Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama, “The Newsroom,” unfolds, as the title suggests, in the newsroom of a major cable network, the fictional Atlantis Cable News, or ACN.
The show routinely takes real-life stories from the news and integrates them into the fictional life of its ever ironic, impossibly glib characters, whose politics span the left-right gamut from A to B.
A recently broadcast episode, set in March 2012, deals – dishonestly – with two subjects of interest to me: one is the George Zimmerman case; the other is WND.
The ACN news leads with a tease on the Trayvon Martin shooting in Sanford, Fla. As the show airs, the Sanford PD has just released the audio file of Zimmerman’s dispatcher call.
The producers want to play the audio during the news, but it downloads at a snail’s pace. Junior producer Maggie Jordan is left, as she will tell a senior producer, “six minutes to cut a five minute piece of audio down to 25 seconds.”
In the 25 seconds of the call ACN airs, the audience hears something similar to what the real NBC audience heard multiple times in March 2012: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about. He looks black.”
Here is how the actual tape played out:
ZIMMERMAN: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.
SANFORD PD: OK, and this guy – is he black, white or Hispanic?
ZIMMERMAN: He looks black.
When the show’s producers understand the implications of Jordan’s edit, they alert host Will McAvoy, and he offers a correction and apology before the show ends.
“You weren’t trying to see justice done?” the producer asks Jordan unaware, as was Sorkin, that the newsroom’s idea of “justice” and the thinking world’s were fully at odds.
“I had one pass. I was hearing it for the first time,” she insists, and the audience is led to believe that she is telling the truth. In real life, of course, nothing was nearly this innocent.
The mischief began at WJTV in Miami, an NBC affiliate. On March 19, the day of the tape’s release, veteran reporter Jeff Burnside fronted a piece that featured an edit much more abrupt and deceptive than the one heard on “The Newsroom,” to wit, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.” That was it.
The edit no doubt fueled the firestorm building against Zimmerman especially in Florida, and for the time being at least, it aired without push back.
On March 20 and again on March 22, Lilia Luciano, reporting from Sanford for national NBC News, aired a news segment with a comparable edit, the second of these two occasions on the “Today” show. Actually, national NBC pushed the distortion a little further.
ZIMMERMAN: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.
SANFORD PD: Did you see what he was wearing?
ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, a dark hoodie.
NBC also edited out Zimmerman’s complete response. “Yeah, a dark hoodie like a gray hoodie,” said Zimmerman, adding, “He wore jeans or sweat pants and white tennis shoes. He’s here now.” To Zimmerman, the hoodie was an incidental detail.
After the editors at NBC got through with him, Zimmerman appeared to have focused exclusively on Martin’s race and hoodie. Luciano’s report passed without much comment.
On March 27, however, NBC’s Ron Allen made the mistake of exposing this edit to the full light of day on a “Today” show feature.
Allen, who is himself black, led with the same abridged quote, both in audio and in text. Then, while explaining the case, Allen and his producer showed two innocent photos of Martin taken years earlier despite the availability of more recent photos.
The “Newsroom” piece, by the way, would also lead with a photo of a 12-year-old Martin, a breach of journalistic ethics in itself and one for which McAvoy does not apologize.
NBC’s Allen then played a more subtly dismembered excerpt from Zimmerman’s exchange with the SPD dispatcher, again with both text and audio:
SANFORD PD: Are you following him?
SANFORD PD: OK. We don’t need you to do that.
Left on the editing room floor was Zimmerman’s response to the dispatcher’s request, “OK.” In fact, Zimmerman took the dispatcher’s advice and stopped following Martin.
Later that same day, Miami Rep. Frederica Wilson famously ranted, “Trayvon was hunted down like a rabid dog. He was shot in the street. He was racially profiled.” For all her hyperbole, everything Wilson said tracked with what she could have heard on NBC.
The Allen piece woke the conservative watchdogs, none more prominent than Brent Bozell, head of the Media Research Center and its online presence, Newsbusters.
“This isn’t distortion. This isn’t bias,” Bozell told Sean Hannity on March 30. “This is an all out falsehood by NBC News.” Bozell was right.
Although it might seem too unlikely to be true, it does appear that WJTV in Miami and national NBC made the same “error” independent of each other. Each of them received an unedited tape from the Sanford PD and performed comparable surgery on it.
For its part, WTJV fired Jeff Burnside, the reporter responsible for the misrepresentation, and NBC fired Luciano.
Only on “The Newsroom” were these edits thought to be “errors.” They had the effect of defaming Zimmerman and inspired him to bring suit against the network, Ron Allen, Lilia Luciano and Jeff Burnside.
If that were not deception enough for one episode, Sorkin spins a side plot about WND, mentioned alternately as “WorldNetDaily.”
An ACN producer, being ironic of course, tells a WND reporter that a would-be solicitor general has spoken to a group called the “Righteous Daughters of Jihadi Excellence.”
WND runs the story with no other source. The ACN people are appalled. “Does WND even have an editor?” says the producer’s colleague. The producer then calls the WND reporter and reams him out with lots of F-bombs thrown in for good measure.
Yes, our progressive friends are entirely fabulous when they get to write the scripts. Maybe, if he writes glibly enough, Sorkin can even get Obamacare to work.