The Newsroom, unicorns and the Sorkin view of the world

The-NewsroomAaron Sorkin’s cable news drama The Newsroom wrapped up it’s third, and final season at the end of last year on HBO.  As pure piece of entertainment it’s fun to watch, especially with a great cast and the pyrotechnic dialog for which Sorkin is a specialist, but as a commentary on the current state of news, it has some serious flaws, that bothered me enough to write them down.  What’s that, you’ve never heard of The Newsroom?  Well, allow me a brief recap: Jeff Daniels plays Will McAvoy, a cable news anchor of the Dan Rather/Tom Brokaw/Peter Jennings vintage on the fictional Atlantis Cable News (ACN) network (a sly dig at Atlanta-based CNN, no doubt).  The series opens in the Q&A portion of a panel discussion on a university campus featuring McAvoy, when a college student asks a particularly naive question: “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?”.  After a few attempts to avoid answering this directly (clearly he disagrees with the premise of the question), McAvoy decides enough is enough and starts channelling his inner Howard Beale (the fictional TV newscaster from the 1976 film Network who extorted  his audience to open their windows and yell: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not taking it anymore”).  McAvoy’s response is worth reading in detail, it’s pure Sorkin, the kind of thing that we all wish important people would say, but never do.

This exchange enlivens McAvoy, who has began to feel stale in his role as anchor, to remake his evening news broadcast, News Night, into a kind of tell-it-like-is show of the Edward Murrow and Walter Cronkite era. (This is reinforced in a none-too-subtle way by the title graphics in Season 1).   The Newsroom is set in the recent past, so familiar stories (the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, 2012 presidential election, the 2013 Boston marathon bombing) can be retold through the lens of McAvoy and his plucky band of newsroom denizens.   Incidentally, the residents of News Night are mostly all either young and beautiful (e.g. Alison Pill as associate producer Maggie Jordan, and Thomas Sadoski as an executive producer Don Keefer), or old, but feisty (Sam Waterston as ACN’s president Charlie Skinner).  For viewers of other Sorkin dramas the setup will feel very familiar: it’s full of his trademark sparkling repartee that sounds more like stanzas that were workshopped for several weeks, rather than actual sentences that any real person would say.   The background events are also largely backdrop for the melodrama to play out.   OK, I know, I know, this is just a TV show, so you can’t blame a writer for trying to make it entertaining and not too weighty.

The problem is that the entire premise seems at least a decade or so too late.  Cable news is dead, or haven’t you heard?  To keep relevant, Sorkin includes a “digital editor”, Neal Sampat (played by Dev Patel), who consistently reminds McAvoy that there is something out there called “the Internet”.  Other movements such as Occupy Wall Street are also called in to play bit parts.  The overall take-away from The Newsroom, however, is that we are supposed to be highly dubious of all these new-fangled trends, and what we should be doing is listening to the grizzled wisdom of tell-it-like-is grumpy-but-ultimately-loveable institutional elders, such as McAvoy (an old-style Republican centrist, who apparently just calls balls-and-strikes as he sees them) or Skinner (a retired US Marine who jousts frequently with the corporate master played by Jane Fonda).

It’s here that for all it’s liberal tub-thumping (it regularly excoriates the Tea Party, the NRA, etc.) that The Newsroom reveals itself as favouring a deeply patrician and elitist view of the world.  This is made clear in a major plot arc in Season 3 when ACN comes under new management in the form of a Silicon Valley libertarian, who seeks to cut costs and drive viewer “engagement” via the aggressive out-sourcing of news gathering to what he calls “citizen journalists”.  The general trend away from funding of serious news-gathering, and push towards creating clickbait stories is a real on-going and serious issue, amply documented in Astra Taylor’s recent book, The People’s Platform.  However, rather that exploring these nuances,  Sorkin creates a straw man by conflating all non-mainstream, grassroots journalism with TMZ,  effectively stereotyping those working outside recognized institutions as a bunch of Twitter-obsessed, texting, app-downloading celebrity hounds.  A better way to think about these issues, I would argue, is to distinguish between “acts of journalism” (versus, say acts of public relations, or advertorial) rather than between institutional journalism versus everything else.  Sorkin completely misses this.

When digital editor Sampat (for some reason in the world of News Night, a website for a major news network can be run by a single person), disappears to avoid the authorities forcing him to disclose one of his sources, he is immediately replaced by the aforementioned new libertarian owner.   The new digital editor seems to be a cross between a graduate of the TMZ-school of celebrity journalism and your most obnoxious system administrator .  To make matters worse, he is portrayed in stereotypical fashion as a fat slob more interested in click views and cleavage than real news.   When Sampat triumphantly returns, he kicks the guy out.

