Participating in a panel discussion at Northwestern University, Will McAvoy, a vanilla, middle-of-the-road news anchor whose popularity is a result of "not bothering anyone", is losing it. Seated between a right-wing shouter and a left-wing shouter, Will's in his own world of loneliness and everything else is just noise. When asked a benign question from a student, Will stumbles through a benign answer but the panel moderator pushes him. Will's in trouble now because he thinks he sees someone from his past sitting in the audience but the lights keep getting in his eyes. The moderator keeps pushing, Will keeps stumbling, the hallucination in the audience keeps appearing and...snap. Will turns on his fellow panelists, the students asking the question and the moderator by answering the question--"What makes America the greatest country in the world"--with a statistic-filled speech about how we're not. He finishes by wistfully recalling the days when the country did great things "because we were informed by great men." For a moment, Will McAvoy is the journalist he wants to be.
Three weeks later, Will returns to his office from a needed vacation and discovers his staff is missing. His boss, ACN news division president Charlie Skinner, informs him that Elliot, one of his correspondents, is going to host the 10 o'clock news show and in two weeks, Will's executive producer, Don Keefer, is going with him, along with most of the staff. Will has it out with Don, who lets him know that they're leaving News Night because of Will's difficult personality. Then Charlie delivers Will the worst news. He's already hired his new EP, MacKenzie McHale, without consulting him. Will and MacKenzie share a personal history. And while Will regards her as the best in the business, he'd prefer to not ever see her face again.
Will's assistant and Don's girlfriend Maggie welcomes MacKenzie to the office. After Mac dispenses some relationship advice, she promotes Maggie to associate producer. Later, she tells Jim Harper, the senior producer who followed her from Atlanta to Afghanistan and back, to keep an eye on Maggie. After a quick meeting with his agent, Will sees MacKenzie in his office. He lets her know he traded a million dollars a year for the ability to fire her at the end of every week, and he plans to do so as soon as it's expedient. MacKenzie counters with a rousing speech about the importance of news and reminding him of the journalist he once wanted to be. It all bounces right off of him.
Jim notices a news alert come through from the Associated Press. There's been an explosion on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Neal, a junior member of the staff who writes Will's blog, quickly pieces together that BP's Deepwater Horizon is drilling so far below sea-level that they are likely looking at an unprecedented environmental catastrophe off the coast of New Orleans. Jim brings this to Don's attention but Don doesn't see the urgency and objects to Jim interfering with his newsroom. Jim's confidence builds as well-placed sources, one a junior executive at BP and the other his sister who works for Halliburton, contact him and confirm the extent of the disaster goes way beyond the missing rig workers. Jim bypasses Don, taking the story straight to Will who is reluctant to run it until Jim gives up his sources. When Jim does, Will shares a look with MacKenzie and decides to throw out that night's show's rundown and focus on this story instead, against Don's strong objection to the dangers of accusing the corporations of negligent behavior.
At Will's urging, everyone who is moving with Don to 10 o'clock clears out, and the skeletal crew that remains springs into action covering the BP story. With Will about to go on the air, MacKenzie reminds him that no matter what her contract says, between 8 and 9 o'clock she owns him. During the broadcast, News Night covers every aspect of the disaster, from the Coast Guard's rescue search, to the possible environmental fallout, to BP and Halliburton's responsibility, to the inspector from the underfunded Minerals Management Service, whom Maggie tracked down. They produce a hell of a news show, while the other networks still have little idea of what's actually going on.
As Will prepares to leave, MacKenzie congratulates him on a show well done and shares a memory from back when they used to date. Will steps into the elevator and admits that his rant at Northwestern was brought on because he thought he saw her in the audience. MacKenzie is about to tell him it was no hallucination, it was really her, she was the one prompting him to give his answer. But then she decides, no, let him think it was him. She walks down the hall and into her new home, the ACN newsroom.