Jon and I have just started watching The Newsroom, the compelling HBO series created by Academy and Emmy-award winning phenomenon, Aaron Sorkin [the brains behind A Few Good Men and The West Wing]. What makes this series electric – apart from the fast-paced dialogue, the wit, and the politics – is the intelligence. Everything about the series is clever.
The plot of last night’s episode, called News Night 2.0, centered on protagonists Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) rebooting their television news show [called News Night]. McAvoy and his old team had been playing it safe [think celebrity politics; pitting politicians against each other instead of focusing on policy and issues; as well as digging into predictable ratings boosters like human interest stories, sensationalist opinion and pop-culture fluff].
News Night 2.0 – the reboot – is all about not playing to the crowd, but getting back to the roots of journalism. Doing news that educates and informs voters instead of news that tries to grab ratings. The big difference between the two, of course, is dumbing down voters and making money instead of taking the road less traveled. The tougher way of doing news is supporting democracy by doing the hard stories that teach people about policy, the constitution and empower a thinking citizenry.
During the News Night 2.0 episode McHale unveils a white board with her ‘rules’ for reinventing the fictional news show:
These new rules for a TV news show that’s relevant to voters and to informing a democracy are:
1. Is this the information we need in the voting booth?
2. Is this the best possible form of the argument?
3. Is the story in historical context?
As South Africa moves to what is the most crucial election of our young democracy these ‘rules’ offer much in the way of guidelines for local journalists covering South African news that matters. When reporting perhaps we should ask ourselves whether the stories we cover offer our electorate what they need to know in the voting booth; if we offer historical context in our news; and whether the argument we’re putting forward is the best form of argument in terms of our democracy.