Taking the Shame Out of Opinion Journalism

How bad is broadcast journalism in America? So bad that it takes a TV drama, not to mention a daily lineup of late-night comedians, to point out its absurdity.

Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom premiered to mixed reviews last weekend. But despite the harshly-doled-out and well-deserved criticism of HBO's much-hyped series for going after a flaw that doesn't exist in the 24/7 right vs. left slugfest that cable news has come to be -- affability borne out of steering clear of controversy -- the truth behind the show's underlying message is undeniable: broadcast media needs a rapid and urgent transformation if it has any hope of educating an uninformed and rapidly disinterested electorate.

The New York Times
and the New Yorker, among others, rightly point out that lack of controversy and bland objectivity are hardly traits that today's cable news networks aspire toward, nor is that their greatest failing in an age of Bill O'Reillys and Chris Matthews.

Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels), a TV news anchor who supposedly climbed his way to high ratings and a brand of likeability by "bothering no one," may have his follies, but none recognizable by any of us that watch cable news today. Mocked for being a Leno in the anchor business (as opposed to one can only imagine the likes of Bill Maher or Stephen Colbert), McAvoy is so constrained by his objectivity as a reporter that he can't bring himself to answer the simple question of whether he leans right or left on a journalism school panel. His responses to profound questions in attempts to be annoyingly dispassionate and tepidly funny are some iteration of the New York Jets.

It is this mistaken aspiration toward objectivity that the show rightly zeroes in on. The pretense of "fair and balanced" coverage, a staple of cable news, which weighs both sides of every issue, may indeed be one of the biggest failings of broadcast news. It leads to such absurdities as equal airtime to fallacy-laced ideas like creationism and proven science such as evolution. Precious media minutes are wasted on conspiracy theories like Birtherism and zombie attacks.

It is indeed Charlie Skinner, McAvoy's boss and president of the News Division (played by Sam Waterston) who delivers the best line of The Newsroom's pilot. Undeniably old-school in both ideology and appearance, he goes back decades to reinforce the importance of journalists having an opinion. "Anchors having an opinion isn't a new phenomenon. Murrow had one and that was the end of McCarthy. Cronkite had one and that was the end of Vietnam."

Expressing opinion in journalism isn't a fault in itself. But the veiling of that opinion behind a supposedly right vs. wrong debate of ever-increasing decibels, over-simplifications and extreme biases is.

The Newsroom may be carrying a torch for "false nostalgia," as Emily Nussbaum writes, but regardless of whether media had its glory days in years past or not, at least there was less of it pretending that issues deeply-rooted in one's personal, moral, and political standing can be settled in a three-minute segment between commercials.

The Newsroom is pining "for an America that never existed," Nussbaum scoffs. But it did. Edward Murrow did help take down McCarthy and Walter Cronkite did help end Vietnam. Because both these men held deep convictions of what was right and wrong, and weren't afraid to express it. And more importantly, they had an audience that respected their viewpoints developed over years of watching them report on events up close.

What broadcast media fails to deliver today is that faith in journalism. The person reporting from the scene is a straight reporter who isn't telling you how you should feel. The person giving you his opinion has never set foot on a war zone. Instead of one steadfast voice, there is cacophony.

Social media and online networks are not helping drown out this noise either. Citizen journalism and the free democratic Web are great for free speech, but institutional news becomes ever more important at a time when the media needs to provide a check and balance to ever-growing authority of politicians in an increasingly polarized society.

It would be nice if the media would recognize this and take its responsibilities seriously.