Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Aggravating Aggregatorsphere

"I'm sure you've seen this," someone emailed me, with a link to the story on a website called "The Daily" about Aaron Sorkin cleaning house on the show I'd worked on, HBO's The Newsroom.

Actually, I hadn't, nor had I ever heard of the website before. (Thankfully, I at least already knew the news, having been notified by email the previous week, because sometimes in this business, as with my last job working on Eliot Spitzer's show at CNN, you learn such news about yourself from the press.)

What troubled me, more than the public nature of my personal job situation, was the reporting -- which got cut and pasted and parroted endlessly over the next 24 hours in places from The Hollywood Reporter to Entertainment Weekly to New York magazine's Vulture column to the Huffington Post, The National Review (!) and way, way many other places.

It was inaccurate and lazy.  As it drifted through this aggregator foodchain, maybe one writer would add some opinionating to it, like Grantland, but none of it was based on any further reporting. Nobody has the budget to do anything any more but repeat, and the rush is to get it on your website fast before people start going to someone else's website instead.

Basically the information in these dozens, perhaps hundreds of stories, remained the same four bullet points:
  • that only one writer was retained -- not true. (Three were.) 
  • that her name is Corinne "Kinsbury." (it's Kingsbury). 
  • citing a Sorkin quote in Vanity Fair (below), that all the writers do is "research" 
  • and quoting an HBO spokesman that such turnover is "nothing out of the ordinary.”
The sum total of reporting, as far as I could tell, was one unnamed "source" who said he'd fired everyone but his ex-girlfriend. The Hollywood Reporter led with reporting that contradicted this -- yet still repeated it:
According to HBO, the Aaron Sorkin drama set behind the scenes of a cable news network is replacing about half of its writing staff, though one source close to the show tells The Hollywood Reporter that everyone on the show's writing staff except for Corinne Kinsbury has been let go.
Even Grantland, which decided to make a "point" about the firing, did so with a lot of hyperbolic extrapolation and presumption:
The real question is whether this was a par-for-the-course power move from a controlling showrunner or the first sign that the very noisy drumbeat of criticism... has reached Sorkin’s well-tanned ears. While it’s never a good thing to see anyone out of work, it’s the second scenario that’s preferable. Just like his unlucky in love male leads, Sorkin’s undeniable gifts are always at their best when paired with a tough-minded foil, someone who will stand up to the speechifying and push back against the predictable plots...
Corinne and ex Tate Donovan
at NYC Newsroom premiere
Anyone wanting to find out how to spell Corinne's last name need only have looked at IMDB, or even Google. They might have even had fun with the fact that she had a cameo in episode 5 as the stripper. Even better, they might have found out what she actually contributed to the series, which was a lot of the 20-something romantic plotlines. But instead it was enough reporting to just say "ex-girlfriend."

Anyone wanting the accurate number of writers who were cut -- or chose not to return -- could have found out with a well placed phone call or two. Anyone who really believed Sorkin employed eight writers to merely do "research" needs to really examine what that would mean. And anyone who thinks nobody in the room "stood up" to him doesn't have any concept of what the real, very hard and rewarding job of writing for Aaron is.

Writing for Sorkin -- and I have done some for all four of his shows -- means throwing 100 ideas at him that he will reject 99 of. That he will belittle and wrestle and often turn into something else. But he walks into the room every episode not knowing what he wants to write, and walks out with episodes finished.

We all worked really hard for him, beating out plots, scenes, historical scenarios, speeches, etc., for him to put in his genius machine. Yes, he writes the scripts.  And, unlike when he was up against network deadlines and 22 episode seasons, he even rewrote them, to notes from producer Scott Rudin, HBO, and yes, even the writers' room.

Also: why didn't anyone research HBO's statement? Was there this much turnover between seasons one and two of Sex and the City or Sopranos or Six Feet Under or The Wire? What about patterns in Sorkin's hiring?  The two seasons of Sports Night, the four he ran West Wing --  he never had the same writers' room twice. Why is this? 

There are a lot of potential answers, it's not my place to provide them here. But back when I was reporting for Rolling Stone, at least one reporter would have tried.  

