Between journalism and journalism

“First step in solving any problem, is recognizing there is one.” — Will McAvoy

Short as this line maybe, but it has stuck with me since I first watched The Newsroom. And although I might be watching the season finale in a few hours, I think this line will stay with me long after the series’s first season is done.

I must be honest though, I was not among those who waited for the season premier. And this was due to the words of critics who were not impressed with the first episode. But I decided to watch it anyway and that’s where I got hooked.

I’ve had my share of Sorkin films and series since then. A Few Good Men inspired me (partly) to go into law school. I tried to watch the West Wing as much as I could. And of course, Charlie Wilson’s War will always be my quick recommendation to someone who’s still in the dark as to how the American government saved and nourished Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The Newsroom is Sorkin’s indictment of the prevailing state of journalism or the lack of it. In the series he tried attacking how the newsrooms succumbed to the pressure exerted by ratings wars, management intrusions, and bastardization of editorial independence. He also tried to differentiate between journalism and journalism.

The prime time news I see now is very much different to the kind of news I used to see when I was kid. And I am not just talking about American broadcast news programs, but also Filipino news programs which aired in the same channels we have now.

Before, news programs, be it American, British or Filipino, presented the most important events of the day in just one sitting. Yes, in just thirty minutes they covered the biggest international, national, local and even showbiz news of a single day before you fall asleep in your couch.

Maybe it was the ratings wars, the advertisers or even management, but someone, somewhere made a decision to re-orient prime time news programs to think first of the supposed audience share, the amount of ads raked in or the feelings of some bosses, rather than on the quality of news stories being produced by the reporters and presented by the anchor.

Today, mainstream prime time news programs in the Philippines air for an hour and a half with one story being chopped into four (sometimes five or six) separate stories reported by several reporters. And then you have stories which are almost the on-air equivalent of a tweet from a celebrity on what he or she eats for breakfast or who he or she likes among the country’s journalists.

Call me a relic of the bygone era but I still believe that journalism, and as product, prime time news, should serve to elevate the level of public discourse on social, political and even cultural matters in society. They should serve to educate the public about the economic conditions of the country, the state of public education, or the plight of the internally-displaced in Maguindanao.

I guess seeing the sorry state of the country, the shanties, the evacuation camps, the crumbling schools, the kids in rags are too much for prime time. After all, prime time, including the news program, is for entertaining audiences. And seeing pictures of places and people such as those mentioned would actually disrupt someone’s sumptous dinner.

Edward Murrow, in a speech delivered to the Radio-Television News Directors Association once said “We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.”

There has been a fundamental shift in the mindset and news evaluation of newsrooms in recent years. And it is a shift which is defended, ignored or even unfelt by some journos and their chiefs. For what reasons, only they will know. But I do hope that those reasons are for the benefit of the general public and not merely for some bosses, advertisers or the program’s ratings.

I pray that more viewers would recognize it when we are being deprived by news programs of the information they should know. I also hope that journos and their chiefs would also notice when they are being reined in. And I hope those who own and manage television networks would realize the enormity of their responsibility in the consciousness of a society and the realization of that nation’s fortunes.

Sorkin has spoken on behalf of many, not only in the US, but even from our small cluster of islands in the South West Pacific, who have witnessed the eroding quality of broadcast news reportage but can’t do anything about it. Let’s hope Sorkin is heard.