'Choking on sanctimony'

Cast of The Newsroom: Charlie (Waterston), MacKenzie (Mortimer) and Will (Daniels)

This month the series The Newsroom starts on HBO in Asia. The show stars Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, an intelligent, popular but temperamental news anchor; Emily Mortimer as MacKenzie McHale, his ex-girlfriend who has been brought in to be his executive producer; and Sam Waterston as Charlie Skinner, the network president. The series was created by Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing and The Social Network fame.

Let me spoil it a bit for you: Will loses his entire staff after an outburst. Charlie hires MacKenzie to be the executive producer – without Will’s knowledge, because they had a bitter separation. MacKenzie sets out to re-define how Will and his program deliver the news – with less sensationalism and more integrity. They work through various actual episodes in the US’ recent history: The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the passage of the Arizona law against illegal immigrants, the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

MacKenzie leads the young staff to put together the kind of news she – and she thinks, Will – wants delivered. She makes some of the big speeches on the show, like:

“People will want the news if you give it to them with integrity.”

“I am talking about reclaiming the Fourth Estate, reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession…civility, respect, a return to what’s important – the death of bitchiness, gossip, voyeurism…speaking truth to stupid.”

Charlie has acknowledged orchestrating the overhaul because he wants content to drive ratings, not the other way around.

The show, which started airing in the United States last month, has received mixed reviews. Mediocre, says Forbes, as it points out that HBO has lifted the more favorable phrases from the Times, Time and Salon, which gave generally negative reviews, in order to show that they were raving about The Newsroom instead. While it was portrayed as having “wit, sophistication and manic energy,” another critic said the show, at its worst, “choked on its own sanctimony”.


So who has the right to tell media how exactly to do their job? Does Sorkin, or HBO?

Does the President?

Here at home, President Benigno Aquino III has been known to castigate some members of media for portraying the country – and his administration – in a bad light. In his State-of-the-Nation Address last week, he said: “…there were those who belittled our government’s performance…there are still those who refuse to cease spreading negativity; they who keep their mouths pursed to good news, and have created an industry out of criticism.”

Several days later, during the anniversary party of BusinessWorld, the President said: “The news should be about informing the readers—about giving them accurate, timely, and contextualized facts, both the good and the bad, so that they can decide for themselves what to feel…we must veer away from negativity and sensationalism. These must not run the course of our national discussions."

Mr. Aquino had the same message during the TV Patrol anniversary on the same day. This time, however, he alluded to the former Vice President Noli de Castro and chided the latter for criticizing the administration without basis, and even after he was in government for six years under Mrs. Gloria Arroyo.

To his credit, Mr. Aquino said he did not mean that media should refrain from criticism. He only did not like media criticizing all the time. Comments should have basis in fact and be put in context. Sensationalism for ratings’ sake must be thrown out the window.

Many sectors of media however take offense to this. It does sound as though the President is taking them (us?) to task for reporting the bad news more than the good news. But how is it possible that an organization can only have negative things to say about the administration? It is a given that those who criticize without basis have no business forming opinion in the first place. Fact is not the opposite of opinion but its building block.

I agree that the positive as well as the negative must be reported. But I can understand how others may resent that the President feels he must lecture us on this. The press exists independently of the government. It must air or publish, commend or criticize, as it sees fit.

Mr. Aquino must also do away with the thinking that every criticism of the administration’s moves is a put down of his person. It's not about him! Believe it or not, nobody has the monopoly of good intentions in this country. We want a better Philippines, too, even though we are not government cheerleaders.

Oh yes, we must agree – to disagree. Only this ensures that democracy is kept alive and well. And while he’s extolling the virtues of “good” journalism, maybe Mr. Aquino can set an example and set the passage of the freedom of information law into motion. That would really show us he is sincere and not just putting on an attitude.