not, then how will The Newsroom be able to show us how the 2012 elections "should have been covered"?) In order to keep setting his show in the real-news-events of our recent past, however, Sorkin's America will have to keep making the same decisions as the real America; and the more this happens, the more Sorkin's basic thesis is undermined. For if a Better Informed America is not making vastly different decisions from the Real America, despite the presence of a properly-functioning Fourth Estate, then the Fourth Estate will turn out to be not so important after all, a false concern or an inadequate explanation for the problems of democracy. Note, too, that the one explanation The Newsroom cannot appeal to is, "Well, we offered the information, but nobody listened." This would again be a way of saying that the Fourth Estate is not so important--instead, stupid American voters are blamed for their own stupidity, a conservative view against which The Newsroom has already (rightly) set itself in opposition.

Instead, The Newsroom is already appealing to a different solution: the properly-functioning Fourth Estate news show run by Will McAvoy and MacKenzie McHale is running up against the powerful interests of money. As far as this goes, The Newsroom is adding Chomsky and Herman to their dramatizing of Hutchins and William S. Paley; The Newsroom is providing us with a dramatization of how honest journalists are foiled--and, in some cases, co-opted--by the financial elites who own and run the large media corporations. In as far as this goes, The Newsroom is still providing a nice educational resource: we get to see played out before us what happens when a couple of big journalists try to do their jobs honestly. That said, we are left in the end with two major problems.

First, inasmuch as the wealthy owners of media corporations, wealthy advertisers, and entrenched political elites are able to prevent McAvoy's news show from playing its proper role as the Fourth Estate, we are being told that it's not actually the media's fault that the media is broken. Here too, then, the Fourth Estate is not actually (at least directly) the answer: we don't simply have a disfunctional democracy because we don't have a properly-functioning Fourth Estate, we have a disfunctional democracy (and a disfunctional media) because the financial and political elite are invested in keeping it that way (and profiting handsomely off of the status quo). Sorkin then stands rightly accused of making the wrong argument: we don't fix democracy by trying to fix the media, we fix both by wresting power away from the financial and political elite. Whether this can be done without revolution is a debate I leave to the reader; at the very least, however, it is not something you can fix by simply getting more ethical journalists.

Second, by focusing on the doomed exploits of a cast of journalist with the very best intentions, the very best scruples, and the very best education, their failure becomes our pessimism: the more The Newsroom's America continues to look like our own (whether through the intervention of the financial elite or not), the more the unintended message of the show becomes: You cannot change things. Does this not, then, cast doubt back upon the very premise of the show? If we cannot fix the system, then is the Fourth Estate ideal really so important that it should trump concerns of drama and character development?

The Newsroom has a tough course to steer, then; between pomposity and pessimism, between conservatism and quietism. I will admit that I'm a sucker for Sorkin's dialogue (I find that it makes even movies about Facebook worth watching). But I'll be watching the rest of the season of The Newsroom (and, yes, probably the second season as well) with a critical eye, to see how the tensions I've just discussed get dealt with. I think that Alex Epstein--and critics like him--have the show wrong; but that doesn't mean that there aren't some deep problems with The Newsroom. Perhaps Aaron Sorkin and I are in agreement about this, though: I think that the deepest problems with The Newsroom are problems with our society. To solve them, then, Sorkin will really have to make good on his argument: a television show will have to somehow fix American democracy.

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