Measure is unceasing

What happens in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom

WILL MACAVOY is an aging news anchor who, together with his capable but amoral executive producer, DON KEEFER, is creating a news show that is optimizing for viewership, sacrificing newsworthiness and journalistic honour in the process. Unsatisfied with this, his boss CHARLIE SKINNER, hires MacAvoy’s idealistic yet supremely capable ex-girlfriend, MACKENZIE MCHALE, to be the new executive producer. She was recently wounded in Afghanistan and is physically and mentally exhausted, but SKINNER is able to see past that, trust his own judgment, and make a bet on her.

Over the course of three seasons, MACKENZIE MCHALE imprints her idealistic and principled journalistic style on an inexperienced news team, whom she mentors and cultivates. She also infects MACAVOY and DON KEEFER, who, given the chance also choose to report newsworthy events over populistic gossip. All the while, CHARLIE SKINNER insulates that budding team from pressures from the head honchos to optimize for views and to not antagonize poweful political figures, like the Koch brothers. His power isn’t infinite, but it is ENOUGH to make the new team, despite trials and tribulations, flourish.

Towards the end of the series, the work of the underlings ends up convincing the head honchos, LEANA and REESE LANSING, that having news reporting that is not crap is something that they, too, desire, and that they are willing to sacrifice some profits to nourish. This becomes relevant when the parent company confronts a hostile takeover, and the LANSINGS have to make a conscious choice to exert their efforts to preserve their news division, which they have come to cherish as a valuable public good.

A theme of the series is that ignoring flawed incentives and the siren call of cynicism, and instead doing the right thing, is a choice that people in positions of power have the ability to make and propagate.

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