I have a habit—good or bad, I’m not sure—of watching something not for the plot, but for a specific person involved. It’s my way of providing support, I suppose, and it’s not just about favorite actors; I do the same thing for certain writers, directors, artists and composers.
Last spring, I saw a few ads for The Newsroom, an HBO drama from Aaron Sorkin, and it starred Jeff Daniels. I adore Jeff Daniels—always have, ever since I was little and saw Fly Away Home— and it looked like an interesting show. I didn’t have HBO or the time to watch, so I put it on my list, but not for immediate consumption.
About a month ago, I realized that Aaron Sorkin, whom I previously only knew from The West Wing and The Social Network (neither of which I have seen yet), had been responsible for a film that had a real, formative influence on me as a kid: The American President. The time was right. I needed to watch The Newsroom.
I watched the pilot episode on a Saturday afternoon, and it was like an epiphany, or something. I watched it again that night and once more the next day. If you never watch the whole series, okay, whatever, but watch the pilot. At the very least, get on Youtube and search “Jeff Daniels Newsroom speech.” I’m begging you, on my hands and knees.
For me, it was a sort of call to action, especially as an educator. The episode opens in a college auditorium, where a professor is moderating a Q and A with three people whom we assume are journalists. Among them is Jeff Daniels’ character, Will, who responds to questions mainly with jokes.
One of the students asks the journalists what they think makes America the greatest country on earth, and the first two answer with “freedom” and “democracy.” Will tries to play it off, but the moderator holds him to an answer, and he sees a woman in the crowd holding a sign that says, “It’s not. But it can be.”
It’s clear Will believes this, and the moderator pushes him to give a truthful answer, which turns into a rant that is the launching point for the entire series. Will ends with this:
“We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it, it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in our last election. And we didn’t…we didn’t scare so easy. We were able to be all these things, and to do all these things, because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered. First step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”
Maybe we were once the greatest country in the world, but the things that we think make us the greatest, such as freedom and democracy? They aren’t exclusive to America anymore, and you could make a convincing argument that they aren’t alive in America anymore, either.
According to the CIA World Factbook, the United States is 49th in infant mortality and 51st in life expectancy. Statistics provided by the International Centre for Prison Studies show that as of 2011, the United States had 2,239,751 citizens incarcerated—the most per capita in the world. A study conducted by Pearson ranks the United States as 17th in education.
One of Will’s co-workers responds to his rant by saying, “America is the only country on the planet that, since its birth, has said over and over and over that we can do better. It’s part of our DNA.”
So how do we do better?
I think Will told us in his rant. Everything we’ve done, we’ve been able to do by being well-informed. We are a democracy, dependent on the voice of our citizens, and our citizens are no longer well-informed. We’ve become a nation of parrots, repeating what we hear on whichever nightly news station we subscribe to.
I’m urging you to find an app that pulls together top news stories from different sources. I prefer Feedly, myself. If you don’t know much about the kind of news outlets available, do a Google search. I have my Feedly set up to give me articles from the New York Times, ABC, NBC, The Huffington Post, Fox News, Al Jazeera, BBC, Slate, The Guardian and NPR, and I should probably add some more.
New to reading the news? Here’s my advice.
Question everything you read. Remember that there is never only one side to a story. Look for multiple sources. Fact check. Never make judgments about breaking news; the very nature of breaking news means that no one knows everything yet.
Becoming a well-informed citizen isn’t just about reading the news. It’s about considering the news, the people who write it, the people discussed within it and how all of those things affect the rest of the world. A well-informed citizen thinks about other people in a complex way—not what they are, but who they are.
It’s tempting to find a outlet that spins the news in a way that fits your belief system. Doing that puts the world in the light you want to see it in, and you don’t have to question your outlook. It’s more comfortable that way.
But no one ever accomplished anything by being comfortable, and we’re trying to fix a nation, here.
**Photo Concept: something regarding America/citizenship/voting – an eagle? Or somehow some 20-something person looking well-informed?