Top 20 Lessons for Journalism Students from HBO’s “The Newsroom”

…and 30 other random observations, many out of order (think before talk). Some are true, some not. Some are less “top” than others.

For links to reviews of the show and the Hemingway-Gellhorn film, see my previous post. HBO customers can get online videos; the rest of us can use HBO’s official The Newsroom website for supplementary information and synopses of episodes.”

Class assignment in the fall will be to decide which items on this list are true and/or important — and to make your own list, preferably thinking and talking more slowly than Sorkin characters. The more linear-minded may number their lists. I took the numbers off this one, and wish I could randomize it. The class: Portrayal of Journalists in Film, Fiction and Popular Culture.

Yes, I’ll probably edit this a few times before September.

  • A democracy needs robust, honest journalism.
  • Talk fast.
  • Think fast.
  • Opinions are O.K. when you have the facts and say where you got them.
  • We’ve had enough of slogan-filled talking-head shouting-matches.
  • Every pretty blonde with a power-puff question is a sorority girl.
  • Sorority girls’ parents may sue if you’re not nice.
  • Have a walking-around knowledge of Cervantes, Shakespeare, Frank Capra, contemporary Musical Theater, and  how to tell one from the other. (Tip: Read Joe Saltzman’s book about all the journalists in Capra films, 1920s-’40s. Watch some of them on YouTube, starting with the first 1928 link.)
  • Don’t call Rocinante a donkey.
  • Know the difference between the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
  • Know who wrote them.
  • Use the phone.
  • Take notes.
  • Beware patriotic buzzwords like “Freedom.”
  • Believe in freedom.
  • Have a sense of history and a sense of greatness.
  • Office romances are essential to journalism movies.
  • Anchors make millions.
  • Producers do the work.
  • On-camera reporters just turn up when you need them.
  • Teleprompters are for wimps.
  • Tough, strong older women mentor younger women by instigating romances and promising shopping trips.
  • Work for a place that buys you Moleskine reporter’s notebooks ($12) not the $17-a-dozen spiral kind, or buy your own.
  • Have a head full of walking-around knowledge, including facts and figures. (Know how much of your tax dollar goes to the N.E.A., how many Americans are in prison, more. Only the most obsessive will double-check to see if you’re right. When you use them in your reporting, be right.)
  • Someone spouting statistics in the middle of a panel discussion is probably making up 80 percent of them.
  • Don’t trust people in authority to tell you how important something is; even an Associated Press yellow alert may be posted by an intern who doesn’t have time to raise it to orange or red.
  • Being there as a loyal intern can result in good things.
  • Loyalty counts.
  • Love counts, but complicates things.
  • Respect your parents, even when lying to them.
  • Respect your s.o.’s parents. Etc.
  • Apologize.
  • Do your best.
  • Demand the best from others.
  • Speak your mind.
  • Let business leaders speak their P.R. platitudes if they give you something honest at the same time.
  • Multi-millionaire geniuses and Peabody winners with battle scars can be condescending.
  • Indians don’t mind being stereotyped as “Punjab” or “the I.T. guy” if they are really bloggers and closet science geeks. If they are under 50, they probably never read a “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip anyway. (Was Punjab also in the musical, “Annie”? If so, see rule #1.)
  • Learn how to get people on the phone.
  • Learn how to use the hold button.
  • Blog.
  • Use Twitter.
  • Figure it out.
  • Say condescending things about your audience, like “Speak truth to stupid,” but don’t really mean them.
  • Don’t mention Hildy Johnson, Mary Tyler Moore, Lou Grant, Murphy Brown, Network or Broadcast News.
  • If you want all the excitement of real reporting, such as watching journalists pore over stacks of library charge slips, see “All the President’s Men.”
  • Remember people’s names.
  • Remember significant statistics up to eight digits.
  • Pick your college roommate wisely, and stay in touch.
  • Pick your older sister wisely, and stay in touch.
  • Take that grade school build-a-volcano project seriously.
  • YouTube!
  • More than 70 years after “The Front Page,” the best journalists still talk tough and drink straight whiskey. Protein bars are for losers. 
  • It’s all about vertigo.

More links about the series and the recent Hemingway & Gellhorn
film
.

Theory worth testing: The angriest negative reviews of The Newsroom were written out of guilt by reviewers who think they should be doing serious journalism themselves instead of writing about HBO entertainment programming and wishing it were better. (See Murrow on, “merely wires and lights in a box.”)

Final random observation: Anyone so taken with Jeff Daniels as a news anchor that they want him to step out of the HBO set and move to CNN hasn’t seen “The Purple Rose of Cairo.”


For video of episode 1 of The Newsroom and links to reviews of the show and the Hemingway-Gellhorn film, see my previous post.

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.

Posted in fiction, film, jheroes, Journalism, media studies, popular culture, Television

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