Speaking of reporting, that huge April Vanity Fair spread on The Newsroom included this little parenthetical aside about Scott Rudin by writer James Kaplan: "(And, who, I should note, has optioned my 2010 Frank Sinatra biography for film.)" Were no other reporters available? It's the kind of blatant conflict of interest VF editor Graydon Carter would have flagged in his days at Spy. And if I were in Kaplan's shoes, I wouldn't have felt comfortable taking the gig. But that thinking makes me a dinosaur. 

What's scariest about the propagation of this particular simple-minded news story is that I actually know something about it, so I can see the holes. So it means there's a lot more out there I'm reading that is just as unvetted. In the internet-dominated era, how often are we digesting information that has been similarly turned into presumed knowledge and hardened into fact, almost impossible to unravel or correct?

That is one of the burning issues that helped inspire Aaron and all of us at The Newsroom to begin with. And it is clearly far from being settled. 
Update, August 1, 2012: Deadline Hollywood just posted a story quoting Sorkin at the TCA's denying the facts of the firing story. Deadline gloated how wrong the original Daily story was -- but didn't do any reporting itself. A lot of what Sorkin claimed is also easily checkable.  I leave it to others to find out what's what. 


Robert said...

Wouldn't you think that at least one "journalist" would spend 5 seconds reporting something new or original about the story so that when it was passed around the interwebs, they'd be seen as doing their job? It's not just lazy but a little stupid.

Anonymous said...

David I find this all very ironic, because as a veteran of TV news I am astonished at how poorly "reported" that world is on the show. Nobody walks notes into a control room...we didn't hire bartenders and have balck tie New Years parties in the newsroom....newsrooms are very calm, serious histrionics-free environments....oh I could go on, and on, and on. So I guess what goes around comes around.

David Handelman said...

Dear Anonymous,
I think if you polled most doctors, lawyers and cops, they would say that most doctor, lawyer and cop shows aren't really like their jobs either. Certain liberties have to be taken so people don't fall asleep while waiting for something dramatic or romantic to happen.

Ken Kurson said...

Amazing story, David, as full of passion and outrage as ... a good tv show. I don't agree that Kaplan had to recuse himself from a story whose subject is connected to a business contact. Disclosure is sufficient. But the rest of the tsk tsk what's happening to the world tone of this is painfully apt. The world is so quickly turning to shit that people aren't even embarrassed about the things they don't know anymore.

Anonymous said...

Frankly you've missed opportunities to create drama. A news staff is far more hierarchical, and all the power is with the on-camera talent (we don't throw water on those folks in expensive suits). Most disturbing is the idea of activist anchors trying to set straight perceived enemies?...I mean, hasn't tv news taken enough of a hit in recent years as far as credibility without wingnut Sorkin reeling around like a buzz saw? Tell him Paddy Chayefsky he ain't.

David Handelman said...

Dear Anonymous,
How about revealing who you are? Another great feature of the internet, lots of high minded opinion without a name attached. Just watch another show, or better yet, create one yourself. Sorry you didn't get what you wanted.

Marisa said...

I liked that, but this phenomenon is not new, or limited to blogs. I think whenever you know something from the inside, you're appalled at the "reporting" on it. During the dot com boom, I felt like Amy Harmon and Warren St. John were about the only reporters working on stories about it that actually did real reporting. And just as you describe in this post, the non-reporters were parroted and parroted, endlessly.

jack said...

Anonymous --The "what goes around comes around" statement is ridiculous. Does that mean based on the creative liberties she's taken, Shonda Rhimes should not expect quality medical treatment?

Thanks for an interesting article, David.

SA Walsh said...

Wish more people would be outraged by the demise of the 4th estate...few people "running" with stories today have the background or memory of having to check with two sources before "going to print." Now what passes for news seems closer to a rumor-mill or at best opinions on "possible factual information."
"Believe none of what you read or hear and only half of what you see"- Benjamin Franklin was frustrated too. You're in good company.

About The Newsroom (to anonymous)'s a TV show. As is said in NY, "Geddover it!"

Anonymous said...

Apparently not everyone was unhappy with how th West Wing portrayed the White House. See here:
"It was very realistic, and that's why people liked it," says Marlin Fitzwater, a press secretary to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush who became a consultant to the show.
The problem is that the portrayal of journalists with agendas inaccurately affirms the worst suspicions of the Fox News audience about what the rest of the "mainstream media" does.

