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.