"The Newsroom" takes on fake news and Benghazi

The fake-news scandal on "The Newsroom" takes over as Benghazi and the election loom

Published August 26, 2013 12:30PM (EDT)

            (HBO/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)
(HBO/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

Last night's "Newsroom" was almost entirely devoted to its fake-news plot, a change from the halcyon days when the show imagined better responses to the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and the like in Season 1. However, by episode's end, it became clear that the show's DNA hasn't been completely altered -- the characters had sources that would have allowed them to report the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi ... they just chose not to use them. Is this more or less infuriating than the old way of clowning the national media by positing a show that actually did report the news better with more than a year of hindsight? We report ... you decide.

The episode brings the season-long arc of misreporting a sarin gas attack by U.S. troops to a head -- though we've seen the lawyer Marcia Gay Harden plays interrogate individual members of the team, we haven't seen the broadcast she's asking about.

The episode begins with Marcia interrogating Don, who tells her, "You can't be stupid and afford haircuts that good," as a way of indicating she knows more than she's telling about whether or not ACN might be sued. He is right! ACN is in deep trouble for the sarin report!

We then see the process by which the report made it to air: In short, producer Jerry Dantana, the one played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus' brother from "The New Adventures of Old Christine," lied to everyone and baited them, including calling Jim an "Andrews sister" for his belief that America would not have used toxic gas. The story goes to air (on a program, never really explained, called "ACN Reports," rather than "News Night" -- it makes sense that this wouldn't belong on "News Night," but it's still kind of odd!).

Everyone is a little nervous about the whole thing, not least because the source ACN broadcast saying the U.S. used sarin immediately calls and disavows the whole thing strenuously. Also, Jerry left a basketball game on in the background of this source's taped interview -- there was no other way to frame the source's military memorabilia but keep him sated. They're also nervous because they spent something like four full minutes watching monitors as the report unspooled with music that somehow found a way to swell past each dramatic crescendo. This Is Something You Should Care About!

Anyway, Mac and Will talk after the broadcast about the relative pacing of various sports. This sort of pays off later -- in a revelation the audience more or less saw coming and certainly didn't need five minutes of explanation of shot clocks in various sports to "get it." This is one of two the-man-just-can't-help-himself flourishes of Sorkinian dialogue that the people who like Aaron Sorkin's writing really love and the ones who don't really don't. The second, coming up, includes Jane Fonda using the word "hizzy."

The rest of the episode's events, in brief: The "sorority girl" Will bashed in Episode 1, now an ACN intern, pitches Neal stories on Rihanna, Kate Middleton and Lady Gaga (this girl just does not get the news, does she! Oh, brother!) before mentioning she read a weird headline about something called "Innocence of Muslims." Eric Sweeney, one of the sources from the Genoa story, admits on-air in a follow-up interview that he suffered traumatic brain damage possibly resulting in memory loss; MacKenzie realizes she goosed a second source into agreeing with Sweeney's story by asking leading questions. Oops!

Charlie meets with a high-level source who admits he planted a false story with the network as revenge because they fired his former-addict son, who had been an ACN intern who tweeted negative things about the network. The firing caused him to relapse and die, so the source provided false documents to Charlie whose watermark, indeed, reads, "Fuck you, Charlie." Staying out of this one, sorry!

Maggie realizes that an attack is happening in North Africa. She is asked where. Her response is this: "In Libya ... In our consulate in Benghazi ..." I get that this is how people in newsrooms very likely would or could have reacted to the news, but it still scans as so comic to me when characters gasp and read year-old news to one another in the most thuddingly specific terms, then wonder what the fallout of said news will be. Meanwhile, Mac watches the number shift on the shot clock in the corner of the footage -- something that no one had previously noted -- and realizes the footage was cooked. She fires Jerry, who says that he knows the story was true but he had to lie in order to prove it. This is actually a somewhat dramatic confrontation, though the show's still attacking straw men that don't totally exist: Who is Jerry supposed to represent? The liberal or conservative media? Or simply himself? How annoyingly on the nose if the first; how sort of airlessly meaningless if the second. I sort of miss the ripped-from-the-headlines story lines, which at least present a philosophy about newsgathering more provocative (even if angering) than "don't entirely fabricate interviews." To anyone who thinks I am too critical of this show, I ask you to explain to me what, exactly, the show is trying to diagnose with the Dantana character -- and if it's nothing, why any of us are watching this explicitly preachy show.

I'll get my chance -- the entire "News Night" team tries to resign and Jane Fonda refuses to allow them, saying they need to earn the public trust, amid tangents about how much she loves her house ("hizzy") and how much all men should try to be like Daniel Craig. (She claims to have just been to a MoMA screening of "Skyfall" to benefit the Tribeca Film Festival, an event that took place in November 2012, two months or so after the attacks in Benghazi.) The Benghazi story, Will says in voice-over, was biffed because of the staff's lack of confidence in themselves -- just like everyone else, and not trusting the sort of superior sources they've had all along allowing them to swiftly crack the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, they tied the events to "The Innocence of Muslims." If only they knew what Great Men they were! We can only hope they get that confidence back in time for the election, next week!

By Daniel D'Addario

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aaron Sorkin Jeff Daniels Mackenzie Mchale Marcia Gay Harden The Newsroom Will Mcavoy