The eyerolls come quickly when watching Aaron Sorkin’s wretched new HBO news drama, The Newsroom. We’re introduced to mostly pointless, unthreatening cable news host Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) sitting on a college journalism and/or politics panel (they’re the same thing in Sorkin’s world anyway). A man and woman bicker in the typical talking point checklist familiar to cable news network viewers (of slight point of interest, the debate indicates a progressive/libertarian divide rather than a left/right one, but it’s just a meaningless framing device and not an indicator of anything to come).
A student asks an incredibly stupid question about what makes America the greatest country on earth, a question no actual student would ever ask. McAvoy, inexplicably pressed by the panel moderator for a real answer (rather than a joke about the New York Jets), blows up, slips into a paternalistic rant, insulting the student (who is of course a young blonde girl), and spitting out a list of improbably memorized context-free nation rankings as proof that America isn’t the bestest thing ever.
McAvoy’s rant ultimately leads to most of his staff abandoning him for a new show on the same network and his boss, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston, engaged in a permanent "Who's a bigger blowhard?" fight with Daniels), bringing in McAvoy’s ex-girlfriend Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer as some sort of human blur) to get McAvoy’s show back on track.
The high-speed patter by MacHale, Skinner, and McAvoy takes up a good chunk of the pilot episode as they spar over what McAvoy’s show should be. Here Sorkin’s paternalistic, authoritarian-from-the-left attitude toward the world around him is put on naked, ugly display. News was so much better during those “golden days” when Edward R. Murrow vanquished Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Walter Cronkite personally ended the Vietnam War. Can’t we go back to that somehow? Where Daddy Newscaster told us what the world was like and we sat there and listened and didn’t have all these terrible polarizing arguments about what the truth is and what the facts actually are and noticing that everybody has agendas, not just evil corporations and Republican politicians?
Nobody questions whether they aren’t perhaps only remembering the high-points of the black-and-white era of evening news, nor do they acknowledge that the rise of a 24-hour newsroom and the Internet has changed consumer demand for information or even realizes that the average Joe has access to far more information now than he ever did in American history. No, for this crew (and for Sorkin) the dream of the perfect media is a family sitting in front of the television, small children on the floor, watching Murrow slay McCarthy every single night forever and ever. We must have the elites in the media telling us what is real, not just any guy with an opinion and a book to promote.
Sorkin’s deliberate disdain for new media is on display as McAvoy is surprised to discover his show has a blog. Later, as McAvoy’s newsroom is reporting the breaking Horizon Deepwater Oil Spill (this show is based far enough in the past so Sorkin can use the show as a pulpit for how he thinks real news should have been covered without having to face the risk of possibly being wrong), Skinner sarcastically tells one of the show’s staff to post on Twitter about how they’re doing all this work in real time as the show is airing. I would have given anything for her to spit back at him that they’ve been tweeting bits and pieces of the information they’ve gathered all afternoon in order to draw an audience for the show, but that wouldn’t have fit Sorkin’s narrative for how news is supposed to work.
The Newsroom ends up illustrating one of Sorkin’s bigger flaws (besides his creepy sexist paternalism): his tendency to want to write about important issues and say important things without having to take any sort of responsibility for getting anything right, an odd attitude for somebody who wants to write about news, not to mention somebody who worships at the altar of elite intellect. As he told Vulture before the show's premiere:
All of my training and experience and education has been in playwriting. I have no political sophistication or media sophistication, so if I was talking to Howard Kurtz or you, you could easily dismantle whatever argument I’m going to make. It is a layman’s amateur argument. Oftentimes, I write about people who are smarter than I am and know more than I do, and I am able to do that simply by being tutored almost phonetically, sometimes. I’m used to it. I grew up surrounded by people who are smarter than I am, and I like the sound of intelligence. I can imitate that sound, but it’s not organic. It’s not intelligence. It’s my phonetic ability to imitate the sound of intelligence.
Not always very well. At one point MacHale and McAvoy are half-arguing/half-pontificating about how polarized American opinion has become (treated as a fact without any consideration that Americans now have more avenues than ever to express their opinions). MacHale has put forth her idea of the two of them organizing a dream show trying to recreate the golden age of news, doing things right regardless of ratings or profits. Not long after they talk about opinion polarization, MacHale earnestly asks, “Is government an institute for good or is it every man for himself?” Those are the two options presented to us by our wannabe high priests of The Truth: the nanny state or complete anarchy. Make your choice!
In the face of this intellectual contradiction, Sorkin defensively describes himself as an entertainer or a storyteller to try to deflect any criticism:
Honestly, I’m a storyteller. I’m just as happy doing this as writing Sports Night or The Social Network or anything else. I don’t have a political agenda. I’m not trying to change your mind or teach you anything. I’m not able to teach you anything.
He did this during The West Wing as well. In one episode of that show, he even turned the U.S. poet laureate into his proxy, making her an anti-landmine activist who ultimately wimps out on her criticism of the Bartlett Administration and whines about how she’s just an entertainer and shouldn’t be listened to. It was awful. (Full disclosure: a subplot from that episode takes aim at a former friend of mine at a site I used to write for, so my view of the episode is a little jaundiced.)
What’s frustrating about Sorkin’s wheedling when talking about The Newsroom is that journalists aren’t really smarter than everybody else. They are not the elites. They never were. They are more curious and more well-read, because that’s part of the job, really. Most anybody can do the job of a journalist provided they have the capacity to learn new things very quickly and the internal drive to do so.
Sorkin lacks this type of curiosity, so The Newsroom was bound to fail. In the pilot, McAvoy’s staff gets its scoops about the leaking oil platform not through work, but by a pure coincidence of connections by one of the staffers. Sure it happens sometimes, but throwing it out in the very first episode invalidates the entire concept behind the show and turns it into a celebration of newsroom connections by D.C. media elites. At one point, a staffer spits out scientific information about why underwater oil drilling presents such a geological hazard. When asked how he knew this information, the answer is not, “I’ve been studying this for the past two hours while you dipshits have been arguing about ‘speaking truth to stupid’ and referencing Don Quixote.” Instead he says he built a volcano once for a school science fair, which is insulting to everybody involved.
Sorkin is interested in lecturing, but he’s not interested in learning himself, and it shows. Toward the end of the episode, Skinner, with his lifetime of experience in television news, tells McAvoy about the old days: “We did the news well. You know how? We just decided to.”
Sorkin does not recognize this witless, embarrassing tautology as an indicator of his lack of curiosity about how television news works. Instead he proudly uses the last four words as the title of the episode.
If you don’t have HBO, you can now judge the pilot for yourself. HBO has posted it for free online:
Scott Shackford is an associate editor of 24/7 News at Reason.com.