HBO’s Newsroom and Marshall McLuhan


TUESDAY, JULY 17, 2012

The Newsroom and McLuhan

by Paul Levinson (republished by permission)

I’ve seen the first four episodes thus far aired of The Newsroom on HBO, and I think it’s the best show on television.I’ve heard some people say that The Newsroom, though good, is not in a league with Aaron Sorkin’s signature television creation, The West Wing, and of course it isn’t – The White House and the issues and lives that move around it are indeed in a different league from any newsroom.  But for a show about the lives of cable news, The Newsroom appears just as strong, so far, as The West Wing was for the life and times of a great President.

And there’s this.  If Marshall McLuhan was right that “the medium is the message” – and I think he was – then news media, and the time we spend with them, and the way they report the actions of Presidents, may have more influence on our opinions than most of the Presidential actions themselves.  McLuhan wrote in the 1960s, and we have three 24/7 all news cable stations today in addition to the three networks – as well, of course, as the Internet.

Speaking of which, there’s another notion of McLuhan’s that helps explain The Newsroom‘s appeal.  McLuhan observed that as technologies and media get outmoded, they can come to be appreciated as art forms.  As soon as I heard this, I thought of delicatessen – meat at first spiced for preservation, now enjoyed for taste.  Convertible cars are another example – first driven to keep physically cool, now (after the advent of air conditioning) to be socially cool.  Or silent movies – one of which recently won an Oscar for its unspoken art.  The more we get our information and breaking news from Twitter and Facebook, the more cable news is becoming a suitable subject of art, too.

Life and media are evolving so quickly nowadays, that specific events can become worthy of artistic treatment after just a year or two.  The Newsroom tells real news stories – at this point though 2010 and the beginning of 2011.   This Sunday brought us to The Newsroom on a Saturday in January 2011.  We didn’t learn until near the end – unless, maybe, we were consulting a calendar – that the galvanizing news event for this day’s story was the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.  Anchor Will McAvoy and his brilliant, dedicated people courageously resist reporting her death, until and unless explicitly confirmed by a physician.  It was a heart rending, enobling moment, because we at home  knew the good truth.  It was also reminiscent of the misreporting by Fox News and CNN, several weeks ago, of the US Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act.  Of the three cables, only MSNBC got that right (all three were wrong in their initial reporting of Giffords).

MSNBC is my favorite cable news station in reality.  But I like McAvoy a little better.  He and his cohorts are a little more articulate than anyone on real television. Hey, that’s what art and the improved reflection it gives us of reality is all about.

“Real news is bad news -bad news about somebody, or bad news for somebody.” – Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, MIT Press edition, p. 205.
“The news automatically becomes the real world for the TV user and is not a substitute for reality, but is itself an immediate reality.” Essential McLuhan, p. 272.
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2 Responses to “HBO’s Newsroom and Marshall McLuhan”

  1. 1 Mo

    inane, stupid stuff by a writer full of himself and no clue about how self-serving he and the whole media club actually is.
    i saw the first show, which was okay. was really annoyed by the infantile, phony hysteria in the 2nd show. unwatchable.
    3rd show challenge: how much goody two-shoe narcisstic clap trap can one stand before turning off?

    • Greetings, Mo. I’m sorry you don’t like Sorkin and his latest effort, but chacun à son goût. I agree with Paul Levinson that The Newsroom is the best dramatic series on TV right now. Thanks for your comment……AlexK

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