This story arc (as well as the arc about Occupy Wall Street) seems designed to reinforce the idea that unsanctioned non-institutional movements are ultimately expression of a collective “id” and not to be trusted.  Sorkin hammers over and over again that we should really be listening to the superego of the wise (male) McAvoy or Skinner.  The pile-it on, mob-mentality, and the spread of bad information whisper-like via social media are indeed highly problematic (see Ron Johnson’s So You’ve Been Publically Shamed), however to portray the fight for truth as being purely between a lawless “Internet” vs. the good souls in news organizations is just as problematic.  In the reality outside of The Newsroom the mainstream media has also struggled just as mightily in it’s role as a guardian of democracy. Take the Edward Snowden story, although publishing via The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras worked largely outside the mainstream media to bring that story to light.  Greenwald’s book, No Place to Hide, makes it clear that the Washington and New York press establishments were largely too gun-shy to run the story, and were amongst the first to pile on the charge that Greenwald aided and abetted a “traitor” (Snowden) after the release of the NSA surveillance activities.

The Newsroom  does spend a good deal of screen time on dramatizing the high-level machinations of ACN’s corporate masters and their impact on those in the newsroom trenches, but it also asks us to believe that these presumably highly paid media figures (such as McAvoy) with fancy Manhattan apartments, fat 401k plans, have superhuman qualities that allow them to almost casually risk their careers, or get themselves put in jail.  McAvoy is repeatedly threatened by various nefarious agents of the government and corporations, but stands ramrod straight throughout.   (For a more farcical and absurdist, but in some sense more realistic, take on TV news, I highly recommend the Australian comedy from the 1990s, Frontline, no relation to the serious PBS Frontline).  The Newsroom also simultaneously questions the motivation of those who might seek alternative forms of news-gathering and dissemination that avoids institutional gatekeepers.  It is this view that ultimately makes The Newsroom a highly conservative show, not for the ideology of the protagonists (with the exception of McAvoy, and some of the senior management they are mostly highly liberal), but that it reinforces that notion that propagation of the “truth” is best left to our betters.

Christopher Hayes (himself a cable TV host on MSNBC) in his 2012 book The Twilight of the Elites,  systematically documents the way that an overweening belief in the rightness of the American meritocratic project (which has adherents on both sides of the aisle) has led to a self-reinforcing institutional power structure that cannot see beyond itself, which increasingly views success as climbing a ladder while relentlessly adding more rungs (the late Aaron Swartz summarizes Hayes’ argument succinctly in a review of the book on Crooked Timber).  The inability of this power structure to view progress as anything more than self-perpetuation and self-aggrandizement has led to massive failures of both government (think response to Hurricane Katrina),  and corporations (think the Global Financial Crisis of 2008).  Ultimately McAvoy’s character in The Newsroom,  much like President Josiah Bartlet in The West Wing are characters that could only exist in Sorkin’s mind.  They are both idealized version of the power elite that Hayes characterizes: albeit one that actually tries to grapple with big problems in the country in a serious way, either reporting on the news, or running the country.  Back in the 1990s when The West Wing first aired, maybe we could believe that such unicorns could, at least in principle, exist.   As the recent falls from grace of NBC’s Brian Williams and CIA director, David Petraeus, arguably both products of this intense meritocratic competition, illustrate, it seems almost impossible to suspend this disbelief any more.

To be fair, Sorkin explicitly notes that his Newsroom is a heightened version of reality and is intended to be romantic.  It  also is refreshing that the show depicts that there are many competent people in mainstream news organizations working every day to deliver quality journalism.   However as an institutional class, many of the top news organizations act far too much as stenographers to the establishment, privileging access to power, over confrontation of that power, something that Sorkin too easily glosses over.   How else to explain the continued existence of all-too cozy events such as the Washington Press Correspondent’s Dinner?  (Again this is alluded to in an episode of The Newsroom, but dealt with in all-too brief way).    In the real world the analogs of ACN don’t just report on the the elite, they are part of that elite.  In the final analysis what is most frustrating about The Newsroom is that by presenting News Night  as the reincarnation of a “golden era” of “objective” television journalism, it wastes an opportunity to dramatize some of the really interesting changes in how we create our “first draft of history“.

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