by Jennifer A. Epps
In April of this year, Vanity Fair ran an article by Juli Weiner titled “West Wing Babies.”
The article focused on young policy wonks and politicians’ aides who became motivated to pursue careers in Washington in large part because of the multiple- Golden Globe (2) and Emmy (26) winning TV series that NBC premiered in 1999, The West Wing. Weiner writes: “Just as All the President’s Men made newspapers seem cool—imagine!—and propelled legions of baby-boomers into journalism, so Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing has inspired a new generation with its vision of a Washington brimming with lofty ideals.” She caught up with many of the young Washington insiders which the Bush-era series influenced so profoundly, and she found that the series still holds sway over how they view their calling, in short, “a totem” responsible for “infusing a historically uncool career with cultural cachet.” Sorkin’s pioneering show didn’t just lead to a new generation of reform-minded civil servants; it also “made policy discussions seem thrilling and governing heroic” to its many ardent fans. Weiner called this whole phenomenon “the Sorkinization of politics.”
Tonight, HBO premieres a new series created by Aaron Sorkin, the drama The Newsroom, a workplace series that follows the staff of a cable-network’s nightly newscast. Originally titled More As This Story Develops, the hour-long drama features, among others in a large cast, Jeff Daniels as an opinionated cable-news anchor, Emily Mortimer as his boss (the show’s producer), and Sam Waterston as her boss (the network head). And before we get distracted by the energy of what we know will be witty characters who banter while briskly ‘pedeconferencing’ (Sorkin’s signature ‘walk and talk’ technique), we should take a moment to think about what it will mean if The Newsroom becomes as successful or influential as The West Wing.
I approach this question as a longtime connoisseur. I’ve seen every produced script that Sorkin has written, including his play The Farnsworth Invention on Broadway. (Uh, well, no, wait – I’ve never seen Malice. I’m in no rush to fill that gap.) Though the idea of Star Trek and Star Wars conventions mystifies me, if there were a West Wing convention, I’d happily dress up as Ainsley Hayes. Or Lord John Marbury. Maybe even Bruno Gianelli. When asked to name our favorite authors in a college writing class, I said Aaron Sorkin. (The teacher didn’t know who he was, but that’s another story.) During the 2011 Oscar® season, I was solidly on Team-Social Network, and I just thank God that they have separate categories for adapted and original screenplays.
But what I’m worried about is, what if The Newsroom ends up Sorkinizing the media? What if it instills in us a new respect for the mainstream media, and reverses the trend of recent years? Studies have shown that the younger generation’s interest in the networks’ nightly newscasts has virtually vanished, and a 2009 Time poll discovered that Jon Stewart was the most trusted newscaster. (He beat his closest competitor in the poll by 15 points.) Commentators like to blame the apathy of the young, and some sort of selfish irresponsibility that leads viewers to seek their news in a comedy show rather than a straight newscast, but the difference between Jon Stewart and the alphabet net anchors he was up against is that…he tells the truth.
However, if The Newsroom has the kind of effect The West Wing did, the viewers most susceptible to its message will be the affluent, the well-educated, the technologically-savvy. (In 2000, The West Wing’s viewers had more advanced degrees and more web access than any other primetime audience. During its run, more 18 – 49 year-olds, earning over $100,000, watched the show than any other series.) In other words, if The Newsroom is as powerful and convincing as The West Wing, its audiences, a very likely crossover with consumers of straight news broadcasts, could have their faith in the real TV news renewed. For the mainstream media, this could be a get-home-free card.
Granted, this is Sorkin’s third series about the staff of a TV show, and the other two, the half-hour ABC comedy Sports Night and the hour-long NBC drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, were cancelled – the first after two seasons, the second after just one. But the odds are stacked much higher in The Newsroom’s favor. First of all, it’s on HBO, a fairly obvious home for quality writing and edgy material and even, quite often, for liberal-themed work. Secondly, there is a huge difference between the scope of Sports Night and Studio 60 and the potential of this show. His first two TV-show-centred TV shows were respectively, focused on the (at least to my mind) repetitive field of sports reporting, and the (to a great many people’s minds) overly-insular domain of Hollywood creatives. (Which is not to say I haven’t lapped up every single episode of both series — many of them in binge fashion on DVD.) By contrast, The Newsroom can, simply by virtue of its setting at a national cable-news show, have the world as its canvas, as The West Wing did. Sorkin’s new show can, if it wants to, touch on virtually limitless stories and all manner of controversial, emotional, transformative events, from the local level to the international. Hell, even outer space is up for grabs.
