by: Michael Shields
Across the Margin pays tribute to the cream of Newsroom’s crop, the incomparable Charlie Skinner….
Beware: The following article contains spoilers to the conclusion of HBO’s Newsroom.
“The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.”
― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote
In what amounted to a posthumous victory lap for Newsroom’s most beloved character, Charlie Skinner remained paramount to the plot-line of the embattled, and often controversial, HBO series as it came its close. On the cusp on the series finale we presumed that Charlie would be lamented over after a heart attack halted the impassioned journalist in his tracks. Possibly, he would be eulogized while conversations amongst ACN’s staff would reveal secret moments shared with Charlie, further amplifying his tremendous spirit and character. But this wasn’t enough, for Charlie, hindsight reveals, was at the heart and soul of Newsroom.
Charlie Skinner, played wonderfully by Sam Waterston, was the essential cog that made everything tick. Without Charlie, ACN was like all the rest, just another twenty-four hour news channel force-feeding the masses with paranoia, hyperbole, and slander. Anything that would give the ratings that extra little bump. Newsroom wouldn’t (It couldn’t!), endure even one episode without its fearless leader. Charlie was Newsroom’s Don Quixote, as his apprentice and friend Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) declared, “an old man with dementia who thought he could save the world from an epidemic of incivility simply by acting like a knight. His religion was decency, and he spent a lifetime fighting its enemies.” And, because of this, Will continues, his “fight is just getting started, because he taught the rest of us to be crazy, too.”
Yes, as the light became dim, things became oh so clear. In the series finale, Charlie Skinner’s interminable worth to his staff was ceremonialized. Charlie’s obsession with virtue sat center stage as a series of flashbacks revealed that he was the mastermind behind the plot to reboot News Night, after growing weary of Will McAvoy’s populist song and dance. Charlie Skinner was the idealist puppeteer, the man behind the curtain who I, like his devoted staff, would follow into even the darkest of nights.
Like those of us thrust into the middle class, and its nine to five routine, making choices that are not by definition authentic or even conscious decisions, news media all too often “chooses” to report what it does based on outlying factors such as ratings, media hit tallies, or back-channel obligations and affiliations. Charlie, fortuitously, was given the opportunity by his headstrong and spirited superior, Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda), to report the news legitimately. And in this light, Charlie was the quixotic leader of an enthusiastic team of true journalists, desiring in earnest to tell the stories that mattered, the ones that others would not tell. It was this passion, and the juxtaposition of what journalism is in reality, and what it could be as highlighted by ACN’s righteous quest, that made Newsroom so special. And this idea was built upon by the aged, yet willing and able back of Charlie Skinner.
Charlie’s humble beginnings in journalism hailed back to his days in the Marine Corps. “I’m a Marine! I will beat the shit out of you! I don’t care how many protein bars you eat!” he once told Don Keefer, frequent collaborator with the News Night team. It was in the jungles of Da Nang in 1969, while embedded with the corps, where he watched a beautiful woman dance in front of him. While he was deep in thought, pondering how a woman that beautiful would never be with a man such as him, she fell into his lap. Nancy Skinner (Joanna Gleason) went on to become Charlie’s backbone, the support he needed to fight the good fight. The loving wife whose ear Charlie would bend when he had finished with the his devout staff.
In 1991, during the Gulf War as the lead war correspondent for ACN, he stood by as his man on the street reported where the Iraqi missiles were landing in Tel Aviv. From this he gathered that the Iraqis were using ACN’s reporting to adjust where to fire its missiles. The guilt carried from his role in these attacks never abated. It guided his conscience in perpetuum. It made him into the man he would become. A man who fought tooth and nail for true journalism in the age of one hundred and forty character tweets, trending topics, and click bait. A man who believed that it is the duty of journalists to expose shortcomings and prejudice among their leaders. Who was “too old to be governed by a fear of dumb people,” and fashioned his newsroom into a courtroom because he felt “the American public needed a fucking lawyer.”
Charlie Skinner was a curmudgeon at times, crotchety yet always charming. Disheveled and frantic, yet endearing as hell. He spat wit-laced, poignant soliloquies like a virtuoso rock guitarist, subduing his opponent into submission as his pitch culminated at a fiery crescendo. He could soothe you to sleep with a calming whisper, or rouse you to action like a commander in war. He was a leader in every sense of the word. One that had your back, oftentimes when you didn’t even realize it. His job, his mission, was so stressful that the few fingers of bourbon dancing about a rocks glass at day’s end wasn’t so much an indulgence, but essential. But never would he yield. Until his dying day, amongst his beloved co-workers doing what he so truly loved, never would he yield.
“Thank you for your precious time. Forgive me if I start to cry. That’s how I got to Memphis. That’s how I got to Memphis.”
Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I got to Memphis” played an integral role in the waning moments of the series. It was a favorite country song of Charlie’s, one near and dear to his heart. Charlie, in one of his captivating conversations with his dear friend Will, explained how the Memphis in “That’s How I Got To Memphis,” stands in for any place where you currently are, and how life got you there. The journey Charlie took was arduous, but where it lead him was to a position where he could be with those who shared in his life’s work, in his passion, especially the man behind ACN’s anchor desk who had for one brief moment in time lost his way. Charlie Skinner believed that journalism wasn’t simply a profession, but a calling, and this radical ideal led him to his own Memphis, the ACN newsroom. A place where he did it his way. Where he reigned as Godfather, as Commander-in-Chief, and as the savior of that very man behind the desk.