Sorkin, Clooney, Al Jazeera America

To continue the discussion about the future of news from my recent column "Citizen Bezos": Al Jazeera America is now on air with promises to offer in-depth, objective journalism and with the financial wherewithal to invest in high-standard news gathering and avoid short-term commercial pressures that often compromise the quality of content.

Aaron Sorkin, who created one of the great political television series with "The West Wing," has now created "The Newsroom," which promised an insightful look at cable news. George Clooney set the standard with his film "Good Night and Good Luck," which was a masterpiece fusion between entertainment, journalism and democracy in telling the story of Edward R. Murrow and his battle against Joseph McCarthy.

I watched the first season of "The Newsroom" with high hopes and high praise in my writing, but in the second season it has at times descended into the media mediocrity it once aspired to transcend. 

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The show's demeaning of the Occupy Wall Street movement was a low point of the current television season and a demonstration of elitist contempt for far-reaching financial reform that plagues politics, markets and media. 

As OWS suggests, there is indeed a 1 percent, which has dominating influence, and a 99 percent, which is often ripped off in rigged markets. OWS has been one of the most paradigm-challenging movements since Martin Luther King Jr.

It offers a frontal challenge to systematic corruption that harms the financial well-being of hundreds of millions of Americans. We live a time in economic history comparable to the Gilded Age in the 19th century and the Roaring '20s that preceded the 1929 crash and Depression. Our punishing high joblessness and grotesquely unfair disparities of income are accepted as the "new normal" throughout the worlds of politics, finance and media.

Like the young people and women at Tahrir Square during the advent of the Arab Spring, OWS offers an authentic grassroots movement seeking fairness for the majority against injustice from privileged elites.

King would have supported Occupy Wall Street — unlike certain politicians who will soon eloquently invoke his name — for the same reasons he championed the Poor People's March. Murrow would have given OWS substantial in-depth attention.

By contrast, Sorkin hired a fleet of cable consultants such as Chris Matthews and then trashed OWS on "The Newsroom." In a recent episode, an OWS supporter was humiliated and abused by the show's anchor, who insulted and berated her during an interview. 

Sorkin could have offered a thoughtful discussion of economic disparity and corruption. He did not. The show could have included a cogent libertarian such as Ron Paul to offer a serious financial debate. It did not. Sorkin's "Newsroom" treated OWS as a cheap prop for an insulting stunt which mirrored the shallow coverage the movement received on most cable networks and the outright derision it received on Fox News.

I tuned in the following episode, hoping for better. Instead the next episode ignored OWS and sank to "dialogue" of gutter profanity that included use of the "F" word 14 times, use of the "S" word nine imes, and a long story line about whether "The Newsroom" business reporter had posed for nude pictures. She had. 

Visuals of Murrow and Cronkite that opened the show during season one had disappeared by season two in symbolic gesture of falling standards. Our democracy is plagued and our citizens are harmed by a secrecy and insiderism of politics and finance where the game is fixed and the deck is stacked.

In this climate, the media, and dramas about the media, should let citizens and audiences inside the backrooms. What is the point of a television show about year-old events — a potentially brilliant innovation — if the revisiting is treated with as much contempt and shallowness as the original?

"The Newsroom" could have been an equalizer with integrity. Instead it became another perpetrator with profanity. Sorkin is better than this.

The arrival of Al Jazeera America holds promise. The network promises a higher standard of cable news reminiscent of the early days of CNN under Ted Turner, whose luminous presence is sorely missed in contemporary cable news.

Like Jeff Bezos at The Washington Post, Al Jazeera America brings financial clout that creates vast potential. Hiring Ali Velshi for financial news is an outstanding start. Velshi is a first-rate journalist who might well provide the depth that is a stranger to most cable news, which have widely become an inside joke about inside baseball aimed at a small circle of insiders.

George Clooney's film "Good Night and Good Luck" set the standard for entertainment and journalism. David Strathairn's Murrow and Clooney's Fred Friendly brilliantly remind us of the glory days of CBS News and earlier higher standards of television news.

There are hints this spirit is returning to CBS News today. In an interview for this column, Ali Velshi of Al Jazeera America told me, "We are committed to telling stories that are under-reported in the news, about people who are underserved in the news and are not getting good information about finance and the economy." Will Bezos at The Washington Post and Al Jazeera America carry this standard and lift the future of news? Stay tuned. 

Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Bill Alexander, then chief deputy majority whip of the House. He holds an LL.M. degree in international financial law from the London School of Economics. He can be read on The Hill’s Pundits Blog and reached at brentbbi@webtv.net.