In Newsroom, Jeff Daniels plays Will McAvoy — a middle-of-the-road anchor, bent on keeping ratings up and not rocking the boat. When a strident speech of his goes viral, his producers urge him to take a more hard-hitting approach. His show is refashioned; he drops the fluff to focus on serious issues like immigration and the BP Oil disaster, and he perseveres as viewers drop off, declaring that the ratings don’t matter.
It reminded me of my own experience at NBC during coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The network threw itself at the story, going so far as to open a New Orleans bureau to provide full coverage of the city's recovery even after the flood itself had faded from headlines. NBC Nightly News had developed a series, The Long Road Back, that detailed the slow and painstaking process of that recovery. And the reporting thereon quickly became slow and painstaking to viewers as well. In a transcript of a show from January 2006, four months or so after the disaster, Nightly News anchor Brian Williams read some viewer mail: “I'm getting just plain sick and tired of hearing the constant drumbeat about New Orleans." Still another was even more direct. "Enough. We're sick and tired of the long road back.” And that's from an audience that took current events seriously enough to keep watching the Nightly News in an era of declining ratings.
Williams went on to label the letters he'd read a “minority view”; in a speech that would have made Sorkin proud, Williams told the audience: “And so, while we are reading all the mail, and we enjoy it, we also have a job to do and we have a big story to cover. And along with the news around the nation and the world each day, we intend to keep covering it.”
At the Today show, where I worked, there was even more pushback, and producers debated with senior staff over how much airtime should be dedicated to Katrina. In one meeting a senior producer said something I haven’t forgotten, “Don’t be above your audience.” The Today show didn't subsequently ignore New Orleans, but it didn't take the nightly news's stand on the matter, either.
Six years later, a New York Times story is illustrative of how those kinds of choices play out. In detailing the problems faced by NBC's news division, the piece notes that ratings for Williams's show and those of its main competitor (ABC's World News) are down significantly, which is, of course, part of a long-term trend. Meanwhile, the Today show's problem is not a declining interest in morning shows, but the fact that a competitor (ABC's Good Morning America) has started grabbing a worryingly large piece of the still-incredibly-lucrative ($200 million a year in profits!) morning pie. And then there's this: "NBC’s effort to start a newsmagazine, Rock Center, led by its chief anchor, Brian Williams, has been greeted with some of the lowest ratings in prime time."
Sorkin hero Will McAvoy’s producer, McKenzie, proudly declares at one point that “there is nothing that’s more important in democracy than a well-informed electorate. When there is no information, or much worse, wrong information, it can lead to calamitous decisions that clobber any attempts at vigorous debate.”
That’s no doubt true—but as much as that responsibility lies with news producers, it also lies with the electorate. There's no easy answer on how much audience input matters when reporting events, but to think that you can ignore that interest and force feed viewers into watching what's good for them is foolish as well. That's where I think Sorkin and his show get it wrong. As much as you want to be a purist, the reality is that you can only be as true to journalism as your audience allows you to be.