JUNE 22, 2012
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.
The fact, then, that the show begins in 2010—at the height of the Tea Party’s fervor—is no accident; it’s what enables the show’s didacticism. Sorkin’s intent is to show how events of recent memory could have been covered better by the media if journalists had only had the courage. Some of Sorkin’s lessons are well-taken. We see McAvoy under pressure from his bosses to confirm, or at least repeat, the false NPR report that Representative Gabrielle Giffords had been killed. Those scenes ring true, as do others in which ratings pressures are discussed.
But more often than not, Sorkin simply demonstrates his own confusion about what ails journalism. He begins with the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. One of McAvoy’s producers has expert inside sources at BP and Halliburton, so ACN’s “News Night” leads with the story as a tale of environmental disaster, corporate sloth, and government impotence. Meanwhile every other network—bereft of such information—is myopically focused on the fire on the oil rig and the deaths of eleven workers. But citing the BP oil spill is a curious way to charge journalistic malpractice: By my recollection, that was a story the media covered fairly aggressively and responsibly.
In another episode Sorkin pats McAvoy on the back for limiting his coverage of the failed Times Square bomber and resisting the temptation to “hype” a terrorist threat that fizzled. (With no apparent sense of sarcasm, Skinner repeats praise for their restraint from Media Matters and Think Progress, as if those explicitly liberal websites are nonideological arbiters of Edward R. Murrow’s legacy.) And what are the important issues “News Night” covers instead of the piffle of Faisal Shahzad, a homegrown terrorist funded and trained by the Pakistani Taliban? McAvoy instead devotes at least a week of his broadcast to showcasing what a horribly inept and dangerous bunch Tea Party Republicans are as they—gasp!—defeat establishment Republicans in free and fair primaries and elections. It’s all well and good to follow the Koch brothers’ money, but at a time when Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, it’s telling that McAvoy and Sorkin aim their sights at conservatives seeking power—not moderates and liberals wielding it.
In a later episode, McAvoy dismantles the preposterously under-sourced claim that President Obama’s trip to India cost $200 million per day. This was a story that was widely discredited at the time, but McAvoy is not content to merely debunk it. Instead, he works himself into a fervor connecting the dots of the now-familiar path of bogus-source-to-obscure-website-to-Drudge-to-Limbaugh-to-the-zeitgeist. It is as if he had discovered the lost city of Atlantis. And when McAvoy goes after a National Rifle Association campaign to portray Obama as anti-gun, he insists on depicting it as a moral crusade in defense of the public good. But he never feels the need to question whether—in the midst of crises in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the international economy—it’s really so noble after all to devote one’s limited resources to fact-checking relatively unimportant political attacks. As such, it’s hard not to judge the resulting segment as falling short of McAvoy’s newly idealistic raison d’être—though Sorkin clearly seems to think otherwise.
SCENE: INTERIOR. TNR Office, Washington, D.C.
EDITOR: Butwhatabout the thing?
EDITOR: ThatSORKINthing whentwo charactersarewalkingdownahallway oronthestreet and thedialogue EXPLODESlikePOPCORN fastandsalty and-it’s ... stylizedandfun.
TAPPER: Oh. THATthing.
EDITOR: Yes. Thething.
Of Sorkin’s signature style of dialogue, there is little to be said other than you either love it or hate it. (I happen to enjoy it when it’s cooking, but left this meal unsated.) The cast, for its part, is stellar, but in the spectrum of Sorkin-esque characters, with their outbreaks of fevered romances and boxes of bons mots, the journalists of “News Night” regrettably lean more to the “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” than the “Sports Night” side of the scale. Underused assets include Olivia Munn as a gorgeous economic reporter, Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel as the office blogger with a tiresome belief in Big Foot, and the always-great Chris Messina as the corporate heavy.
It also must be said that Daniels has made a bold, but admirable, decision to portray McAvoy, credibly, as a very talented jerk. It’s telling that one of the ways that Sorkin prepared himself for “The Newsroom” was by embedding himself with Keith Olbermann’s (since-canceled) “Countdown” on MSNBC. McAvoy shares many weaknesses of other cable news stars—most notably, a blindness to his own ideology. This is the disconnect that allows them to proclaim a commitment to Truth and Beauty right before launching a ten-minute broadside against an opponent’s petty foibles or to make a plea for civility right before releasing a sneering explosion of disdain. For members of the media who watch the show, McAvoy will be entirely recognizable, if not for his idealistic naïveté, then for his childish egoism.
An HBO executive once told me that, since so much artistic freedom is given to its shows’ creators, new series often take a few episodes before they find their rhythm. I hope that proves to be true here. The cast is too good, Sorkin too skilled, and the subject matter too rich. There are too many fields to plow—a sub-plot involving one branch of the corporate empire plotting against another branch seems promising, as do the commercial pressures on the show to be first with information, its accuracy notwithstanding. But “The Newsroom” had me contemplating that which is so feared in my industry: changing the channel. And I was watching it on DVD.
Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News. This article appears in the July 12, 2012 issue of the magazine.