|THE WEST WING|
October 4, 2000
Media correspondent Terence Smith looks at NBC's popular White House drama series, "The West Wing."
ONLINE SPECIAL: View extended interviews from cast and crew from "The West Wing" as well as former staff from the real White House.
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
SPOKESPERSON: And the Emmy goes to: "The West Wing."
TERENCE SMITH: At this year's Emmy ceremony in Hollywood, an unprecedented nine awards went to the White House-based series "The West Wing."
SPOKESPERSON: Casey's going to want appropriations.
TERENCE SMITH: What is remarkable about "The West Wing" is that it has become a top-rated show with a weekly audience of some 15 million viewers by dealing with serious Washington subjects. So serious, in fact, that the show has been nicknamed "The West Wonk."
AARON SORKIN, Creator, "The West Wing:" There is tremendous drama to be gotten from the great, what you would say heavy issues.
TERENCE SMITH: Aaron Sorkin is the creator and principal writer of "The West Wing."
AARON SORKIN: There's also drama to be gotten from issues that most people would consider very dry and wouldn't want to pay any attention to.
TERENCE SMITH: In fact, "The West Wing" plot lines often seem drawn from the headlines.
MAN: I submit to those senators who have voted time and time again to ban soft money...
TERENCE SMITH: Last spring, as the White House and Congress were doing battle on campaign finance reform legislation, so was the drama.
JOHN SPENCER: None of the four of you favor a ban on soft money contributions, but the truth is you do.
|Dealing with real-life issues|
TERENCE SMITH: And while the real West Wing was grappling with the potential of an India-Pakistan nuclear conflict -
MAN: The average per capita income is $400.
TERENCE SMITH: -- so was the drama.
MARTIN SHEEN: The longest peacetime economic expansion in our history...
TERENCE SMITH: And President Jeb Bartlet prepared for the State of the Union address in much the same fashion as President Clinton. Last season the show took on hate crimes, capital punishment, the ethanol tax, school vouchers and mandatory minimum sentences, among other traditionally wonkish subjects.
AARON SORKIN: Last year, we did an episode that -- about the census. You just say the word "census" and people fall asleep. It's a questionnaire; turns out it's terribly important.
ROB LOWE: Head counts have proven staggeringly inaccurate.
ALLISON JANNEY: Why?
SPOKESMAN: How are you going to count the homeless?
TERENCE SMITH: In the plot, C.J. Cregg, the press secretary, played by Allison Janney, confesses that she does not understand the concept of a census undercount.
ROB LOWE: Sampling, statisticians have told us, is a much more effective way of getting a good census.
ALLISON JANNEY: And what's the legal argument?
ROB LOWE: The legal argument is it's unconstitutional. The legal argument is it's law.
ALLISON JANNEY: If sampling is against the law, why would Congress trying to be passing legislation saying sampling is against the law?
ROB LOWE: You see how good it feels to understand what you're talking about.
SPOKESPERSON: The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments today...
TERENCE SMITH: While "West Wing" tackled the census issue, NBC News, the network on which the drama airs, gave it short shrift on its early news shows. Other networks skipped the issue altogether.
ALLISON JANNEY: I thought Aaron was crazy. I read that and I was like, well, this is going to be the most boring thing ever."
TERENCE SMITH: Allison Janney.
ALLISON JANNEY: Now, I can guarantee you everyone who saw that show is going to fill out their census because they saw how and they learned how important it actually was and what it means.
|Brought issue to life|
TERENCE SMITH: Joe Lockhart, who stepped down recently as White House press secretary, admires the show, especially its episode on the census.
JOE LOCKHART: And they did a better job of framing the issue, the politics on each side, and the passions on each side, than anybody in the broadcast world did throughout this debate -- we've been having this debate for two years -- and brought it to life in a way that nobody else has done it.
JOHN SPENCER: They moved the mark.
TERENCE SMITH: John Spencer, who plays Leo McGarry, the hard-edged White House chief of staff, is not surprised the audience has responded to such policy-heavy plots.
JOHN SPENCER: I've often thought that the viewing public has been underestimated too often by suits in higher positions. I think people will watch something that is good or even less than good, perhaps mediocre, and when shown something that is better, their attention will go over to that direction.