David Handelman said...

I can't tell if this is one Anonymous person or many. First of all, Marlin Fitzwater was LISTED AS A CONSULTANT for 44 epsiodes of West Wing.

If he complained he'd be shooting himself in the foot. Secondly, the West Wing showed people in the White House who didn't backstab, have personal ambition, sleep around, have petty disputes that stymied progress,, etc etc. It was idealized.

I would say that if you keep watching, the show has achieved its chief "agenda." And if you remain anonymous, it has proved another of its points.

Anonymous said...

I am a fan of The Newsroom and wished the original writers had stayed on. They barely had a chance. "Out with the old and in with the new" is a huge problem in our culture.

Anonymous said...

There's more than one anonymous here.

No idea what you mean about proving points, David.
Yes it was obvious that Fitzwater was a consultant - part of the quote. Wasn't Dee Dee Myers also a consultant? Plenty of shows with great ratings have been praised for at least trying to get the story right. You don't seem to even try, instead claim dramatic license, but the stakes are high for those of us making a living in the TV News world. We're under siege and you are making it worse making it up out of whole cloth.
Just curious, Is there anyone on the writing staff who has actually worked in TV news for a sustained time period? Like more than a few months? Maybe you need to hire some consultants.

Why give us the option of commenting anonymously if you don't like it? It's your blog.
I have worked in Network TV News for a dozen years. That's all that matters.
Some of the other folks commenting here are just using first names but you don't seem bothered.

PS - I stopped watching. Sorry.

David Handelman said...

Ah, I see. You stopped watching, but are continuing to complain about it publicly, anonymously, without actually seeing it. Is this the kind of news standard you are proud to be upholding in your long career?

Several people on the staff had experience in news, and also as with West Wing, had access to veteran anchors and correspondents in news who were happy to help out with stories. Sorry you didn't get one of those calls.

Since you have the forum here, why not pitch one of your stories about hierarchy and serious people, so readers can judge your theoretical series on its own merits?

FYI, it isn't a documentary, nor has it claimed to be. It is a fantasy, same as West Wing.

Anonymous said...

I know I've won the argument when the other party resorts to personal insults....
There was an attempt to raise a serious concern.
But clearly, David, your ego takes prominence.

David Handelman said...

This isn't about my ego -- ask anyone else reading this chain. I don't even know what your concern IS, except that the show wasn't what you wanted it to be. I don't know who you are or what your experience is. I have worked at CNN, ABC News, print journalism, you can see my resume. I am arguing with a phantom.

David Handelman said...

And PS I'm not even on the show any more -- I'm just writing about the coverage of the news, and how that's changed. This blogpost is about that. Not about whether or not the Newsroom is "good". You took it on yourself to turn it into Nikki Finke. There are plenty of other places for you to complain about TV shows. I am writing about what the internet has done to news.

And one of the things it has done is made people feel like opinions, even anonymous ones, are the same thing as reporting, or knowing what you're talking about. My only "personal" point is that you have stated you aren't watching the show and have spent an awful lot of time telling everyone you think it's bad. Do I have something wrong?

Anonymous said...

What concerns me is that the show presents TV News as fulfilling the worst fantasies of the Fox News crowd, that anchors use their seat as liberal bully pulpits. My experience is very different, that a lot of effort goes into representing all sides, fairness, balance. But I see conservatives saying "see, just what I thought." This perception is a huge threat. It's why we're losing audience, because no one trusts us.

It's Sorkin's vision in the end, but I believe he's short sighted and hasn't done the work to understand how it works.

I am just a cog in the wheel. But I am concerned that 20 years from now, I won't have a newsroom to go to.

David Handelman said...

Well -- if newsrooms all disappear I wouldn't chalk it up to an HBO series that is probably mostly viewed on the coasts, and that noone, again, takes to be a documentary. Vanity Fair did a piece about how West Wing inspired a whole generation of people to get into politics. Have the behind the scenes shenanigans of DC actually improved as a result? It doesn't look like it to me.

Will did a whole rant that attacked the right -- but about Obama's being an enemy of guns. It was actually sophisticated and surprising, and very timely considering the silence post-Aurora. Did you happen to see that?

