Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Pilot

Having never worked in a newsroom of any sort, I won't comment on the veracity of the newsroom atmosphere in the new HBO series The Newsroom. It is an interpretation anyway, and shouldn't be taken for an accurate depiction of a newsroom just like Aaron Sorkin's other shows The West Wing, Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip shouldn't be for their respective locales. The reality is that Sorkin is a genius with witty banter and other veins of fast-paced dialogue. And that, in and of itself, has made me a fan of all his previous works. So far, this show is no different. But, this blog isn't about my opinion. It's about the facts as they are portrayed in the show and how much they relate to the real facts.

WARNING: SPOILERS... Don't read on if you haven't seen the show, unless you want it partially ruined.

The story that The Newsroom tackles in this pilot episode is the April 20, 2010, explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. As most of you know, that explosion led to a leak that unleashed millions of barrels worth of oil into the gulf; harming local industry and wildlife. They actually get most of the facts right, even if there is no way the new team would have known some of the things they somehow knew.

One of the more interesting, and probably lesser known, aspects of this debacle that the show only lightly touches on, was the revelation of the Minerals Management Service (MMS) as an inept arm of the federal government. The show characterized them as underfunded and, therefore, understaffed. That's not quite far enough. The facts show that the now defunct MMS was a fairly corrupt segment of the Department of the Interior. Eight days prior to the explosion, an Assistant Inspector General for Investigations sent a memo to the MMS with the results of an investigation into their taking special benefits from the companies they were meant to be regulating. It showed that the practice of accepting tickets to football games and spots on hunting trips was fairly rampant. This, however, doesn't even begin to explain the conflict of interest that was built into the responsibilities of the MMS. They were tasked with inspecting oil wells and also collecting the money from the companies that ran those wells. The problem here is that if the oil isn't flowing, the MMS isn't taking in as much money, and it's their job to put a stop to any potentially dangerous situations in their own money making machine.

The MMS, thanks mostly to the light shed on it by this catastrophe has since been broken down into different divisions (each with its own totally unintelligible acronym). They still report to the Secretary of the Interior, but at least the same front-line people making regulatory decisions aren't asking the drillers for money at the same time.

The oft-maligned Halliburton pops up in this show that takes place on April 20th, despite not having been implicated until over a month later when their capping cement came under fire as a probable cause of the blast. This is explained away by saying that the new senior producer had a sister who worked at Halliburton and called him regarding the blast. This is called lucky and admitted to be unlikely by the show itself. To this day it is unclear whether or not Halliburton knew its cement could, or would, fail. BP has accused them of destroying evidence that their tests on the cement proved it could fail. This possibility is touched on in the show but left appropriately unclear.

That same senior producer also apparently had an old college roommate at BP. Well connected guy. That old college roommate called him to let him know that BP didn't know how to plug up the leak. Between this call and the amazing on-the-fly modeling of a complex physics problem by a news blogger, the news team was able to predict that this would be one of the biggest ecological disasters in the history of our country. Not a very likely conclusion, but the show admits this with a round of groans when the gloom and doom scenario is put forth. The media didn't even jump on a similar bandwagon until two days later, stating that it "could shape up to be one of the worst U.S. offshore oil accidents in a generation." Plus, the most dire third party estimates as late as May 1st, had the oil rushing out at 25,000 barrels per day, or, a bit less than half the real amount.

Through some revisionist timing, and deus ex machina connections, this show presents a fairly level view of the events surrounding this tragic event. It isn't perfect, but their hindsight vision is allowed to take a story that is still unfolding today and wrap it up in an entertaining little package for public consumption. I hadn't heard of the MMS before watching the show, and I'm glad I'll never have to again.

Brian William Waddell is a foodie, beer geek, and author. His numerous blog posts range from food to politics. He also has a book of poetry, Fractured Prose, available here, and is ready to publish his second poetic endeavor.


  1. Glad some one is doing this. i like the show.
    it would be even better if they where able to stick to the facts all the time.

  2. question - what about the facts that the main character spilled during the panel at the university about how the US ranks this and that in different areas.... Any take on those?

  3. @Rick, I couldn't find anything to definitively substantiate or refute those statistics. Thus, they were omitted. Some of them could very well have a basis in studies or reports from some academic source.

  4. @Rick i believe it was either the UN or UNESCO that came out with a study comparing the 30 richest countries based on a myriad of issues including education, healthcare, equality and many more. the usa ranked in the bottom 10 for most of these issues and 17 overall, so all of what was said was true.

  5. Brian,

    I took a stab at fact checking the numbers while also critiquing the argument from "Will McAvoy."

    Some are closer than others to trustworthy sources such as the CIA World Fact Book, and as you hint above the numbers aren't necessarily definitive (different countries measure some things differently).

    The child mortality ranking's way off, and the one about belief in angels probably lacks any good foundation.

    More importantly, I critiqued the overall argument that there's no evidence the U.S. is the greatest nation. In summary, McAvoy presents a very weak argument in making his case.


    Nifty site. Keep up the good work.

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