The News vs. The Newsroom: Did the Show Get Occupy Wall Street Right?

Comparing the HBO series' depictions of the Troy Davis execution, 9/11, and the death of Anwar al-Awlaki to what really happened

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HBO

The Newsroom takes place roughly two years in the past, where the ACN News Night team strives to virtuously and judiciously report the news as it happens. By reenacting headline-making happenings, Aaron Sorkin's HBO series comments both on those happenings and the way they were handled by journalists. So it's worth asking: How does The Newsroom's version of events fit in with the way these events really unfolded in the media?

Not always perfectly--but not always incorrectly, either. Here's how the second episode of The Newsroom's second season compares to the real-life news coverage and media narratives of the time period it portrays.


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The Newsroom: At a September 19 editorial meeting, staffers laugh off Neal's pitch on the emergence of a leaderless resistance movement known as Occupy Wall Street. On September 21, he is arrested at an Occupy Wall Street rally in Zuccotti Park.

The news: On September 19, much of the media perhaps was laughing at the notion of Occupy Wall Street being newsworthy. Keith Olbermann, though, was a step ahead. On that night's edition of Countdown With Keith Olbermann, he asked why major American news outlets had thus far ignored the protests in Zuccotti Park. "If this [were] a Tea Party rally in front of Wall Street about Ben Bernanke putting stimulus funds into it, that [would be] the lead story on every network newscast. How is that disconnect possible in this country today, with so many different outlets and so many different ways of transmitting news?"

"It's just kind of uncool for journalists to take these people who want to change the world seriously," said Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News, a guest on Olbermann's show.

On Sept. 21, though, camera-phone footage--much like Neal's--of Occupy arrests surfaced on YouTube.

Within a few days, other news outlets had begun covering Occupy Wall Street.


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The Newsroom: Two control-room operators watch decade-old footage of Will McAvoy's unexpected 16-hour first anchor shift at ACN on September 11, 2001, after the World Trade Center was attacked.

The news: Will's 16 hours behind the anchor desk covering the September 11 attacks may be inspired in part by Peter Jennings, the ABC anchor who spent roughly 17 hours straight on air that day and then continued in similar marathon stretches for the days after. According to The New York Observer's 2005 play-by-play of Jennings's 9/11 coverage,

Jennings arrived in his anchor chair just after 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. For 60 hours, he carried on an epic dialogue with correspondents, experts, eyewitnesses and emergency personnel, taking breaks to collect his thoughts. "It's not the rest issue here, quite frankly," he told Elizabeth Vargas as he ceded her the anchor chair at 2 a.m., for his first break, on Sept. 12. "It's important to get away and appraise what is happening in the country from a broader perspective than just sitting here."

By 10 a.m., he was back.

Like Will McAvoy, Jennings vowed to the public that the news would stay with the viewers until morning came: On the night of September 11, Jennings promised, "We're going to go on all day, and we'll continue throughout the night trying to get some grasp of this." According to the Observer,

It was just after 9 p.m. on Sept. 11, and he had been in the anchor chair for 12 hours. And he became highly emotional here, uncharacteristically choking his words, much as Walter Cronkite did when he announced President John F. Kennedy's death.

It would be another five hours before he took his first real break.

Here's Peter Jennings's signoff, in the early hours of Sept. 12, 2001, just at the end of his first shift on air that day.

Presented by

Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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