Blog Post

Newscasts from The Office

X-posted from Culture Rover.

#377 – Newscasts from The Office

pseudo-reality television and the news on timescast.

The newly-launched TimesCast daily web video by the New York Times takes us into the newsroom to get a quick, digitized sense of what stories the crack staff of the Old Gray Lady are following and writing. Watching the webcast, a strange new kind of pseudo-reality itself becomes newsworthy.

The webcast wants to bring the viewer into the Times as if we were watching a really good PBS documentary—”The Making of The Day’s News” or some such show. Or perhaps a great documentary film, such as War Room. Or maybe we are watching a reinterpretation of the final season of The Wire if David Simon had actually thought modern journalism was a success and not a total failure.

But that’s not the real story. I’ve buried the lead. What is most peculiar about the webcast is that it comes to feel like episodes of a reality series, or better said a pseudo-reality series, such as The Office. On TimesCast, the newsroom drama starts to overshadow the drama of the news.

We see recurring characters who seem like they are “acting” at being journalists. They are “making a newspaper” even as they are, in reality, making a newspaper. We start to follow them as recurring character-types even though we are supposed to imagine them as mere vessels for the stories they are following, investigating, and writing (oh, there’s the well-chiseled but pompous senior editor; there’s the aspiring reporter; hey, what is he wearing today? WHAT is he wearing today? And so on).

We not only become voyeurs for the famous Page One meeting, but are taken into conversations between editors and writers that come across as mock-spontaneous dialogues—conversations about real issues that start to feel staged by the presence of the camera. One is left thinking: do these conversations actually occur in the newsroom, or are they entirely fabricated for the cameras, or some in-between combination of the two?

I think what’s most fascinating about TimesCast is precisely this in-between quality. The show wants to rewrite The Wire, but in the ambiguous space between cinéma vérité and staged performance, TimesCast more weirdly starts to seem like a sequel to The Office than a rebuke to David Simon.

For here is the presentation of “reality” (real people making the news) done in a way that keeps shading into the feel of a pseudo-reality show (inevitably calling to mind the camera work and acting styles of The Office). And the pseudo-reality show mode of The Office, we should recall, was brilliant exactly because it imitated the reality show style that first gained popularity in the 1990s. Which, we should recall, itself was a fictionalized version of “reality.” Big Brother is watching, but it is we, the viewers, who are watching Big Brother. Real World is realer than real precisely because it is hyper-mediated, dramatized, and, ultimately, unreal.

The Office is a show about many things, but it is primarily about the effort to find something real when you have the nagging feeling that, in the modern work wasteland of postindustrial corporate capitalism, nothing is. The show’s creators make a new and painful type of comedy out of the absurd pointlessness of clerical and managerial labor. After all, does anyone really care, either on the show or in the viewing audience, that The Office sells paper?

And will anyone care anymore, watching Timescast, that the Times sells newspapers? What is on sale here, exactly, as we gaze at this strange new genre of reality television as it uneasily dances between the real and the staged?

Those questions remain to be answered, but what better mode to think about how the news gets made (or should that be how “the news” gets made?) than through this unstable and uncertain movement between the actual and the constructed, the fictionalized and the truthful, the mock-up and the paper of record.

Between just the facts, ma’am and all that’s fit to print is where TimesCast seems to cast its spell—and break its story.

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