It’s the beginning of the end of “The Newsroom.” On Sunday night, the series kicked off its third and final six-episode season with its usual premise: The ACN “News Night with Will McAvoy” team covering a major news event that occurred many months ago in real life.
This time, it was the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013, a tragedy that resulted in an online frenzy thanks to false rumors about the suspects that spread like wildfire. Sorkin, who wrote the episode, extensively pointed out everything that went wrong, heavily placing the blame on social media, Reddit and citizen journalism. Here’s what seems to be his biggest issues with the news these days:
Hallie – the Romney campaign reporter who dated producer Jim last season and now apparently works at “News Night” – starts scrolling through Twitter the moment there’s chatter that something terrible has happened at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. There’s no word on exactly what occurred, though many tweets claim there were explosions and it’s a mass-casualty incident. That leads to this conversation between Hallie and executive producer Mackenzie:
Mac: “We’re not putting Will on the air to say, ‘Something bad may have happened in Boston, but we’re not sure what.’ ”
Hallie: “This isn’t speculative anymore!”
Mac: “We’re not going based on tweets from witnesses we can’t talk to. What credible news agency would do that?”
Producer Gary: “Fox is up!” (Cut to: Fox News reporting on the bombing.)
2) Networks that report stories without official confirmation
As the story appears on every single cable news network except ACN, network president Reese vents with a sarcastic “No, no, guys, take your time.” Unfortunately, Will, Mac and the team are still gun-shy after getting badly burned last season with the disastrous Genoa story, a huge scoop that turned out to be a lie. They don’t want to be wrong again.
“If we’re not first, we may as well be last and know something,” explains news division director Charlie, still rocking the bow tie.
Hallie, meanwhile, is incredulous. “I’m tracking 2,221 tweets describing two explosions at the finish line at the Boston Marathon,” she whispers to blogger Neal. “What exactly are we waiting for?”
“Are any of them from official sources?” Neal asks.
“Do you understand the explosions occurred in the 21st century?” Hallie shoots back.
Neal shakes his head, “Welcome to ACN.”
Finally, “News Night” gets two official confirmations and Will breaks into regular news coverage to report on the bombings. At some point during the scramble, Jim goes over to check on Hallie, who still looks annoyed that no one took the tweets seriously.
“She got a ton of stuff first. It’s just that Mac wasn’t willing to go with it…” Neal trails off. Then he makes his own prediction: “Social media is going to solve this crime.”
That earns this barb from Jim: “Crowd sourcing law enforcement – that went off without a hitch in Salem.”
4) The Internet
Neal is always getting contacted by random Internet users — whom Mac dubs “the nocturnal nut brigade” — with theories. During a staff meeting, Neal tries to explain that he was contacted by someone who has classified information and wants to pass it along via an air gap computer, or a computer that has never been connected to the Internet.
“There’s literally a gap of air between the computer and the rest of the world,” Neal explains.
“That’s what I imagine the afterlife is like if you’ve been good,” Don snarks back.
5) The media celebrating a competitor’s mistake
On CNN, John King reports that a suspect in the bombing has been arrested – everyone at ACN flips out because they don’t have that piece of info. A little later, a cheer erupts from the newsroom because CNN was wrong (no one was arrested) and it had to retract the story on air. Charlie and Will do not like the celebration of an error.
“What are you doing?” Charlie screams at the staff. “Worst moment in this guy’s life, and you’re cheering? Why? Because you think if someone gets in line in back of you, it means the line moved? We still blew Genoa! And if there’s anyone in the world who should be able to empathize with CNN right now, you would think it would be the people in this room!”
Everyone apologizes and gets back to work while Charlie and Will exchange a discreet low-five. “Dodged a (expletive) bullet there,” Charlie whispers.
There’s an extended scene that essentially breaks down information found in stories such as this one from the Atlantic, about the initial misidentifying of the Boston bombing suspects. With a giant map and timeline on a dry erase board, executive producer Don and Jim break it down for people: After the New York Post misidentified two innocent people as the suspects, the FBI issued actual photos of the suspects.
“Within minutes, users on Reddit…” Don began.
“All got together and decided the best thing to do is step back and let the professionals do their job?” Mac interrupts.
Obviously not. Jim and Don explain that Reddit users compared the photos with a picture of a young man named Sunil Tripathi, a missing student at Brown. Then, a Reddit user named Greg Hughes tweeted that the Boston police scanner identified the suspects as Mike Mulugeta and Sunil Tripathi. With no verification, that tweet was picked up by a cameraman and a Buzzfeed reporter with 81,000 followers and started making its way around Twitter. (Mac: “A reporter at Buzzfeed has 81,000 followers?!”)
They said that Hughes added: “In 2013, all you need is a connection to the Boston police scanner and a Twitter feed to know what’s up. We don’t even need TV anymore.”
And even though ACN had at least 10 officials on the record confirming that Tripathi was not a suspect and that the information was incorrect, the Hughes tweet still went viral, leading the Internet to start celebrating that Reddit had solved the bombing. Meanwhile, Tripathi’s sister received dozens of death and rape threats, and the family had to take down a Facebook page asking for help in Tripathi’s disappearance. (Which Redditors pointed to as more evidence of guilt.)
Then, the information wound up being wrong, and brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev turned out to be the actual suspects. “Well done, faceless mob!” Mac announced as Will raced off to report the accurate news.
7) Citizen journalism
At the end of the episode, Will is about to go on air to say that suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured in Watertown on a boat in a backyard. However, it’s a tense time, as he just learned that the ACN ratings for the last quarter have been horrible and someone might be trying to buy the company. In a rage, Will declares he will quit.
Then, he returns to deliver this speech to his team, apparently having changed his mind immediately as he reflected on the events of the week and realizes that people still use the news media. It’s a classic Sorkin monologue:
“You know who did great this week? The police. The FBI. The DOJ. Homeland Security. In less than 100 hours, they found two needles in a haystack the size of the world. You know who sucked? Everybody else. Two times in 24 hours, law enforcement officials had to publicly disclose information before they wanted to because either a paper or Web site put someone’s life in danger. So I’m not so easily surrendering to citizen journalists or citizen detectives.”