The fourth branch of government—as it used to be called, the media—is alive and well on Sunday nights. On this evening, the power of the free press to actively engage and keep the citizenry informed is on display. Journalists painstakingly identify faulty information that is being disseminated by misinformed “experts” and/or pundits, offering factual information in appropriate context without sensationalism. The news is being driven by the ever elusive quest for truth, rather than ratings or corporate interests.
All of this is happening not on any real news programs, of course, but on Aaron Sorkin’s wildly entertaining and earnest Newsroom. With its debut on HBO this summer, Jeff Daniels helms this drama as Will McAvoy, the anchor of a nightly cable newscast. With the help of a new team of producers, McAvoy embarks on a mission to upend cable news by returning to the values of pure journalism—keeping the citizenry informed so that they can be civically engaged, rather than treating the audience like consumers who are fed pre-packaged, sensationalized “infotainment” meant to distort, misinform, and divide the citizenry. Oh, and of course, intended to get the public to buy, buy, buy.
The basic premise of the show brings to the forefront the significant role the media can and should play in a well functioning democracy. Newsroom shines a harsh spotlight on the grim reality that very few, if any, news networks are even remotely approaching the aspirations the fictional ACN network is setting out to achieve with their new format. The reality is that monopolistic ownership (and corporatization, in particular) is threatening the very legitimacy of news in this day and age. At the heart of The First Amendment is the presumption that for a democratic system to remain uncorrupted, a free press must be an integral part of the republic. Business interests, corporate monopolies and agendas, and the dearth of independent media institutions have uprooted the very foundations with which democracy rests upon.
What does it say about the state of media in our culture today when citizens have the potential to become more informed by fake news? While Newsroom is of course fictional, the stories that the characters report on reflect actual events, beginning in 2010. Viewers are given behind the scenes access to the frenetic energy of a newsroom as it responds to such breaking news as the BP Spill in the Gulf, or the toppling of regimes as the “Arab Spring” comes into focus. I’m embarrassed to admit that in every episode, I learn more about these recent events from what is reported on these fictional newscasts than what I learned in real time as they unfolded several years ago (and if I were to be rated as a consumer of news in a research study, I would likely be categorized as an "expert" rather than an "amateur" consumer of news).
Although Newsroom is the most recent inception of fake news, other shows have pioneered the way for this dramatization. Social scientists have been studying The Daily Show hosted by John Stewart for years now, leading some researchers to coin the term, the John Stewart Effect. Guess what? Viewers who watch this comedy show are actually more informed on the goings on in the world than those who report only watching “real” news. Moreover, studies have expanded looking at the effects to see what role Stewart and Colbert have had in impacting public opinion, and even public policy, regarding relevant political and social topics.
So I implore us again to consider: what does it say about the state of media in our culture today when citizens have the potential to become more informed by fake news? Perhaps real news outlets should take a page from Sorkin’s newest drama. Calling all anchors: America is in desperate need of a real live Will McAvoy.