W. Joseph Campbell

Further reason to pan Aaron Sorkin’s ‘Newsroom': It embraces media myths

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Reviews on June 26, 2012 at 6:19 am

Aaron Sorkin’s preachy new HBO series, The Newsroom, has, deservedly, received some harsh reviews.

Among the most delicious of those critiques was the New Yorker’s observation that The Newsroom is “so naïve it’s cynical.” And the New York Times said that “at its worst, the show chokes on its own sanctimony.”

Naïve and sanctimonious: Two solid reasons to avoid The Newsroom, which presumes to offer a behind-the-scenes dramatization of a high-pressure cable news program.

Another reason to pan the show is its embrace of hoary media myths.

The embrace of myth came late in the first episode on Sunday, when Sam Waterston, who plays cable news chief Charlie Skinner, offers advice to Will McAvoy, the prickly and thoroughly unlikable anchorman played by Jeff Daniels.

“Anchors having an opinion isn’t a new phenomenon,” Waterston/Skinner tells Daniels/McAvoy. “Murrow had one, and that was the end of McCarthy. Cronkite had one, and that was the end of Vietnam.”

The references were to Edward R. Murrow, whose 30-minute program on CBS about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in 1954 is often but erroneously credited with bringing down the Red-baiting senator, and to Walter Cronkite’s 30-minute report about Vietnam in 1968 which is often but erroneously described as a turning point in America’s war in Southeast Asia.

Both tales are media-driven myths — compelling and prominent stories about the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as improbable or wildly exaggerated.

The Murrow and the Cronkite anecdotes are both addressed in my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

I note in the book how Murrow was very late in confronting the McCarthy menace, doing so only months and years after other journalists had repeatedly directed attention to the senator’s bullying tactics and his ready use of the smear.

Among those journalists was Drew Pearson, an aggressive, Washington-based syndicated columnist who became a persistent and searching critic of McCarthy days after the senator launched his communists-in-government witch-hunt in February 1950.

That was four years before Murrow’s program.

Pearson’s scathing columns so angered McCarthy that the senator assaulted Pearson following a dinner party at the hush-hush Sulgrave Club in Washington in December 1950.

“Accounts differ about what happened,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “Pearson said McCarthy pinned his arms to one side and kneed him twice in the groin. McCarthy said he slapped Pearson, hard, with his open hand. A third account, offered by a radio broadcaster friendly to McCarthy, said the senator slugged Pearson, a blow so powerful that it lifted Pearson three feet into the air.”

That encounter certainly would be fodder for cable TV.

In any event, by March 1954, when Murrow turned his attention to McCarthy, the senator’s character and tactics were quite well-known.

“To be sure,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “it wasn’t as if Americans in early 1954 were hoping for someone to step up and expose McCarthy, or waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed.”

Thanks to the work of Pearson and other journalists, Americans knew.

Cronkite’s report about Vietnam aired on February 27, 1968, and closed with the CBS News anchorman asserting that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations might prove to be the way out of the morass.

Those observations were supposedly so powerful and insightful that they have come to be known as the “Cronkite Moment.”

In fact, though, Cronkite’s observations were scarcely novel or revealing. By the time his report aired, “stalemate” had been used by U.S. news organizations for months to characterize the war in Vietnam.

Not only that, but U.S. public opinion had grown dubious about the war long before the presumptive “Cronkite Moment.”

Cronkite’s commentary did little to turn Americans, or the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, against the war.

Cronkite often said as much, likening the program’s effect on policymakers to that of a straw. (Late in his life, though, Cronkite came to embrace the purported potency of his 1968 commentary.)

So why bother about — and why blog about — the embrace of media myth on Sorkin’s tiresome, eyeroll-inducing show?

A couple of reasons present themselves.

The blithe, casual reference on The Newsroom to Murrow and Cronkite helps insinuate the media myths in popular consciousness.  It reinforces their tenacity.

Embracing the myths serves also to promote the “golden age” fallacy, the appealing but exaggerated belief that there really was a time when American broadcast news produced giants — hallowed figures of the likes of Murrow and Cronkite who, in the contemporary media landscape, are nowhere to be found.

It is an enticing notion. But it’s flawed and misleading — and vastly overstates the contributions, and opinions, of Murrow and Cronkite.

WJC

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  1. [...] newscast interested in getting the facts right and uninterested in ratings. Sorkin offers a highly romanticized view of TV news from the 1950’s through the 70’s; beyond that, I find the show to be mostly preachy and boring. [...]

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