What Aaron Sorkin, Jon Stewart, and Tina Fey Learned From Their Internet Critics



Aaron Sorkin's acceptance speech at this weekend's Oscars ceremony ran long; long enough, in fact, for a listener to notice one of the oddest things about it. That is: Sorkin, who won Best Adapted Screenplay for his Social Network script, shared some of the credit for his award. He ran through the thank-yous, both expected and unexpected; he thanked director David Fincher, he thanked star Jesse Eisenberg, he thanked his researcher and his assistant and his press representative. But he also included the following: "This [screenplay] is an adaptation of a book by Ben Mezrich, so I'm accepting this on his behalf as well." Which, if you have been paying close attention to the story of Aaron Sorkin, seems to show that he has perhaps learned something from the Internet in the past 10 years.

The Social Network is the story of Mark Zuckerberg, who took to the Internet with a dynamite idea and was promptly accused of stealing it. Ten years ago, when Sorkin was running The West Wing, he found himself embroiled in a controversy of its own, also revolving around accusations that he had taken undue credit for others' work. It could have been minor: Sorkin, who claimed that he wrote every episode of The West Wing himself, didn't mention his co-writerhref> Rick Cleveland when he accepted an Emmy for the episode "In Excelsis Deo" in 2000 (Cleveland was standing directly behind him at the time). Sorkin, unfortunately, managed to throw gasoline on the fire by openly attacking Cleveland on the West Wing forums at Television Without Pity. Fans accused Sorkin spotlight-hogging, credit-stealing, callousness; Sorkin responded by claiming that Rick Cleveland had done no actual work on the episode, and that Sorkin had written the entire story and script himself. Which didn't exactly help him, given that the episode was in fact based on the death of Cleveland's father.

Things got ugly. Cleveland responded. Sorkin apologized, and swore not to post on the website any more. This is when Sorkin, Internet casualty, became a digital innovator himself: He was the first person in history to write an hour-long television episode about a man who is offended by an Internet message board. "The U.S. Poet Laureate," which aired in March 2002, played like a blow-by-blow re-enactment of Sorkin's history with the TWoP forums: White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman discovers a message board dedicated to his policy and general dreaminess (well, the character was basedhref> on Rahm Emanuelhref>). Josh is shocked to find that this message board is not entirely composed of praise. He posts a "correction," and the other users call him arrogant. He then posts a series of increasingly unhinged and unprofessional messages, which end abruptly when a colleague tells him someone will be assigned the task of making sure he doesn't post on the site ever again. The story's close adherence to the Sorkin's history made the characters' remarks about the mentally unstable, muu-muu wearing, chain-smoking losers who read or worked on such sites all the more vicious.

Today, this sort of thing happens all the time. It's part of the fun of being a television fan; nothing is as interesting as those moments when the writer-to-viewer relationship goes sour. The Internet is full of harsh criticism; no public person can avoid it. But when a show's creator choose to address his critics—whether it's done generously or spitefully, with a wink or with brass knuckles—it seems to show more about the underlying process of the creator than anything else.

Consider the approach taken by a fellow progressive icon, Daily Show host Jon Stewart, when Jezebel writer Irin Carmon criticizedhref> his show for its low number of female cast members and writers, and the questionable credentials of new hire Olivia Munn. Just as Sorkin's wordy, defensive self-righteousness was undeniably Sorkinesque, Stewart's approach was pure Stewart: "Jezebel thinks I'm a sexist prickhref>," Stewart moaned, and that was that.

Unlike Sorkin, he didn't engage his critics on their turf. He also didn't address their criticism. Stewart's massively likable persona is a key part of The Daily Show. We roll our eyes in sympathy when he moans, get angry when he rants; liberals are used to considering his enemies our own, because they often are. So if Jon Stewart seems hurt by the accusation of "sexism," what else is there to say? The Internet hurt his feelings. The Internet must be wrong.

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Sady Doyle is a freelance writer based in New York City. She blogs at Tiger Beatdown. More

Sady Doyle is a writer living in New York. She has contributed to Salon's Broadsheet, the American Prospect, the Guardian's Comment is Free, and Feministe. She blogs at Tigerbeatdown.com.

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