Whereas the self-importance espoused by Matt and Danny in Studio 60 seemed out of proportion to what it was they were actually doing – producing a tame SNL-like sketch comedy show of parodies, impressions, and riffs – journalists actually do have a serious responsibility to the public, and what they say on-air actually does impact the national dialogue. If The Newsroom characters believe that kind of principle ardently, rhapsodically, as it is a safe bet they will, won’t the contrast between them and the real media – where almost no journalist seems to think the First Amendment requires anything of them — make the fantasy all the more compelling? And will this glamorization make us trust the real news more?
It is almost a default position for Sorkin to canonize the characters he writes about. “It isn’t enough for me to write something that people will like. I think the young men in my script have to be in some shape or form the husbands and boyfriends that women want. I think the fathers have to be the fathers that sons and daughters want. I think the bosses have to be the bosses that employees want.” Commentators remark over and over on the feat that Sorkin pulled off in erasing the widespread distrust the public had of Washington before The West Wing. “The corrective to public cynicism is healthy” writes a contributor to the scholarly compendium The West Wing: American Presidency as TV Drama. But what if you’re believing in something that is a lie? Sorkin’s show was on during the very period when we most needed to distrust Washington. For six out of the West Wing’s seven years, the Bush cabal sat in the White House they had usurped. A period of so many history-changing incidents, invasions of multiple countries, wars on the environment, erasure of civil liberties, and public deceptions that I can’t begin to count them here, but Rep. Dennis Kucinich counted 35 of them in his Articles of Impeachment against President George W. Bush, author Michael Haas counted 269 war crimes that Bush committed, and a study by the non-profits Center for Public Integrity and the Fund for Independence in Journalism counted 935 occasions when the Bush Administration lied about Iraq. It seems that, at such a time, cynicism would have been a very healthy corrective. I don’t mean the giving-up kind of cynicism, but the seeing-through kind. Yes, it was comforting during those years to share in an illusion of an idealistic liberal Democrat in office. But there were some pretty damaging illusions within that illusion.
Sorkin has probably dramatized more debates on issues of social reform than any other writer since George Bernard Shaw. (The right-wing Media Research Center cites a few such “notorious” scenes here.) He obviously loved to bring down an ideological opponent and many of us loved to watch him do it. (Conservative John Podhoretz called the show “political pornography for liberals” – as if that was a bad thing.) A consistent contributor to the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates, Sorkin is certainly a Democratic loyalist. But on issues where the two parties rarely skirmish in real life – defense, foreign policy, U.S. exceptionalism, how everything works just fine on the democracy front, etc. – his sentimentalism and his admiration for macho militaristic solutions limited more serious debate.
One very troubling continuing plotline during his creative leadership was a targeted assassination of a foreign leader. The advisors to President Jeb Bartlet (Martin Sheen) inform him that the leader is a proven terrorist, although charges cannot be brought against him in an international court because the evidence was obtained by torture. (Not of course, torture by Americans. Torture by Russians, of a Chechnian prisoner.) The torture thus is implied to be a legal inconvenience – the fact that, among other things wrong with it, torture renders the accuracy of the information obtained questionable seems not to have occurred to Jeb Bartlet, a brilliant Nobel-prize winning Keynesian economist who once wanted to be a priest. Instead, he allows Leo to talk him into arranging the leader’s secret assassination, griping only “Doesn’t this mean we join the league of ordinary nations?” This kind of a statement is baffling for anyone who knows about Washington’s central role in and strong support of a whole host of assassinations and coups, including large-scale massacres in Indonesia in the 1960’s and 638 CIA attempts to assassinate Cuba’s Fidel Castro. But it is rather typical of the attitudes conveyed by Bartlet.