I would argue that if the series has an overarching point, it's that half truths are getting on the air, sometimes in the name of haste, sometimes in the name of agenda, sometimes in the name of ratings, sometimes in the name of corporate overlords. It sounds like you agree -- but you just don't like Sorkin's heightened approach.

When you wrote "Paddy Chayevsky he ain't" -- he doesn't put Paddy Chayevsky's name on the scripts, or Frank Capra's collaborators, or yours. It's always others who have to liken everything in art to something else, or who want it to be something it isn't.

Speaking of Chayevsky, what was the last time you watched "The Hospital"? It's extremely arch -- and entertaining;. Again, not a verite document made to please those toiling in the trenches. A piece of entertainment that's ABOUT something. That's why I think the show is a lightning rod.

But again -- my blog post isn't about the content of the show, or the reviews of the show, which people have a right to write. some of them are even friends of mine. It's about the shoddy reporting about the show and how it reflects what reporting is like now.

Maybe you would want to watch a show about a bunch of people who read newspapers, condense the stories, send reporters out to get video. Or a bunch of people who just show both sides of every story. That's just not what this show is. I wish there were more of them, but most executives think journalism isn't an exciting enough field to dramatize in the first place.

And now I've written more to you personally than in the original post.

Richard Regen said...

David- ignore Anonymous, because he/she/it is making a specious argument you can't refute with logic or fact. It's fiction versus nonfiction, feature versus documentary. Case closed.

Oh, and would a so-called "veteran of TV news" use anonymous quotes? When I wrote for the Village Voice and New York Times it was frowned on unless a source demanded it and said "off the record" before making a statement. Then the quote had to be verified by an independent party before the fact-checking department would release my piece. But I'm just an old print journalism dinosaur, Mr. Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

David we clearly agree & disagree, your points taken, and I respect your efforts to respond honestly. Best of luck to you.
Can't say the same for the echo chamber.
Hey Regen you luddite sexist I'm female and this wasn't reporting, it's opinion. One person's opinion but clearly you're so transfixed by your own bylines that you can't see it. BTW I have no way of actually knowing you are Richard Regen. Not that I care or that it matters. That's the beauty of the Internet. Deal with it.

Sasha Stone said...

Well, I for one would like to know how Sorkin could have taken such a major nosedive as a writer or a decider about what should go on the show? He's never turned anything remotely as bad as The Newsroom, not even close. My catty side is telling me that he took too much of what the 20 something girls HE HIRED to tell him what stories women want to see, or some such, because the result is some of the worst television period, and easily the worst written female characters in at least thirty years.

So, you talk about how the process works but you don't address why it failed SO BADLY this time around.

Sasha Stone said...

And p.s. you are all so busy shredding the reporting done on The Daily but thus far no one (other than Sorkin) has publicly refuted it. The Daily stands by their story and so far it's looking like it was true.

Of course, Sorkin wanted to publicly blame his staff for the shitpile he has his name on, but then gets to retract everything so he looks like a good guy with his staff. Yeah, something's rotten here.

stmmendoza said...

I am not a journalist and I don't work in the entertainment industry. I am a consumer of both. I believe that the news should be accurate and fiction---whether it's a television show, a movie, or a book---should be entertaining. Reporting falsehoods about real people facing difficult situations, such as losing their jobs, is inexcusable. I'm not even sure why it is news worthy, and I wish, for the sake of those involved, that it had not been plastered across the internet.
I enjoy "The Newsroom." It is a creative piece that portrays the author's vision. Whether it depicts reality is irrelevant. If you do not enjoy the show, don't watch it. I seriously don't believe that this show will have harm or help the field of journalism to such a great extent that it should be criticized for furthering some political agenda. Try suspending your expectations and view the show as you would a picture hanging in museum gallery. Not all creative work is to everyone's liking but that's ok. Move on to the next picture if you don't like it and let those of us who do like this piece of art enjoy it.

Christina Jaguar said...

I have nothing particularly controversial or informative to add here, just that I watched the last episode, have been noticing your name in the credits, and wanted to say - congrats! So I googled you and found you here! I really have enjoyed this first season. Its got drama, romance, politics - and how satisfying to see the Tea Party taken to task in an intelligent way.

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