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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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.

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The NewsroomOn August 25, Don urges Will to retrace the steps of the legal process that led to Georgia resident Troy Davis's death sentence in connection to the murder of an off-duty cop in 1989. He declines, saying it would be unfair to "relitigate" a case that's already been given due process of law. It isn't clear whether ACN provides more coverage of the situation, but on September 21, ACN reports as breaking news that Troy Davis has been executed after being denied clemency by the Supreme Court.

The news: Some outlets gave considerably compassionate coverage to Davis's lawyers' last-minute appeal. For example, NBC's Brian Williams and Thanh Truong reported on the protests at the Supreme Court just before Davis's 7 p.m. scheduled execution. According to Truong, "Barring a legal miracle, Troy Davis has just minutes left to live."

CNN's coverage just before his execution even included footage of protesters celebrating at 7:04 p.m. that the time of Davis's scheduled execution had passed without an execution taking place. "Certainly in the period leading up to 7 o'clock, he was strapped to the gurney and the IV quite likely placed into his arm. But they couldn't begin the procedure until they received word from the Supreme Court," explained CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

"I don't know how you feel about this case, I don't know how you feel about the death penalty. But this is just an awful, excruciating scene."

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The Newsroom: The ACN producers agonize over how to ethically report on American-born al-Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki's death by a drone strike on Sept. 21. Will initially refuses to appear to sympathize with al-Awlaki, but later, while listing off unfair legal decisions to an officer at a police station, he laments that "Anwar al-Awlaki was killed today. It wasn't an accident. There was no warrant, no arrest, no arraignment, no judge, no jury, and no appeal."

Ultimately, ACN's coverage remains neutral (as far as we can tell), as Elliott reports only what al-Awlaki was accused of and some details on the way he died. Will, though, reveals plans to publicly demand to see the memorandum that authorizes drone strikes against Americans accused of, but never tried for, involvement with terrorism.

The news: Not all news outlets arrived at the same conclusion as ACN the day al-Awlaki died. Some, like CNN and ABC, hailed his death as a victory in the war on terror. "In terms of immediate threat," said ABC investigative correspondent Brian Ross, "it could prove to be more significant than the death of Osama Bin Laden."

Will, Charlie, and Mackenzie's hesitance to welcome al-Awlaki's death as good news, though, echoes some voices who decried the killing of an American without due process of law--among them, notably, Glenn Greenwald and Ron Paul.