Because The West Wing was always about an alternate White House – where no president more recent than Eisenhower could be named – there was no 9/11, but terrorism became a frequent storyline on the show. In Sorkin’s final season (the series’ fourth), a terrorist attack within the U.S. kills student members of a swim team in the episode 20 Hours in America. The President responds with a speech to the nation:
“More than any time in recent history, America’s destiny is not of our own choosing. We did not seek nor did we provoke an assault on our freedom, and our way of life. We did not expect nor did we invite a confrontation with evil.”
It is undeniable that in that moment Bartlet stopped sounding like Bartlet and started sounding like Bush. The speech even sounded like a call to arms: “This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great.” At the time that it aired (Sept. 22, 2002), not only had the U.S. been occupying Afghanistan for 11 months, but the Bush Administration had already begun its propaganda campaign to convince the public to invade Iraq. The speech may even have helped the effort.
Weiner’s Vanity Fair article does not discriminate between Republican and Democratic political operatives, and indeed, The West Wing had plenty of Republican fans too. One such fan quoted in the article was Kurt Bardella, former press secretary to the richest member of Congress, Republican Darrell Issa (net worth $450 million). Issa is the businessman who contributed $1.3 million to the 2003 campaign to recall California Governor Gray Davis, and whose main focus in the House seems to be to plague Obama with investigations. Issa has also been fighting tooth and nail against anyone doing anything to stop climate change – invested, as he is through his business, in the automotive industry. It is somewhat perplexing that a person who worked for Issa could, in April 2012, still “recite dialogue from almost every West Wing episode by heart.” One would think that there might be too many ideological obstacles. And indeed I don’t suggest that Sorkin has any affinity with Darrell Issa. In fact, Issa’s actions probably make Sorkin want to puke.
However, even in his non-West Wing projects, Sorkin wrote very little during the Bush cabal’s Global Reign of Terror – sorry, Global War on Terror – that would have alienated any rah-rah hawks. By the 2006-2007 TV season, the time of Sorkin’s series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Sorkin had had time to reflect on that GWOT. Several of Studio 60’s characters – Hollywood liberals – even express views against the Iraq War. However, as the first and only season of the show neared its finale, a somewhat ambivalent 5-episode story arc appeared. A U.S. airman is captured and held hostage (off-camera) in Afghanistan, and though we never meet the airman, he is the brother of “Studio 60” comedian Tom Jeter (Nate Corddry). Tom and his brother are said to have disagreed about his enlistment and on Bush’s wars. Over the course of the highly suspenseful ticking-clock episodes, several of the principals flash back to their reactions to 9/11 – emotional as well as artistic — while Tom is ensconced in a greenroom with a close-lipped military minder. One of Tom’s worries is that the kidnappers won’t respect the Geneva Conventions the way Americans do. That’s almost a direct quote. (Sorkin doesn’t explain if it’s Tom who’s unclear about just what the Bush Administration had been doing the last few years, or himself.) Anyway, the tension builds to a breaking point as Tom is tormented over whether to accept a private security firm’s pitch to rescue his brother or not, but just in the nick of time it turns out the U.S. military has heroically saved the day – a familiar kind of resolution from The West Wing.
How does this relate to what will happen on The Newsroom? I predict that Sorkin will bring up many social and political issues, and also eviscerate the most vacuous, most sensationalistic, and most irresponsible habits of the corporate media (ideas for which he will find in abundance on Fox News or the watchdog that monitors them: www.mediamatters.org) His idealistic principal characters will almost certainly be kept busy with a plethora of struggles against the commercial pressures of today’s media marketplace, and in keeping abreast of politicians both foolish and noble. I predict that he will make the dialogue scintillating, the humor absurdist, and the gravitas moving.
However, I have my doubts that the full extent of the perfidy of the news media will be part of the discussion. And if his characters hold the same overarching, American-chauvinist, “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” views we’ve heard President Bartlet and others in the Sorkin oeuvre espouse, then they will ultimately be in perfect agreement with the limiting corporate media that we already have. If they then combine what is actually a myopia with the conscientious, driven, reformist qualities Sorkin returns to again and again with his creations, won’t the end result be a strengthening of business as usual for the mainstream media? And a lulling illusion for the rest of us?
We’ll have to tune in to find out. But let’s try to keep a level head on our shoulders, even if the dialogue becomes dizzying.