Monday, February 13, 2017

News in the real world

Cedar Rapids-Iowa City Gazette “On Topic” column from Feb. 12, 2017
Dear Mr. Sorkin:
First, let me say I’m a big fan. I loved the writing in “Sports Night.” I often recite the “storm clouds are gathering” speech when talking to reporters here at The Gazette about getting to the point sooner in their stories.
And not that long ago I lifted a whole chunk from your baseball movie, “Moneyball,” when I was talking to a seasoned reporter about how he could help staffers coming up.
“West Wing” I liked, too. But 155 episodes over seven seasons? Forgive me, but I may never catch up.
But where are you now, Obi-Wan? You may be our only hope.
Yeah, I noticed you’ve been hawking a TV scriptwriting course. It pops up on Facebook all the time. But where are you? Where’s your voice?
You’ve surely noticed all this meshugas over “alternative facts” and “fake news.” We hear it from both sides now.
The term fake news initially had to do with click bait on the internet. FBI agent murdered to cover up Hillary Clinton’s emails — that sort of tomfoolery that you’d think any child could see was a lure intended not to uncover any actual, this-really-happened revelation but to get eyeballs to advertisements. It was founded in profit motive.
The concept then evolved to slightly rejiggered or wholly made up “information” to sway opinions, both domestic and abroad. (It’s still not clear how much Russia and Vladimir Putin, former KGB officer, had their hands in such goings-on before the November elections.)
But now the label has morphed to apply to something more than made-up stuff. It appears, as best as I can tell, to refer to anything to which someone disagrees or doesn’t want the news media to report. Here’s one down-home example.
On Sunday, Jan. 29, lots of people turned up at lots of airports to protest an executive order by President Donald Trump that was intended to do several things, including to ban refugees from entering the United States for a period of time. More than 100 people also showed up at The Eastern Iowa Airport to demonstrate their displeasure.
All those things — the executive order being signed by a newly installed commander-in-chief, large numbers of people convening at airports to object to the order, and more than 100 here in Cedar Rapids — are facts. Those things really happened.
We sent a reporter to the airport, who took photos and shot video, then wrote a news story that very day. I edited the story, and we posted that story, a photo and the video to our website that day, and published the story and photo in the print edition of The Gazette on Monday.
We later received an email from a reader who accused The Gazette of taking part in “fake news.”
Say what?
I don’t mean that “say what” in a political reactive sense. right or left. It’s about facts.
So I think, Aaron — if I may be so bold to call you by first name — we in the business of the free press, and those who rely on these news outlets to tell the facts and nothing but the unvarnished facts, could use your help now.
We could use “The Newsroom.”
Heck, I hardly ever watch TV news, and I adored your signature circular dialogue and the smart yet fallible characters who worked for Atlantis Cable News. It was a “fake” news channel that talked about real events. (The HBO-produced series is available on streaming services.)
I realize it was set in a mythical world, where a news channel could present the facts without always having to find a second side when the facts — the unarguable facts — clearly demonstrated there is only one “side.” Such as gravity exists, the Holocaust really happened and 9/11 was not a plot on the part of the Bush Administration.
A world in a time and place in which policy statements and opinions could be questioned, and a conversation about such views could be discussed rationally and respectfully among reasonable humans beings, with all feet firmly on the ground.
We’re not taking sides, your characters said; we’re relaying what we’ve learned and presenting the discussion.
In the mists of a yearning of more reasonable times, we recall everyone believed every word uttered by Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. They alone put a halt to McCarthyism and the Vietnam War, didn’t they?
Well, no, it’s certainly more likely many people at the time thought Murrow and Cronkite, too, were making up stuff — to push their own agendas or to gain viewers. Again, there is that profit motive.
Of course, you’d think we should be able to do this — present the news as it happens, without spin, and be believed — in the real world, without a TV show about a fictional newsgathering organization to set the example.
Maybe we could, taking our cue from the title of premier episode of “The Newsroom” — because “We just decided to.”
But we all — news gatherers and news consumers — would have decide to. What do you think?

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