Sunday night’s episode of HBO’s The Newsroom saw Don (Thomas Sadoski) take his turn in front of a high-priced legal team led by Rebecca (Marcia Gay Harden) debriefing the ACN team on what went wrong with their season-long investigation into a U.S. Marine mission called Operation Genoa, wherein chemical weapons were allegedly used. Last week, we finally saw the cardinal sin that poisoned the well, main-chance-pursuing producer Jerry Dantana’s selective editing of a key interview to gird the story, but Episode 7 finally revealed what the these debriefings framing this season have been all about. Throw to Don:
“A producer comes up from D.C.; he wants to make a name for himself in New York. He chases a story that’s not there … He cooks an interview, takes a pair of scissors to raw footage, of a man on a street? Of a retired three-star Marine general. We go to air. Forty-eight hours it takes for the story to come undone and with it Atlantis Cable News. ACN is brought to its knees. The producer’s surgical strike is discovered and the producer is fired. Does he write an open letter to The New York Times apologizing to the public, his colleagues, the three-star General and the U.S. armed forces? No. He sues us for wrongful termination… If he doused the studio and kerosene and lit a tiki torch it wouldn’t have done as much damage.”
Jerry is claiming he is a scapegoat. He claims that Genoa evinced an “institutional failure,” a breakdown a system run by others, and that he alone is “paying the price for decisions made above him,” Rebecca reveals.
Did the team screw up as a team, or was it only as good as its weakest, cardinal-sinning link? There is a chain of responsibility in all investigative reporting – or there used to be when it existed in American news media, not on fictional HBO shows. Bad information needs to get by many gatekeepers who ostensibly got their jobs by not letting bad information through to air or print, but the gatekeepers also need to trust their information-gatherers or they would be scrutizing every dotted i and pixel. Just so, we flashed back to the last stages before the Genoa story was greenlit, namely the presentation of its elements to lead anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels). The staff is still torn, opposition to the story led by Jim (John Gallagher Jr.), who wrongly insists on a gut-feeling of the intrinsic goodness of American soldiers in the face of the evidence, while Jerry rightly points out that the U.S. military post-Abu Ghraib, -Haditha and -Gitmo have lost the privilege of presumption of moral high ground.
Of course, Jim’s wrong decision-making doesn’t make the gut-feeling itself wrong, and Jerry, we know, is prosecuting from aformentioned “cooked” evidence. Will doesn’t know that, though, and to the surprise of everyone, he reveals he has a source who has already clued him into the story. Grudgingly, news chief Charlie (Sam Waterston) and his EP, Mackenzie McHale, (Emily Mortimer) think it is now a story, and Will says he stands with them.
The story runs on a special broadcast that, for no good reason, business anchor Sloan (Olivia Munn) participates in because she is pretty, and its crux-point is the interview with the shrouded, voice-altered retired general Stomtonovich (Stephen Root). In Jerry’s doctored video, he says, “We used sarin,” sans the word “If” in front of it. An irate Stomtonovich phones Charlie immediately after the broadcast to protest, but they write it off as source-waffling that often happens when crap hits the fan. The broadcast proves a ratings bonanza, but an odd disquiet settles on the staff when the Pentagon, instead of vague denials, says it will go so far as to declassify documents and consider bringing charges under the Espionage Act.
More disquiet comes when, during a follow-up interview with the original Marine whistle-blower during Don’s 10 o’clock hour, the soldier reveals that he once sustained traumatic brain injury during a previous combat tour. “He lied about the injury,” Don sums, “and the injury’s No. 1 symptom is memory loss.”
Charlie reconnoiters with his ONI source, who had given him the manifest for the Genoa mission which had indicated some unorthodox supplies. ONI Guy, in a weirdly Deus Ex Sorkina curveball, shows pictures of his son, a drug-troubled ACN intern who was fired under a cloud, went into a downward spiral and wound up an OD-DOA. ONI Guy holds it against Charlie that he didn’t step in, and his sourcing on the Genoa story, he reveals, was an elaborate revenge ploy to destroy Charlie’s career. Mackenzie retraces her steps and begins to fear she led another military source, and, further, she scrutinizes Jerry’s interview footage and discovers the edit points via another Deus Ex Sorkina gimmick that I would say more about if it wasn’t stupid and telegraphed with fingers the size of hams for two full episodes.
But Mackenzie trusted her team. She confronts an unrepentant Dantana and fires him, with the baleful question that arises over every poisoned well, “Who’s ever going to believe us again?” This is the price of betraying the chain. Everybody loses.
After assessing, Will deems it an “institutional failure,” and he, Charlie and Mackenzie all meet with Atlantis boss Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda) to tender their resignations. Fonda basically puts a tiki torch to the set in an inspired few minutes of a daffy, drunk or stoned Leona, who with vulgar bombast, stands by the team. “No, I do not accept your resignations, and Jerry Dantana’s not going to get one f—king dollar!” She is going to bring in big legal guns. Rebecca enters in White Knight fashion, telling her not to accept their resignations.
“I already wasn’t accepting their resignations, Becca,” Leona says. “Don’t horn in on my honorable thing.”
“Leona!” Charlie interjects. “We don’t have the trust of the public anymore!”
To which she commands, “Get it back!”
More daffy drunken bombastic Jane Fonda, please.
New episodes of The Newsroom air Sunday nights at 10/9CT on HBO.