The Pretentious Condescension of 'The Newsroom'

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Aaron Sorkin's new show is unpleasant, heavy-handed, and often inaccurate.

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HBO

"He's not going to look like an elite Northeastern prick?" a cameraman asks MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), a cable news executive producer, at the end of the first episode of The Newsroom. The "he" is Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a formerly bland anchor who has blown up his reputation with a rant that was circulated on YouTube. "He is," MacKenzie acknowledges. "Let's make that sexy again."

Therein lies the problem with The Newsroom, a new HBO show by West Wing and Social Network writer-director Aaron Sorkin, which premieres Sunday at 10 pm. A series with great self-confidence but no discernibly unique ideas, The Newsroom is determined to dress up old models as the future of journalism, even as it blithely skates over the realities of the news business and the real work of reporting.

The Newsroom appears to operate on a hierarchy of condescension. At the top is executive Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), who describes MacKenzie as if she's a fragile flower rather than an experienced war correspondent. He says, "She's mentally and physically exhausted...and she's been to way too many funerals for a girl her age. She wants to come home." Will, a notch below him, is unpleasant to everyone in sight, starting in the opening sequences, when he tells a college girl, "You are, without a doubt, the member of the worst period generation period ever period." (The show later validates Will's nastiness to her by making her seem spoiled and entitled: She sues her college for emotional distress.) Don (Thomas Sadoski), Will's soon-to-be-former executive producer, can't risk snarking on MacKenzie, his replacement, "She's like a sophomore poli-sci major at Sarah Lawrence." Jim, MacKenzie's deputy, snaps back: "She's exactly like that. I guess the only difference are her two Peabodies and the scar on her stomach from covering a Shiite protest in Islamabad."

Sorkin's characters are often accused of sounding alike. Here, what they have in common is a sense that they're superior to someone who hasn't submitted to their needs, wishes, and worldview.

At the bottom of this miserable totem pole is Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), formerly an intern, promoted only recently to be Will's assistant, who is condescended to by everyone. "He didn't promote you, honey. He thought you were his assistant," Don, her negging nebbish of a boyfriend tells her at the beginning of the episode. Will, trying to prove he's attentive to his staff, insists that her name is Ellen. MacKenzie declares that Maggie is "me, before I grew into myself and got hotter with age!" And when Maggie volunteers for a reporting task, both Don and Jim treat Maggie like an idiot. "Can you do this? You can't just look it up on Wikipedia," Don tells her. "It's true, Maggie," warns Jim.

It might be nice if this felt like some sort of critique of the way powerful men in journalism ignore and fail to mentor young women, or of the grinding, low-paid jobs that people of both genders increasingly have to accept if they hope for a long-term future in the field. Part of journalism's problem, after all, is a generational one: Young reporters are being asked to do more, with less supervision and training, and for lower salaries. But the only salary or housing situation that's mentioned in the pilot is Jim's. Maggie feels soggy, rather than stifled—she tells flimsy lies to her parents to cover for Don, who is too commitment-phobic to go to dinner with them after dating Maggie for four months. And the show is too invested in establishing MacKenzie and Jim as heroes to make them recognize that their treatment of Maggie is unkind rather than charming.

It would be easier to overlook this persistent unpleasantness if The Newsroom had hard truths to utter about the state of American political discourse or piercing insights into the workings of cable news. But Sorkin seems unaware or unwilling to admit that quite a lot of people like polarized cable news. Fox & Friends, the conspiracy-theory peddling morning show with a Stanford-educated anchor who regularly plays dumb, is the highest-rated morning show on cable television. People have their own facts, something Will bemoans, not simply because his fellow anchors have fed them those alternate worldviews, but because cable news has found it profitable to cater to conspiracies and angers already well-entrenched among Americans. Suggesting that an abrasive Keith Olbermann clone—and no matter how much Sorkin protests, Will resembles no one so much as Sorkin's prior muse for Sports Night—can show the people a great light is simultaneously naively optimistic in its assessment of American television viewers and a kind of blinkered gesture of noblesse oblige.

And the show makes what perhaps will be a fatal mistake in having its crusading journalists cover recent news events. Sorkin told New York magazine, "I have no political sophistication or media sophistication, so if I was talking to Howard Kurtz or you, you could easily dismantle whatever argument I'm going to make." But having his characters re-report existing stories means The Newsroom is inevitably offering a critique of the work done by real journalists.

This is particularly grating given how poorly The Newsroom handles its first such rewriting of history, the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In Sorkin's version of history, Will's team breaks the whole story of the disaster wide open in a matter of hours. How? By caring where others don't, through personal connections to key sources, and because of magical knowledge the team's blogger gained through building an elementary school baking soda volcano. If the sequence is meant to suggest that publications could have moved faster by caring, it ignores that no one, anywhere, knew what caused the explosion for more than two days in part because the fires on the rig couldn't be extinguished, and that reporters were vigorously reporting out regulatory and corporate failures in the immediate aftermath of the story, but that it took time and Freedom of Information Act requests to break the stories. It's convenient, and partially true, to believe that failure of will and interest contributes to bad journalism in America. It's also wildly insulting to working journalists in all mediums to suggest that they don't want it enough.

And ultimately, Will's tone isn't very different from the ultra-liberal and the ultra-conservative who hissed and scratched and gave him a case of vertigo in the show's opening sequence. His producers praise him for aggression in interviews, regardless of what information he actually gets out of corporate flacks and beleaguered civil servants. Declaring, "You know why people don't like liberals? Because they lose" is not actually more insightful than a conservative commentator complaining about the National Endowment for the Arts because "I am not happy to pay for a painting I don't want to look at, poetry I don't want to read."

Will works at the Atlantis Cable Network, a name no doubt meant to suggest a lost remnant of a glorious age, or to underscore that in what Sorkin sees as a hopelessly blighted environment, a show of the kind Will and MacKenzie will build could only ever be a pleasant fiction. But if The Newsroom is Aaron Sorkin's vision for the future of news, I'm content to let it rest below the waves.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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