Aaron Sorkin’s empty critique of cable news.
THE RIVETING DRAMA and moral risks that are part of TV journalism offer a fertile field for artists. Paddy Chayefsky in Network told us the story of “the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.” In Broadcast News, James L. Brooks showed us the real dangers to the soul of journalism when vacuous flash is valued over substance. Into the ranks of the protagonists of these classics—mad prophet of the airwaves Howard Beale and the smooth but unethical Tom Grunick—now ambles Will McAvoy, the anchorman hero of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom,” who has made it his mission to “speak truth to stupid.”
I wanted this show to be great. When asked to participate in a conference call, gratis, where I shared some of my reporting experiences with the writers, I eagerly did so. But I won’t further bury the lede: “The Newsroom,” which debuts June 24 on HBO, is sadly disappointing. There’s much to criticize in the media—and TV news in particular. But though “The Newsroom” intends to lecture its viewers on the higher virtues of capital-J journalism, Professor Sorkin soon reveals he isn’t much of an expert on the subject.
SORKIN HAS a well-known penchant for projecting his political fantasies onto his protagonists: See the crusading presidents Andrew Shepherd (from The American President) and Jed Bartlet (of “The West Wing”). McAvoy (who is played by Jeff Daniels) is the journalistic equivalent, a messiah sent to save broadcast news.
The series begins with McAvoy’s conversion from cynical hack to truth-telling idealist. We first meet him as part of a Northwestern University panel where he’s pilloried for his passionless impartiality. “You’re the Jay Leno of news anchors,” he’s told. “You’re popular because you don’t offend anyone.” Further goaded by his old-school, bourbon-soaked boss at the (fictional) ACN cable network, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), and his new executive producer, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer)—with whom he has a messy romantic past—McAvoy experiences an epiphany. He goes on air and apologizes to the public for having pursued unimportant stories in pursuit of ratings. He will now only report on what is serious and real. He will dedicate himself to protecting civic virtue.
But that prompts the question: protect it from what? This is where Sorkin’s high-minded critique falls flat. McAvoy sanctimoniously laments the deterioration of public discourse and the news media’s complicity in it. But if that is the problem, his subsequent actions reveal a commitment to a uniformly partisan solution. McAvoy—and, by extension, Sorkin—preach political selflessness, but they practice pure partisanship; they extol the Fourth Estate’s democratic duty, but they believe that responsibility consists mostly of criticizing Republicans. This is done through the oldest trick in the book for a Hollywood liberal: by having McAvoy be a “sane Republican” who looks at his party with sadness and anger.