Sep 1 2013

Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom

A deeply flawed yet riveting lament for the news

It isn’t news to those of us interested in knowing about the world that American journalism is in crisis. With The Newsroom and its dramatic condemnation of the state of news, HBO is jumping into the center of an industry storm, and what it portrays as a national disgrace.

Though Newsroom could have focused on newspapers—arguably the medium hardest hit by industry trends—or the Internet or alternative media, the program spotlights television and often fingers the medium itself, with its entertainment obsessions, as a main culprit. Ironically, the show’s creator is long-time film and TV entertainment pro Aaron Sorkin.

Amid Sorkin’s lament for the loss of meaningful news is his adamant belief that journalism can be fixed and TV news can be done right. From the opening sequences, which include clips from Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now and the iconic moment when Walter Cronkite removes his glasses to report the death of JFK, Sorkin makes it clear that these men remain the standard bearers of good journalism, and the once-proud CBS News their noble vehicle.

Viewers’ short attention spans, Tea Party zealots, even wealthy corporate bosses can all be overcome if “we just decide to” do the news right, as the title of the first episode makes clear. But “we” do this not so much by looking forward to non-corporate and participatory forms of media production, but by going back to a mythic age of broadcast news led by gutsy white men. (The Newsroom has been frequently criticized for its misogyny and lack of diversity—New Yorker, 6/25/12; Slate, 7/3/12.)

The Internet and whistleblowers are not to be trusted in this drama, but Murrow and Cronkite are; Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), the news division president of the fictional Atlantic Cable News (ACN), tells his News Night anchor and the show’s hero, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), about their opinions: “When Murrow had one, that was the end of McCarthy, and when Cronkite had one, that was the end of Vietnam.”

Newsroom stories are drawn from the recent past—from the Deepwater Horizon debacle in the Gulf to the execution of Troy Davis—making each episode strangely familiar while presenting a different TV version of events…a better one. For once, viewers are more informed than the news gatekeepers. We apply our skills and knowledge as we pass judgment on theirs.

In a riveting seven-minute sequence reporting the Arizona shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the News Night team struggles over whether to report Giffords’ death after CNN, NPR, MSNBC and Fox News have all said she was dead (a mistake they all made in real life—Media Bistro, 1/8/11). Reese Lansing (Chris Messina), president of ACN and son of corporate owner Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda), rushes around the newsroom, pressuring them to make the announcement in order to stay current and hold onto viewers. Still undecided moments before airtime, they get it right by applying an ethical news principle, articulated by Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski), an executive producer who says, “It’s a person; a doctor pronounces her dead, not the news.”

Each time news events are rewritten for the better, the show critiques previous coverage and real-world news organizations. It’s no wonder it hasn’t been well-received in these quarters.

Every episode is packed with illustrations of the pressures that distort broadcast news, as the team struggles against corporate influence, advertising demands, viewer expectations and, above all, political ideology. Political and corporate criticisms are often craftily articulated (though reviewers have called them preachy—Time, 6/21/13; New Yorker, 6/25/13), but at times they are blunt and visceral, as when McAvoy drinks Pepto Bismol (yes, there is product placement) while viewing a taped segment of Michele Bachmann, or the team’s digital guru, Neal Sampat (Dev Patel), breaks two fingers punching Rush Limbaugh on a computer screen.

A double episode in season 1 portrays the worst tendencies of tabloid TV’s nonfiction formats. In “The Blackout Part 1: Tragedy Porn,” News Night has lost half its audience by ignoring the trial of Casey Anthony, the young mother accused of murdering her two-year-old. Forced to cover the story, producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) preps the staff. With excruciating sarcasm, McHale crosses out, one by one, a list of serious topics, including Senate obstruction, the dire job situation, the AFL-CIO’s souring on Obama and the failure of the War on Drugs, even as staff members pitch the importance of these topics.

She continues, “All right, to give us a crash course on how best to exploit this tragedy and to erase all boundaries of what should be used as entertainment, I’ve enlisted the help of a master of the dark arts.” On cue, Keefer walks into the meeting, saying, “I understand I’m needed?”

Over actual coverage of the trial on HLN’s Nancy Grace show, Keefer starts with, “This woman Nancy is the best I’ve ever seen.” On video, Grace is asking, “How will they explain the duct tape around the child’s mouth and nose…and all the lies that ‘Tot Mom’ told?” During Grace’s rhetorical questioning, the camera cuts to a picture of the tattoo on Casey’s shoulder, even though it is never mentioned. Keefer explains that the tattoo is a visual attention-grabbing device that prevents viewers from looking away from the screen—“plus tattoo equals bad mom.” Another visual shows duct tape and a plastic bag, and Keefer explains, “So you know you’re watching the real CSI Miami.” As a picture of the murdered child appears, he says: “Look how cute Caylee is. She deserved better than a mom with a tattoo.”

If Sorkin had stopped with these points, the segment would stand as a useful deconstruction of techniques that mislead audiences while posing as information. Instead, Keefer continues with a statement that blames viewers—and women—for the way media exploit them: “No one’s ever gone broke in America serving up a woman who makes other women feel superior.”

This sort of sensationalistic reporting is contrasted implicitly with the show’s conceit that the best reporters, those with the greatest integrity, acquired their skills covering the war on terror. McHale and her senior producer, Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.), are real journalists because they reported from Afghanistan. In fact, news media’s failure to accurately inform the public after 9/11 (Extra!, 11–12/01) and the loss of independence covering Afghanistan and Iraq (Extra!, 5/03) remain a blight on corporate news.


While the Casey Anthony meeting is taking place at ACN, Skinner is in the New York public library at a clandestine meeting with whistleblower Solomon Hancock (Stephen McKinley Henderson). They speak in hushed tones over a low, ominous audio track. Hancock starts by asking Skinner to take the battery out of his cell phone. Skinner replies that the walls are three feet thick. When Hancock persists, Skinner asks, “Do you have reason to believe you’re under surveillance?” He replies, “Everyone’s under surveillance, if you’ve got a cell phone.” Skinner returns with, “It’s talk like that that makes me [skeptical].”

Though Skinner is dubious, this scene reminds us that media professionals were well aware of the existence of National Security Agency spying before whistleblower Edward Snowden released details about it to the global public. The fictional version of Prism is called “Global Clarity,” a data mining software that intercepts “1.7 billion phone calls, emails and texts everyday.” Hancock continues, “It involves a significant amount of illegal, warrantless wiretapping of American citizens…. The NSA has been happily violating the Fourth Amendment” and other prohibitions against spying on Americans.

Though Skinner does not report the story, he finds out from Hancock that ACN’s parent company, TMI, has been hacking News Night and its staff in order to control editorial decisions and news content. Numerous references are made to Rupert Murdoch’s illegal surveillance and phone hacking.

Skinner’s refusal to report the story offers insight into the difficulties of whistleblowing in an age of risk-averse corporate media who are often aligned with political power. But Newsroom also denigrates WikiLeaks by having it endorsed by Sampat—the same staffer who believes Bigfoot exists.

Sorkin knows how to build narrative suspense, even when applied to tedious political argumentation. In “The Greater Fool,” the last episode of season 1, we see the newsroom move into action as interns rush to their cubicles. McAvoy sits in his office, and associate producer Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) enters repeatedly, announcing the name of a “founding father” as she slaps down each new piece of paper on his desk.

The denouement comes on the night’s broadcast. McAvoy tells viewers that during Tea Party rallies and campaign speeches, we’ve been told that “America was founded as a Christian nation.” On the screen, John Adams is up first, with a quote from the Treaty of Tripoli typing dramatically: “As the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion.” Then comes Thomas Jefferson: “That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.”

And, finally, these words from the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” A video shows John McCain, who intones, “Yes, the Constitu-tion established the U.S. of America as a Christian nation.”

After a top 10 list of other faults, including ideological purity, tribal mentality and intolerance of dissent, McAvoy says, “They can call themselves the Tea Party…but we should call them what they are—the American Taliban.” On the program, staff and viewers clap and shake hands, but it’s no surprise that such pointed political calling-out would anger real-world media analysts who’ve criticized the program for its speechifying smugness and sanctimony.

Of course, Sorkin’s skilled use of multiple-camera perspectives, clipped editing, dialogue and scene juxtapositions turn such heavy-handed arguments into fast-paced entertainment, the very practices so pilloried on the program.

NewsRoom team gathered.

News Night anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) consults his newsroom on The NewsRoom.

In this segment, McAvoy also excoriates the perversion of our great “sensible, smart, strong Republicans,” who should be standing up to the religious zealots who have thrown in the towel on sanity. And here is the core of The Newsroom’s misstep.

The show revolves around McAvoy, a curmudgeon who, though he acts and speaks like a classic liberal, is identified as a Republican. He alone can fix the news, and by implication the country, by speaking the truth. But Newsroom truths are nostalgia myths of a two-party system where civility once reigned and the opinions of wise men held sway over the land.

By choosing to rewrite existing TV news, Sorkin has locked Newsroom into the current media agenda, unable to offer real alternatives to news as we know it.