TERENCE SMITH: The creators of "West Wing" strive to make the show as realistic and credible as possible, so several times a year they bring the cast here to Washington to use scenes like this as a backdrop for the policy issues that are central to the plot.
JOE LOCKHART: It raises issues that don't get raised that often, particularly with an entertainment viewing audience.
JOE LOCKHART: We put up a budget that met that goal.
TERENCE SMITH: Lockhart says the series portrays a mostly realistic view of how the White House works. He has talked shop with his counterpart, CJ, and clowned around with her here on the set version of the White House press briefing room, and here in the actual press briefing room.
REPORTER: What's your assessment of Lockhart's acting abilities?
ALLISON JANNEY: He is....
ALLISON JANNEY: It's a very difficult job because you are the servant of two masters. And Joe Lockhart, once he actually let me start a press briefing, and it was strange. I felt strangely comfortable, though, going in there.
MARLIN FITZWATER: I like it because I think it accurately portrays so many of the aspects of the White House that people never get to see and can't know about.
TERENCE SMITH: Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary to Presidents Bush and Reagan, was recently retained as a consultant to the show to add a Republican perspective. He believes "The West Wing," with its dramatic techniques, often gets closer to the truth than conventional news reporting.
MARLIN FITZWATER: The impact is real. It shows how fast issues come up, how fast you have to deal with them, how little information you often have, how sometimes you're wrong, sometimes you're arrogant, sometimes you're soft, sometimes you're pompous and doing some stupid things. And it's all right there to see.
TERENCE SMITH: Aaron Sorkin.
AARON SORKIN: Yeah, well, what a show like this will do that conventional news reporting can't is we can show you the two minutes before and after what you see on CNN. By and large, what you're going to see on the news, what you're going to read in a newspaper is the result of something that has happened at the White House. And there isn't much of an opportunity to see how they arrived at that. And that behind-the-scenes element is important to me. It's important to the show.
MARLIN FITZWATER: The show shows the kind of frustrations that exist between a press secretary and the press corps, and there's always truth on both sides. I think CJ does a great job. She suffers the same pain and anguish that I suffered. I can see it in her face. I think, that's me ten years ago, you know? And I think it's very healthy.
TERENCE SMITH: The great bulk of the show is shot here, on a sound stage at Warner Brothers Studios in Los Angeles, that gives new meaning to the phrase "western White House." The set is a meticulous depiction of the real West Wing, including, of course, the Oval Office.
TERENCE SMITH: As the second season commences, the show's creators are intrigued by suggestions that some Americans may look to the drama more than the news media for their sense of how things get done in the White House. Tommy Schlamme is co-executive producer and director.
|Make an audience watch|
TOMMY SCHLAMME: I think that we can make an audience be able to sort of relax and watch the environment around them. When it's all over with, they're actually understanding it better than if they picked up The New York Times, if even they watched your show, where they're coming there specifically to be told the truth.
BRAD WHITFORD: Every Democratic congressman in a tight race...
TERENCE SMITH: Brad Whitford plays Josh Lyman, the conflicted deputy chief of staff. Whitford says drama allows more liberty than news, and therefore may give viewers more insight.
BRAD WHITFORD: The issue for my character every week, and the issue of the show, to an extent, every week -- and here's where the metaphors get mixed -- is how dirty do your feet have to get without suffocating yourself in the mud in order to get an inch of what you really want done? And I think the difficulty of making those decisions is something that we can show in a way that the press doesn't.
TERENCE SMITH: And while the actors have mixed with their real-life counterparts at occasions such as this party on the set during the Democratic Convention, and this White House correspondents' dinner in Washington last spring, the show does have some scenarios that the real life veterans of "The West Wing" find implausible.
MARLIN FITZWATER: They had a Supreme Court nominee arrested for speeding, and two members of the White House staff went and broke him out of jail, which is an impeachable offense, and for any White House to really try that would have been stupid.
JOE LOCKHART: There were a couple of episodes where they had, you know, members of Congress down here and staffers in meetings, staffers here at the White House, berating the members of Congress. That doesn't happen.
TERENCE SMITH: This season, "The West Wing" will once again highlight front-page issues including education, the nuclear test ban treaty, Social Security and AIDS in Africa, further demonstrating that even on television, art can illuminate reality.
The NewsHour Media Unit, including this site, is funded by grants from: