Amy Schumer takes down Aaron Sorkin…
Amy Schumer takes down Aaron Sorkin…
By Jennifer Epps
In June of 1998, CNN/Time premiered a new joint venture, a weekly program called ‘News Stand’. Their first segment had revelations about a ‘Valley of Death’ (as one of the veterans interviewed called it) during the Vietnam War. The news story of this 1970 U.S. military black operation known as Operation Tailwind aired nationally over two consecutive Sundays. It quoted members of the military who alleged that commandos from the U.S. Special Operations Group (SOG) had been dispatched to a village base camp in Laos with sarin gas, a toxic nerve agent that causes a painful death. It’s the same gas that was used by a Japanese religious cult in the 1995 terror attack in the Tokyo subway. One hundred people in the Laotian village reportedly died as a result of Operation Tailwind. Moreover, the story purported that U.S. military defectors living in the village were the primary target.
News of the secret attack, named ‘Operation Tailwind’, shocked the nation and also created a firestorm of protest directed at the news organization from the Pentagon, veterans, and high-placed figures like Henry Kissinger (who had been National Security Advisor at the time of the black op). It was not long before CNN was issuing apologies.
and firing the story’s producers, reassuring the nation that the story was untrue and the whole thing was a mistake. Consequently, ‘Tailwind’ has gone down in the annals of broadcast journalism as a cautionary tale about accuracy.
Fifteen years later, it is back in the public consciousness thanks to the award-winning scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin, who has spun his own creation off of the idea of the Tailwind journalistic scandal. In the current season of his HBO fiction series The Newsroom, the hour-long drama about a fictitious cable news program (‘News Night’) on a network known as the Atlantic Cable Network, Sorkin has been exploring leaks about an alleged war crime reminiscent of the Tailwind episode as CNN initially presented it. This time, the incident is more current than Tailwind was when CNN/Time ran its story; a military source reveals to Jerry, a News Night guest producer (played by Hamish Linklater), that U.S. forces used sarin gas on civilians in Pakistan during an ‘Operation Genoa.’ (Sorkin invented the story and the codename.) Through a multi-episode flashback structure, Sorkin makes clear from the outset that the big scoop is false, and that getting sucked in by it will prove disastrous for the characters. That’s certainly a rich plotline for a dramatist to mine. However, in seizing on it, Sorkin may be doing a disservice to the original producers of CNN’s ‘Tailwind’ expose, reporters who stood by their story throughout the ensuing fracas and who accused CNN of a cowardly retreat in the face of Pentagon opposition to it. And Sorkin may also be betraying the Quixotic principles the characters on his show so passionately espouse; in this case siding, not with the underdogs his dialogue so often champions, but with the powerful.
Sorkin considered it no spoiler to tell the public before Season 2 premiered last month that the core of this season revolves around a Tailwind-inspired plotline: a News Night “mistake” in running a shocking story that ultimately turns out to be untrue. “Hopefully, the mistake is understandable,” Sorkin told John Oliver (who was filling in for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show) on July 15th.
Maggie and Lisa
by Jennifer Epps
HBO’s workplace dramedy The Newsroom has an ensemble cast, but its first season, which concluded last month, nonetheless revolved around cable-TV anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels). While sometimes gruff and insensitive, Will is the center of gravity in the show – much as the President was in Aaron Sorkin’s hit show The West Wing – and though Sorkin is conscious of Will’s character flaws, the anchorman’s leadership – both of his staff and the national dialogue — is generally portrayed as bold, wise, and perceptive. Many have noticed that the elevation of Sorkin’s middle-aged, white male hero has come at the expense of the rest of The Newsroom’s ensemble. In fact, several commentators have put it quite bluntly: “In Sorkinworld,” writes a Time.com reviewer, “the men are men and the women are sorry.” A critic for Daily Beast claims: “In Sorkinland, men act (nobly!) and women support (comically!)” Slate accuses Sorkin of having a “woman problem.” And Huffington Post media critic Maureen Ryan labelsthe new HBO show “dismissive of anyone who isn’t a white heterosexual male.”Indeed, there are a fair number of examples on The Newsroom to back up these assertions. The young associate producer of the series’ fictitious primetime show, News Night, is smart, conscientious, and an independent thinker. Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) is often the one who rushes in with a key piece of information on a story; the one who puts forth an innovative idea for the newscast. Yet Maggie also happens to be a young woman who cannot leave her personal problems at the door. As laudable as her input is, she spends a lot of time distracted by romantic entanglements (two of which work in the office with her), and her primary color is neurotic. She also lacks credentials – she began as an administrative assistant, and got promoted as a reward for her loyalty, not her work. There have to be more experienced news hounds among the support staff that mills around the large open-plan office; it’s simply a statistical probability, since there are so many of them. But we don’t hear much from them because it’s the older white men – host Will, and news division head Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) — who get to sound like journalistic pros, while the other News Night staffers generally sound like research assistants.
Though Sorkin consciously views the flirtatious, fast-paced dialogue he likes to write as a descendant of classic screwball comedy, he seems to have forgotten that those Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s featured tough, confident, professional women. In fact, that’s what made them work; ‘neurotic’ doesn’t really go with ‘banter.’ Nor were the men put on pedestals and treated as saviors; the scales were often balanced by giving the women more power and the men less. (Hence those films in which the man was impoverished, the woman an heiress; the man a rustic rube, the woman a worldly urban careerist.) It’s not like these films are locked up in a vault — screwballs are readily available for study. Sorkin might even have gotten a refresher course in 2008, when George Clooney resurrected the cool, successful, feminine-but-at-home-in-a-man’s-world leading lady in his overlooked roaring-twenties film Leatherheads (which he directed and claims to have co-written, though the Writers Guild did not give him credit). Though Sorkin may be better at capturing screwball comedies’ effervescence and rapid-fire wordplay than anyone else, he’s gone off-track with the core character dynamics behind the verbal jousting.
The most knowledgeable and most serious female on the News Night staff is economist Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn). She is fluent in Japanese, hosts her own afternoon show, is given a regular 5-minute segment on News Night, has two Ph.D.’s, and teaches at Columbia University. She also tends to speak in an amusingly affectless tone like Star Trek’s brainiac Mr. Spock. Still, her expertise is as a scholar; as a journalist she fumbles, and is insecure about her abilities as a broadcaster. But all her diplomas are truly for naught when Sloan has a bizarre attack of paranoia in a horrible moment when co-worker Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) asks if he can post sexist comments about her online to catch internet trolls. She doesn’t mind that the comments are crudely sexual or even slanderous: he wants to post that she slept her way to the top, and she doesn’t even seem to have heard him. What she freaks out over is a sudden fear when he suggests he post that she has a large backside; she demands to know if it’s true. She doesn’t call him a sexist, she doesn’t sound offended. She turns it on herself. Even worse, Neal tries to reassure her by telling her that some men like that in a woman — as if she really does have a big rear. Not only is that rude, crude, sexist, and out of place in the office, but for God’s sake, it’s Olivia Munn. She probably hasn’t seen a piece of chocolate since 1990. Note to Sorkin: if you want to instill confidence in your pre-teen daughter, this eating-disorder-in-the-making kind of dialogue is no way to go about it.
Then there’s the fact that Will seems to get last word on each decision concerning News Night. His executive producer, Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), makes her recommendations, but she either retreats to wait on tenterhooks and see if her former flame follows her guidance, or she tries to control him and fails — she issues instructions into his earpiece rather weakly, even when he’s really screwing up. Mostly, she just hangs out in the control room, listening silently to Will say whatever he wants to on the air. She is ultimately so admiring of McAvoy, she even considers his altered state of consciousness stabler than her own — she lets him go on-air to announce a huge bombshell, Osama bin Laden’s death — though she can hear that pot brownies have affected his speech patterns.
Mackenzie is unprofessional in a variety of ways; she cries in the workplace, has trouble understanding email technology, obsesses over past mistakes with Will, discloses very personal secrets to a woman she’s just hired, and assigns her minions background research on McAvoy in a romance revenge plot. She is supposed to be a successful former war correspondent, but apart from vague tales of getting shot at, there is nothing about her that seems even remotely informed by that past – given her hystrionics, her confession to having cheated on Will, and her inappropriate, borderline sexual-harassment comments. This well-coiffed, leggy fashion plate seems more like the editor of a lifestyle magazine than a war-zone survivor. And her staff seem unimpressed by her: in a moment of professional crisis, financial reporter Sloan pleads “I need wisdom”; Mackenzie responds “I have wisdom.” Without even pausing to listen, Sloan tells Mackenzie that her ‘wisdom’ sometimes ends in – and then she mimes a nuclear explosion. Mackenzie (her boss) doesn’t take offense, but quietly agrees with her. Sloan then immediately turns to the Father Knows Best standing next to Mackenzie – News Night’s host Will – and his face is already serious and focused.
Gossip writer Nina Howard
Obviously Sorkin is not the only writer to weave love stories into dramatic fiction, nor is there anything wrong with creating romantic tension. But he’s not writing Sex and the City, in which the women’s careers were almost completely irrelevant to their real focus: dating. In fact, in the season finale, he overtly contrasts Maggie’s life with Carrie Bradshaw’s in that other HBO show — an odd reference for him, but he did after all recently date Sex and the City’s Kristin Davis. Throughout his oeuvre, he has elevated educational accomplishment and high professional standards as the ultimate signs of worth — and has really given no props at all to housewives who dedicate themselves to a family, grandmothers who volunteer in their community, etc. So, particularly in light of his own framework and his narrow definition of value, when the women on The Newsroom are so easily flummoxed by romantic feelings, and so concerned with how the men in the office see them, he is ipso facto presenting his female characters as second-class.
There were precedents for these kinds of portraits on his previous TV series, NBC’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Sorkin created an intelligent, discriminating, and risk-taking maverick for Studio 60, Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), and placed her in charge of network programming. Yet this key female character spent the whole season alienating the press with needless hostility, being scolded by big-wigs for foolish mistakes, worrying about the security of her job, and begging her staff to befriend her. After repeated bizarre outbursts, Jordan derides herself as “hormonal” (something I don’t recall any of Sorkin’s male characters ever calling themselves) and she laments her behavior as the “stereotype” of a woman in charge. It was not a stereotype I realized anyone believed in, actually, but I guess it’s one that pops up readily for Sorkin.
The show sexualizes Jordan, defining her by biology much more than by her opinions or her work performance. When network chair Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber) wants to warn her to do a good job, he has to bring in her gender: “You saw how fast I fired Wes Mendell? Screw this up and I’ll fire you faster. I’m not like every other heterosexual man in show business, Jordan. I don’t find you charming.” Several episodes are taken up by a scandal that erupts when her ex writes a sordid memoir of sex clubs they frequented together, and other episodes revolve around her being pregnant and single. When Jordan exhibits an intellectual disdain for reality-TV to Hallie Gallaway (Stephanie Childers), a woman who heads up that division, the ambitious young V.P. sneers at Jordan: “That’s right. There’s another pretty girl at the dance, and this one’s not pregnant.” WTF? Is Sorkin, by any chance, going meta and poking fun at sexist reality-TV cat-fighting, like Tina Fey did (hilariously) in special episodes of 30 Rock? Could he be about to critique the deplorable way women are presented on ‘alternative programming’? Not on your life. After Hallie’s completely unrealistic and insubordinate outburst, Jordan does not reprimand her in any way; instead Jordan feels bad about her own conduct, seeks out the V.P., and apologizes to her! Even when commiserating with a female friend, Jordan doesn’t sound offended by the objectification. But then how could she be, when a few episodes prior, she had advised a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (Christine Lahti) to get access for a Vanity Fair piece by dressing sexily and flirting with Matt and Danny?
And the executive suite is hardly the only chamber at the fictitious Studio 60 soundstage where women are treated in an icky way. One of the performers in the SNL-like sketch-comedy show is openly portrayed as the resident slut, and she allows head writer Matt (Matthew Perry) to use her as sexual bait; Jeannie (Ayda Field) obligingly flirts with other staff members, or even reporters, when her boss asks her to pitch in as part of some con scheme he has going. Not to harp on the ways in which Tina Fey’s own SNL-inspired series beat Sorkin on the same network, but 30 Rock had a story where Liz Lemon tried to use sex to manipulate someone for work-related goals – and Liz ended up suspended and forced to attend sexual harassment sensitization sessions. Clearly, Fey and Sorkin have different mind-sets.
Sorkin actually seems resentful of the very concept of sexual harassment law: towards the end of Studio 60’s first and only season, a former employee files a sexual harassment lawsuit. The character never shows up on-screen to give the suit any credence, and instead we get to hear why the defendants – and people who weren’t even around at the time — dismiss and deride it. She was too touchy, she just didn’t get the way a writer’s room works. She made too big of a deal out of the sexual jokes, which are just part of the creative process. (Creativity being, perhaps, a male domain?) When a female lawyer (Kari Matchett) is sent in by the network to investigate the details, her actual investigation goes nowhere; she and Sorkin seem to have little interest in the case itself, and focus instead on – I kid you not – the attorney’s attempts to ask Matt out. In fact, she’s so persistent she comes across as a sexual harasser herself, though Matt doesn’t seem to mind. All of which kind of makes sense if you read the report of a correspondent for The Globe and Mail, a woman who Sorkin demeaningly called “Internet girl” (though the newspaper she writes for is Canada’s second-largest daily), then insisted on high-fiving with the line “I’m sick of girls who don’t know how to high-five…let me manhandle you”, and bid farewell with a “Write something nice” parting shot in “the ‘Smile, honey’ tone of much less successful jerks.”
Let’s not forget the Christian comedienne Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson), one of the star performers on the “Studio 60″ sketch show; a talented mimic, singer, and actress. When she gets a breakthrough role in a major feature, it’s offered to her by a director who wants a relationship with her; not, perhaps, simply on her merits. In another episode, she has to be dissuaded by three male colleagues from posing for a lingerie spread; she has no idea anyone is trying to take advantage of her as a Christian icon. (Meanwhile Sorkin’s series itself takes advantage by interrupting her changing in the dressing room.) In another episode, the show’s producer Danny (Bradley Whitford) feels it is perfectly acceptable for him, as Harriet’s boss, to give her orders on her dating life — she doesn’t seem to disagree. And though Sorkin tries to use Harriet as a foil to Matt’s sanctimonious, hedonistic, Hollywood-liberal views, her arguments rarely hold much weight. Instead, Matt repeatedly insults her religious beliefs and she puts up with it, pining for him.
Some have claimed that Sorkin has been writing this way for a long time; as The Guardian.com reports, “Critics say Sorkin has a habit of creating one-dimensional female characters in male-dominated settings.” One side note that may be related is that, from A Few Good Men all the way through to The Newsroom, he has frequently given unisex names to women in the most demanding professions: Jo (short for Joanne), Sydney, Dana, C.J., Mandy, Joey, Ainsley, Jordan, Hallie, Mackenzie, Sloan. In Sorkin’s subconscious, he may believe that women who aspire to positions of responsibility need to have something male about them – perhaps he feels that power is a more natural fit for men?
But still, he should get some credit for creating gifted and accomplished women over the years. Especially considering the fact that he does, after all, work in the same industry that gave us Charlie’s Angels and Baywatch. He invented Sydney Ellen Wade, the headstrong environmental lobbyist played by Annette Bening in Sorkin’s 1995 feature The American President. Sydney earns more than the fictitious president (played by Michael Douglas) and is highly respected in her field. She is leery of a romance with the widowed dad while he’s president because she doesn’t want to be on the short end of the power differential, provoking this exchange with her sister:
Sydney Ellen Wade: Why did I have to kiss him?…I gotta nip this in the bud. This has catastrophe written all over it.
Beth Wade: In what language? Sydney, the man is the leader of the free world. He’s brilliant, funny, handsome. He’s an above-average dancer. Isn’t it possible our standards are just a tad high?
Just a few years later, in the 1998-2000 sit-com Sports Night, Sorkin created Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman), the witty, hard-driving, and perfectionistic producer of a late-night sports round-up show. This is a woman to whom authority comes easily and almost unconsciously, as her senior associate producer Natalie implies:
Dana: People in Graphics are my friends.
Natalie: That’s not quite right.
Dana: I am so nice to them!
Natalie: That’s one way of looking at it.
Dana: What’s another way?
Natalie: That often times you express your displeasure with their work in ways that make them want to take their own lives.
Dana readily gives orders to low-ranking staff members…
Dana: Dave, Chris, Will, what are you guys doing tomorrow morning at ten?
Dave: Gotta basketball game at the “Y”.
Will: Yeah, it’s a 3-on-3 with the guys from…
Dana: Dave, Chris, Will, what are you guys doing tomorrow morning at ten?
Chris: Fixing the sound system?
Dana: There ya go.
As well as to her star anchors…
Dana Whitaker: You mind telling me what the hell’s going on?
Dan Rydell: We’re just –
Dana Whitaker: I don’t wanna hear about it. This show’s supposed to be fun. You guys sound like you’re giving stock quotes. Is there a reason I’m not aware of?
Casey McCall: We think we should be able –
Dana Whitaker: Don’t give me your excuses. We’ve got 18 minutes of show left. What I’d like is you guys to start earning your money. Do you have anything you’d like to say?
Casey McCall: Yeah –
Dana Whitaker: Good!
[She leaves the room]
While the two seasons of Sports Night had plenty of romantic banter, and even some moving twists in its love stories, Dana seems comfortable with her own sexuality, and uninterested in boosting the male ego.
Casey: Was there a stripper?
Dana: At the party?
Dana: Yes, there was.
Casey: Did he have a better body than me?
Dana: Of course he had a better body than you Casey. He was a professional male stripper.
Casey: Let me tell you something. When we’re asked, men know how to answer that question.
Her speech to a suitor about self-realization sure sounds feminist:
“The truth is, I have a job that involves me, and stimulates me, and rewards me, and takes up a lot of my time, and I’m not willing to do my job just a little bit. I want to do ALL of it. It’s part of me, and I’m different without it. And that is who I am, and that is who you need to love.”
And she is capable of delivering a lecture as forcefully and incisively as The Newsroom’s Will McAvoy, even one that is about her love life:
“You’re mad at me? You spend six months making me feel guilty for liking my job. Then propose to me, then two days later, you tell me you slept with the woman who wants my job? I say fine. I say fine! Then six days after that, you tell me you wanna break off the engagement. Here’s the thing. I think only one of us should be angry at a time, and I have a hunch it’s gonna be me.”
Moreover, with Sports Night Sorkin tackled the most extreme form of sexism in an episode when diligent associate producer Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd) is sexually assaulted by an athlete in a locker room interview. Though one insightful blogger found some flaws in the follow-up episodes, surely Sorkin should get some points for broaching the subject and displaying the sensitivity he did – as well as for writing a female character who is so well-versed in sports history and so devoted to sports reporting.
As Sports Night went into its second season, Sorkin began writing The West Wing. Although some have complained about sexism in the Sorkin White House (such as this blog at Feminist Law Professors) the criticisms I have seen so far have seemed rather minor and perfunctory, and rather unfair to a television writer who turned in almost 88 hours-worth of scripts for a pioneering show. (Sorkin created the series and stayed for four seasons.) Sometimes characters on the series were themselves quite sexist: series regular Leo McGarry (John Spencer), for instance, held very old-school views; and the British ambassador Lord John Marbury (Roger Rees), who appeared in four episodes during Sorkin’s tenure, was a lecherous 1960’s-throwback (evidently a big Benny Hill fan). But as one site about the show points out, sexist characters are not the same thing as sexist authorship.
Instead, what I always remember from the show are numerous vivid and capable women walking and talking their way through the halls of The West Wing. C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) endures pressures and crises that any White House press secretary would find daunting (pressures which George Stephanopoulos implied could be unbearable in his memoir All Too Human: A Political Education), and she stays grounded, principled, and sharp as a tack through it all. Moreover, Sorkin didn’t pretend that her gender would never be an issue for her – sometimes she is shut out or overlooked, and has to fight back. But C.J. is certainly able to stand up for herself and others:
C.J.: One other thing—
SAM: Are we done?
C.J.: No, Sam, when I say ‘one other thing’ that means we’re not done, that means there’s one other thing…Before, now, in the future, anytime you’re into something and you don’t know what – and you can’t tell me that you thought there was nothing to it, ‘cause you sat down with Josh and you sat down with Toby – anytime you’re into something and you don’t know what, you don’t keep it from me. I’m your first phone call.…
C.J.: We’re done talking now. You can go.
SAM:…I’ll see you later.
C.J.: Count on it.
C.J.: You’re pissed at me?
Toby: I’m saying, I could’ve used your support in there.
C.J.: You get my support the same way I get yours: when I agree with what you’re saying or when I don’t care about what you’re saying. This time I disagreed.
C.J.: They beat women, Nancy. They hate women. The only reason they keep Qumari women alive is to make more Qumari men.
Nancy McNally: So what do you want me to do about it?
C.J.: How about instead of suggesting that we sell the guns to them, suggesting that we shoot the guns at them? And by the way, not to change the subject, but how are we supposed to have any moral credibility when we talk about gun control and making sure that guns don’t get in the hands of the wrong people? God, Nancy! What the hell are we defining as the ‘right’ people?
C.J.: You know if I was living in Qumar I wouldn’t be allowed to say ‘shove it up your ass Toby.’ But since I’m not, shove it up your ass Toby.
The President’s wife of 30 years, Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing), was a specialist at two hospitals, a Harvard professor of thoracic surgery, the mother of three young women, and a very rational and self-possessed woman who took seriously the potential to make a difference as First Lady. She was also an opinionated feminist. Her husband had enormous respect for her, and considered her a formidable opponent in any argument:
President Josiah Bartlet: You know what I did, just then, that was stupid? I minimized the importance of the statue that was dedicated to Nellie Bly, an extraordinary woman to whom we all owe a great deal.
Abbey Bartlet: You don’t know who she is, do you?
President Josiah Bartlet: This isn’t happening to me.
Abbey Bartlet: She pioneered investigative journalism.
President Josiah Bartlet: Then she’s the one I want to beat the crap out of.
Abbey Bartlet: She risked her life by having herself committed to a mental institution for ten days so she could write about it. She changed entirely the way we treat the mentally ill in this country.
President Josiah Bartlet: Yes. Abigail–
Abbey Bartlet: In 1890, she traveled around the world in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, besting by more than one week, Jules Verne’s 80 days.
President Josiah Bartlet: She sounds like an incredible woman, Abbey…
Abbey Bartlet: When it comes to historical figures being memorialized in this country, women have been largely overlooked. Nellie Bly is just the tip of the iceberg.
Abbey’s Chief-of-Staff Amy Gardner (Mary-Louise Parker) is likewise a fiercely independent feminist. Before working for the First Lady, she held top positions in various feminist political organizations and lobbied within the Democratic Party on behalf of powerful women’s caucuses. During the series, she is sometimes in a relationship with the President’s Deputy Chief-of-Staff Josh (Bradley Whitford); this often leads to a certain amount of personal and professional conflict. Unlike the women on The Newsroom, she handles these conflicts with steely determination.
Josh: So I just came from seeing Amy Gardner.
C.J.: Yeah? How’d it go?
Josh: Well, I showed her who’s boss.
C.J.: Who’d it turn out to be?
Josh: It’s still unclear.
Then there’s pollster Joey Lucas (Marlee Matlin), a confident and forthright political strategist who can also flirt with Josh without losing her cool – even with a male ASL interpreter accompanying her everywhere. Josh has a romantic/adversarial relationship with her too:
Josh: When I get back, you’re gonna argue with me and we’re gonna argue about the things I wanna argue about and you’re gonna do your best not to annoy me too much.
Joey: It’s almost hard to believe you’re not married.
There was also Nancy McNally (Anna Deaveare Smith), the hard-as-nails National Security Advisor. There was Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter), Associate White House Counsel, a lifetime Republican who clashed frequently on issues with the rest of the staff – but with equanimity and confidence. For the first two seasons, the aging Mrs. Landingham (Kathryn Joosten) was the President’s smart-mouthed, no-nonsense, personal secretary, and as it turned out a guiding influence on him since his youth. In the first season, there was also the hyper-educated, super-confident White House consultant Mandy (Moira Kelly). And throughout the series, Josh’s alert, aware, and wry assistant Donna (Janel Moloney) treated Josh more like a college classmate than a boss.
Josh: I don’t need a doctor.
Donna: Are you a doctor?
Donna: Then be quiet.
Donna: Josh, this was delivered by messenger.
Josh: What is it?
Donna: It’s… wait, wait. No, damn, my x-ray vision is failing me today.
Josh: I’m thinking about firing you.
Donna: You’ve fired me twice already tonight. I’m impervious.
So what are we to think? Is Sorkin a sexist or is he a feminist? Perhaps the answer is he’s neither, or a little bit of both. And perhaps a writer’s work can’t be examined as if it contained clues to some secret permanent state. It’s possible, after all, that his attitudes can be in flux.
For one thing, in the middle of his rise to prominence he went through a divorce. He later had a significant relationship with actress/singer Kristin Chenoweth, much of which is said to be reflected in the Matt and Harriet push-me-pull-you romance in Studio 60. And he also happens to be very, very successful. In a patriarchal industry like entertainment, if you’re acclaimed as a sparkling intellect and placed in charge of vast high-profile endeavors (as a show-runner of a TV series, for instance), it’s quite likely that you will find yourself surrounded by sycophants. And if it goes on long enough, you may start to think that that’s the way the world looks.
Woody Allen is another prolific and comedic writer whose female characters do not seem nearly as independent and self-sufficient as they once did. In Allen’s early films the nebbishes he played were shy and clumsy around women, while many of the women were poised, articulate, cultured, and seemingly out of reach. Annie Hall, however, ushered in a series of neurotics, harlots, and harridans. This is not meant to cast aspersions on Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, or Soon-Yi Previn; but when artists have had some degree of painful personal experiences in their own relationships, it’s going to be very tempting to use their public platform to express that – and if at the same time they’ve also been showered with accolades for their artistic work, it’s going to be especially tempting to use that platform to blame the Other, rather than question themselves.
Moreover, both Sorkin and Allen seem to have begun to view beautiful young women as creative muses. In Studio 60, Matt writes better if Harriet hangs out at his office to inspire him; Harriet even feels guilty when she hears he has been having writer’s block without her around. In The Newsroom pilot, the catalyst for Will’s inflammatory, Paddy Chayevsky-like public speech is the sight of Mackenzie at the back of the lecture hall holding up cue cards. He thinks it’s a vision. That’s all dandy, but where are the shows with male muses inspiring female geniuses? Artists may think they’re complimenting a woman by calling her a muse, but won’t she feel more gratified creating her own work?
Incidentally, the opening speech that Will makes in that pilot has had a second life on You Tube, as many have been eager to see facts about America – its abysmal world rankings in literacy and infant mortality, its chart-topping percentage of incarcerated citizens and its astronomical defense budget – exposed on the national stage. One statistic Will missed, however, was that the U.S. has one of the lowest percentages in the world of federal seats held by women; the Inter-Parliamentary Union puts it in 91st place worldwide. This ought to be of enormous concern to the person who worked so hard to rehabilitate civil service in his White House dramedy. It ought to be a thunderous alarm bell for him.
But as liberal as Sorkin is both in topics discussed and in his donations to the Democratic Party, he seems a little out-of-step with the status of women these days. There are grounds to conclude it hasn’t always been that way, and reasons to believe it’s not incurable. However, now he’s on the defensive, and has denied there’s anything askew about the way he has written for women on The Newsroom.
May I just say, actually he shouldn’t listen to everyone out there who attacks the show’s depiction of women. Not everyone has gotten there from a feminist place. (Much as the Bush Administration’s sudden concern for the women of Afghanistan in Oct. 2001 did not mean they’d joined N.O.W.) Some of the criticism has, bizarrely, claimed that Sorkin’s vendetta against unscrupulous and trivial tabloid journalism is just further evidence of his misogyny. The logic behind this, apparently, is based on a pretty flimsy list: the scheme to smear Will through a tabloid magazine is conceived by a woman, company owner Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda); the shameless gossip reporter who writes hatchet jobs about famous people just for the hell of it is a woman (Hope Davis); and the primary consumers of such fare are women. Okay, first off, the definition of misogyny is not “women do it, therefore it must be terrible” (objections to the wearing of fur, for instance, are not mainly driven by hatred of women); and the feminist flipside is not “women do it, therefore it must be positive” (the ancient practice of Chinese foot-binding comes to mind). Secondly, I can’t believe that anyone writing about broadcast media can defend our trash culture with a straight face, or pretend to be ignorant of the direct relationship between an American public gorging on infotainment and an American public starved for real information – an electorate bursting with the details of Britney and Lindsay’s rehab stints and custody trials but unclear on whether we actually located weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
If Gloria Steinem guested on News Night, she’d almost certainly agree with Will that gossipy ‘takedown’ trivia is “pollution” and “human cock-fighting,” and that it’s “destroying civilization.” She and the rest of the activist-editors who founded the groundbreaking feminist magazine Ms. in 1971 viewed the existing women’s magazines of the time as “contentless.” Ms. writers, much like the 2011 documentary film Miss Representation, the blog affiliated with the film, and the 1991 Naomi Wolf book The Beauty Myth, have profoundly criticized the beauty-fashion-celebrity matrix for its effect on women’s psyches. Lisa Bloom’s 2011 book Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World also cautions women to break their obsessions with what she calls “our shallow, self-absorbed celebutainment culture”; she urges this for women’s own survival, among other reasons. Sorkin’s detractors would, in short, be hard-pressed to find a feminist to stand up for reality TV or checkout-counter rags. In fact, the Miss Representation blog specifically praised the episode of The Newsroom in which Will lambasted the TMZ (Sorkin dubs it “TMI”) industry, agreeing with him that the gossipy ‘takedown’ culture is toxic.
Sadly, Sorkin was not strategic enough to lambaste TMZ et al from a feminist angle, and indeed there are no feminists in sight on The Newsroom yet – unless Leona Lansing can be counted, by virtue of her power. Sorkin has instead laid himself open to charges of chauvinism with things like Will’s opening-episode speech, in which he waxes nostalgic for a time when Americans “acted like men,” when we were able to be and do great things “because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered.” Sorkin may think he’s using the word “men” in a gender-neutral way, but his scripts for The West Wing are dotted with similarly worshipful uses of “man” and “men” and definitions of manhood. And The Newsroom’s opening credit sequence – a black and white montage that pays tribute to selfless and sober males of a bygone era in TV news – just reinforces that gender exclusivity.
What we need is for the former First Lady Abbey Bartlet to show up and harangue Will McAvoy for forgetting accomplished women reporters like Nellie Bly. (Or Ida B. Wells. Or Margaret Fuller. Or Lorena Hickok. Or even Christiane Amanpour or Leslie Stahl.) Let him eat some humble pie. Oh, if only Dana Whitaker would come over on loan from Sports Night and fill in at the control panel, showing Mackenzie that she doesn’t have to pussyfoot around Will. And what is Amy Gardner doing these days? Can’t she stop by and give News Night staffers some insights on how right-wingers are spinning the war on women? The Newsroom is not so far gone that these kinds of injections aren’t possible.
But if Sorkin is going to reverse his recent trend in TV writing, he’s going to need to become conscious of what he’s been doing lately. He can’t assume that because he gave female characters strength at times in the past that he’s in no danger of slipping into sexism. That was part of the lesson of the feminist revolution — Consciousness Raising 101: that good intentions are not enough when sexism is so ingrained in the culture. No-one can sit back and assume that they are immune.
As Will himself says in The Newsroom’s kick-off speech: “the first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.”
In subsequent articles, I will examine other aspects of the first season of The Newsroom and Sorkin’s mind-set as a writer, including several serious flaws which hold him back from having the impact his themes deserve.
by Jennifer Epps
Shortly before Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series The Newsroom began in June, I speculated as to what effect an idealistic Sorkinian vision of journalism’s potential could have on the American public. I was worried because Sorkin’s breakthrough hit show The West Wing revived (at least temporarily) public respect for civil servants — and the show’s longterm legacy continues in numerous pilots and series about politics and political office. Before The Newsroom premiered, I had concerns that Sorkin would shower us with appealingly witty and movingly dedicated figures, and it might result in an up-tick in the American public’s trust in the fifth estate. A trust which would be misplaced, hence my concern.
Well, it turns out there wasn’t much reason to worry, at least not yet. The Newsroom garnered a critical aggregate score of 57% on Metacritic and as The Nation reported: “Critics have had a field day with The Newsroom. Ever since Aaron Sorkin’s new TV show launched, it’s been the object of near-universal, often-withering condemnation.” The New York Times noted that Sorkin has been inundated with “charges (more vehement than had been leveled at him in the past) of elitism, self-righteousness, windbaggery and bias” in “unusually harsh reviews”. There were raves as well, but not enough for HBO to rely on for a double-page ad; according to Forbes, some critics’ words were taken out of context. The show’s reception itself became the story, and Sorkin has apparently been confronted by detractors head-on – at this summer’s Television Critics’ Association press tour, for instance. It is not what would have been expected for this winner of six Emmys, three Humanitas Prizes, a Golden Globe, and an Oscar.
But really, if you’re going onto the national stage to openly attack the fundamental ways the mainstream media operates in this society, a hostile response from that same media is probably a sign that you’ve done something right. Recappers and reviewers are not even among the journalists Sorkin evaluates in The Newsroom, but it is nonetheless conceivable that they might take his barbs personally. It also makes perfect sense that they would know which side their bread is buttered on. The media often seem as loyal to each other and as unwilling to call each other out for serious wrongdoing as police officers are. The mainstream media’s version of the “Blue Code of Silence” tends to mean they either rush like lemmings to parrot stories that are trivial or even false (i.e. Judith Miller and her stories about Iraq for The New York Times), or they ignore and vilify stories that upset the powers that be (i.e. Gary Webb and his CIA/Crack/Contras stories for the San Jose Mercury News – though much of the series was eventually confirmed.) This has led to a surreal world where the Obama Administration’s David Axelrod can’t even say what everyone already knows, that Fox is not a news organization, without CNN circling the wagons.
Washington insiders ate The West Wing up with a spoon because it made their jobs seem taxing and complex, but the first season of The Newsroom has presented an overwhelmingly broken fifth estate; only the show’s lead characters seem to have any professional pride or integrity. This has led to a backlash among media writers as if Sorkin is merely being sanctimonious and hyperbolic. But I don’t see one thing inaccurate in the monologue news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) gives on-air in the 3rd episode. He apologizes to viewers for an industry that:
“miscalled election results, hyped up terror scares, ginned up controversy, and failed to report on tectonic shifts in our country from the collapse of the financial system to the truth about how strong we are, to the dangers we actually face.”
Throughout Season 1, in fact, both McAvoy and his executive producer Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) have lambasted their profession for all kinds of trends that are indeed absolutely prevalent in the media. TV critics who spring to the defense of the off-screen media under attack in the series bring to mind the adage: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”Because Sorkin has used actual events from the recent past as the fodder for the news his characters cover, one of the chief gripes against The Newsroom alleges that he unfairly shows up real-world media outlets by using 20/20 hindsight to make his fictional news team do a better job. Or as Alex Pareene put it at Salon: “the answer is always that the equivalent of a week’s worth of research and reporting should have been accomplished in the two hours before that night’s show.”
Really, you’d have to think Sorkin is a complete idiot to believe this is his whole modus operandi. When the primetime cable news show that the series revolves around, News Night, follows through on a hunch that the BP oil spill will be a huge deal, the point is not that they broke the story fast and the real media should have been quicker. Speed and urgency are dramaturgical tools – none other than Shakespeare condensed events into ahistorically brief time spans in order to ramp up the excitement (i.e. in Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and so on).
Sorkin is much more interested in the media’s relationship to power, whether they ask the tough questions that they should. In Sorkin’s idealized world, anchor McAvoy does: he presses representatives from BP and Halliburton, as well as a government inspector, to reveal underlying truths about the safety of offshore oil drilling.
In the 6th episode, Will affirms his belief system on this aspect of journalism to correspondent Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn). She’s about to go on-air to fill in for the anchor of the 10pm show, and he warns her:
“…you’re brilliant, but you let your guests say things that I know you know aren’t true, and then you just move on. Ask the damn follow-up, and then demonstrate with facts how the guest is lying. You can’t just sit there and be a facilitator for whatever bullshit the guest wants to feed your viewers…You knowingly, passively, allow someone to lie on your air, and maybe you’re not a drug dealer, but you’re sure as hell the guy who drives the dealer around in your car.”
This may not make Will the friendliest guy on the block, but I don’t care. He’s right. If there are TV critics who honestly don’t know what a fundamental problem this is in broadcast media, then they ought to stop watching so many fiction shows, and see what the news is up to these days.Perplexingly, some of the feedback about The Newsroom has been that Will McAvoy is unlikeable. Will can be obnoxious, full of himself, and offensive, like when he calls out “Hey, sorority girl” from the stage in the pilot episode. Yet Sorkin never claims he isn’t those things. Sloan says as much when she describes the general view of him among the cable station staffers. But it’s part of Will’s flaws; Sorkin sees it that way. Two women throw drinks in Will’s face after he insults them; it’s not unlike how or why Mark Zuckerberg’s girlfriend breaks up with him in the first scene of The Social Network. Sorkin is perfectly capable of writing arrogant characters and knowing that they come across that way.
But the series’ detractors seem to focus on the most simplistic interpretations of what Sorkin is actually saying about the media. Take episode #4. When news breaks of the shooting in Arizona, News Night producers scurry around trying to decide whether their show should declare Congresswoman Gabby Giffords dead, as other outlets have done. Several critics disliked Sorkin scolding the networks’ haste. But the false report of Giffords’ death was no anomaly. It originates, exactly as Sorkin suggested it does, in the ratings-obsessed suits from ‘upstairs’ screaming: “Every second you’re not current, a thousand people are changing the channel to the guy who is!” The mind-set of a 24-hour, instant-update, for-profit news media is bound to result in such mistakes; and worse, in falsehoods and hoaxes — like Balloon Boy.
Too often, the media never corrects the record at all, or does so in such a mouse-squeak no-one notices. For example, in 1991, the networks blindly accepted the U.S. congressional hearing ‘testimony’ by a 15-year old Kuwaiti hospital volunteer of babies cruelly dashed from incubators by Iraqi soldiers – this fabrication and the witness ‘Nayira’ (actually the Kuwaiti ambassador’s daughter, and never under oath) had been coached by American PR firm Hill & Knowlton. But the lie lives on still, even in the 2002 HBO dramatic feature Live from Baghdad. It’s a short trip from there to the second invasion of Iraq, in 2003, when pundits cheered the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue. The fact that the incident was actually stage-managed by U.S. Army psy-ops has not stopped the phony image from becoming an iconic historical photo. This is the kind of thing that results from the mind-set that Sorkin describes: the go-along-with-the-pack mentality which, among other things, led to an entire press corps of ‘embeds’ contentedly letting the Pentagon take charge of their coverage of the Iraq War.
At one point, Will mentions that the networks’ nightly newscasts were set up as a public service in exchange for their receiving licenses for the public airwaves. And he adds that they should now also be required to run the news without ads! This is a fairly mind-blowing argument to hear on HBO on a Sunday night. So mind-blowing, in fact, that some of the minds blown have lashed back against the series on this idea: in Salon and Esquire blogs, to name just two. No doubt everyone who has written about The Newsroom feels entirely independent and feels they have an open mike. But they are also, by dint of the venue to which they report, integrated into a media culture which influences them, however subconsciously. Esquire is owned by Hearst Corporation, which also owns 300 other magazines, 53 newspapers, 29 TV stations, and controlling interests in major cable networks; Salon is much more alternative and is considered progressive — and has had terrific writers like Glenn Greenwald — but Salon Media Group also happens to have made $3.8 million in sales in the last year. Writers within those universes might not even be able to contemplate how news could function without underwriting by advertisers.
They are perhaps unwilling to wake up and smell the rancid coffee, to consider that media companies began downsizing newsrooms and closing up foreign bureaus when they were in the full bloom of profit, not when they were losing money. (As media reform group FreePress.net notes, “in the 1990s, big media companies used 14–27 percent profit margins to buy up other properties rather than invest in the quality of their existing products or innovate for the future.”) Far from profits bankrolling quality news-gathering, the pursuit of profit has merely resulted in an emphasis on profitable news.
Robert McChesney, a media scholar who co-authored, with political reporter John Nichols, the book The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again told the program Democracy Now:
“we think we’re in a moment of crisis right now for journalism…really a freefall collapse in which, in the next few years, the decisions we make will determine whether we even have journalism as it’s been known traditionally. The business model that has supported journalism for the last 125 years in this country is disintegrating…If we’re going to have journalism in this country, it’s going to require that there be public subsidies to create an independent, uncensored, nonprofit, non-commercial news media sector.”
However, some have grown so attached to the model of media for fun and profit that they have objected to The Newsroom trying to resurrect the concept of informing the public as a sacred duty. “The purpose and history of ‘the news,’” wrote Alex Pareene on Salon, “is not actually wise men sternly lecturing you about what you need to know even if you don’t care about it.” Apparently, it’s much better to have jovial anchors who let you make up your mind about which is more important: Brangelina’s latest adoption, or a glacier twice the size of Manhattan breaking off of Greenland? You decide: we’ll present them both as equal!McAvoy does lecture, but Sorkin doesn’t intend him to be lecturing the audience: it’s the people lying to and distracting the audience he’s hectoring. It’s the people, whether in media, PR, or politics, who pretend that 98% of scientists and 2% of scientists are equivalent, and who certainly aren’t going to mention that those 2% are actually funded by the very industries which have an interest in obscuring the truth. Nowadays the media would take the 4 out of 5 dentists who recommend sugarless gum and the 1 dentist who thinks his clients should be chewing sugared gum, and give both sides as if equal.
Sorkin gave New York magazine a great quote about the media:
“Nobody uses the word lie anymore. Suddenly, everything is ‘a difference of opinion.’ If the entire House Republican caucus were to walk onto the floor one day and say ‘The Earth is flat,’ the headline on The New York Times the next day would read ‘Democrats and Republicans Can’t Agree on Shape of Earth.’
He realizes that broadcast media now pursue a holy grail of objectivity that has resulted in “false equivalency”, as he lamented to USA Today:
“Most of us have been raised to believe that there are two sides to every story, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle….Sometimes the truth doesn’t lie in the middle, it lies squarely on one side or the other….[But] you’ll never hear the word ‘lie’ on network news when something is plainly a lie.”
In “The 112th Congress”, the 3rd episode of The Newsroom, news division head Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) confronts Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda), the owner of AWM, the parent company of the network that airs News Night. Leona is furious that Will is going after Tea Party politicians and calling them out for doubting evolution and so forth.
“Facts are the center. Facts. We don’t pretend that certain facts are in dispute to give the appearance of fairness to people who don’t believe them. Balance is irrelevant to me. It doesn’t have anything to do with truth, logic or reality.”
Sorkin’s superb boardroom quarrel between Leona and Charlie also makes perhaps the best point of The Newsroom’s first season. Charlie tries to make Leona see the importance of properly informing the nation, especially now that “America just elected the most dangerous and addle-minded congress in my lifetime.” Leona thunders back: “I have businessin front of this congress, Charlie!” Thus in one key line, Sorkin sears into viewers’ minds the crucial but certainly under-reported fact that the corporate media has its own legislative and regulatory agenda, and that this colors its news reporting.It is quite possible that we will see more of this in season 2. Sorkin is obviously hip to the significance of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, and he certainly spent a significant chunk of season 1 excoriating the Koch Brothers’ wholesale attempt to corrupt the democratic process. He even brought up the notion of ‘Corporate Personhood’. What most people may remember about the scene where Mackenzie invites economist Sloan Sabbith into her office and hires her will be the bizarrely sexist comment that other economists won’t “have your legs”, but before the scene went south Mackenzie was most intrigued by the fact that Sloan switched a clause about two corporations from the teleprompter’s “both of whom” to “both of which” – because, Sloan explained nonchalantly, “‘whom’ is for people.” Sweet! Sorkin may be fumbling the pass a little, but he has laid the groundwork for his second season to more fully explore the nature of corporate media and the dangers to our democracy of corporate hegemony.
This summer he assured a roomful of media writers at the Television Critics Association: “I don’t want to have an adversarial relationship with the press.”
Well, he’s got one. The question going into Season 2 is how he will make use of it.
In subsequent articles, I will examine other aspects of the first season of The Newsroom and Sorkin’s mind-set as a writer, including several serious flaws which hold him back from having the impact his themes deserve.
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.