THE NEWSROOM RECAP 3: THE 112TH CONGRESS

THE NEWSROOM RECAP 3: THE 112TH CONGRESS

As much as I believe Aaron Sorkin is, to some extent, correct about the brokenness of our news system, as I’ve watched The Newsroom, I’m finding myself increasingly sympathetic with the people he’s angry at, the ones who knuckle under to commercial pressure and the terms of their contracts as Will McAvoy and the News Night team rise above them. I absolutely agree that established stars like McAvoy should use their power and influence to emphasize facts and to elevate worthy stories. But it turns out to have been pretty easy for MacKenzie and Jim to convince Will that he should be a different kind of newsman and to give him the words to help him do it. The person who’s going through an internal struggle that turns out to be compelling here, the one who doesn’t have Charlie standing as a barrier between him and pressure from Leona and Reese, and the one Sorkin wants me to hate, is Don, my new favorite character.

nullAfter Will’s epic on-air apology for falling down on the job, Don sits down to have a heart-to-heart with Jim, who has effectively replaced him. “I would have loved to be part of that. I could have done the show you guys want to do. I’m equipped for that,” he confesses. “You’ve got a mandate. Bring viewers to ten o’clock. I don’t . . . I have to cover Natalee Holloway. And you guys set me up to look like an asshole before I even got started.” Don is like Will, to a certain extent, a talented man who succumbed to the pressure to put on a show that was likable rather than substantive. But unlike Will, he’s relatively anonymous. He could be fired and Elliot’s show would keep ticking on without him. If Don is going to live in hopes of being able to make the kind of show that Jim and MacKenzie are making for Will, he has to keep his job. And that means kowtowing to a lot of unattractive people’s unattractive senses of what counts as news.

Jim doesn’t seem to understand that his mandate to do good news is a luxury, rather than something he just woke up and decided to do. He begins telling Don that he can just do a good show if he wants before they’re interrupted. Then, he mocks Don later, telling him “You guys did a good show tonight. I wasn’t aware of what was going on with the McRib sandwich.” I kind of don’t blame Don for telling Jim, “Yeah, go fuck yourself.”

And I’m not even sure Jim gets the message later when Maggie, in one of the few moments in The Newsroom where a woman gets to explain something to a man, tells Jim that Don’s failure has more complex roots than Jim acknowledges. “Don’s hands are tied,” Maggie says. “He got marching orders to get the ratings up at ten. And he’s driving a different car than McAvoy. Elliot’s smart, but he can’t do what McAvoy does. Plus, his salary’s tied to ratings.” That, not a studied, cowardly commitment to blandness for its own sake, is the reality of cable news—and the actual source of journalism’s problems.

Will can pontificate all he wants about the fact that the federal government didn’t insist that the networks provide several hours of ad-free news programming every night. But the reality is that it “failed to include in its deal the one requirement that would have changed our national discourse for the better.” And as gratifying as it would be to watch anchors and their producers get mad as hell and refuse to take it anymore, The Newsroom is a more interesting show when it actually explores what happens to people who buck their mandates and see what they can do within the limits of their contracts than it is when it focuses on Will’s ridicule of Tea Party activists and beauty queens.

We almost see an example of that kind of struggle during election night coverage, when Don tries to fire up Elliot, who’s doing his best not to influence the network’s analysis. “I am in there doing everything I can to get Mac to get him to go to you, and he is doing it,” Don grumbles to his boss. “He is inviting you to become a star. Would you stop being so fucking enthralled with the act of punching a ballot?” Instead of acknowledging that Don has a point, though, Elliot pulls rank on him. And instead of having the two men talk about Elliot’s brand, or Elliot’s desire to occupy the space Will left open with his conversion, the closest the writers give us is Elliot’s telling Don “Let me also say, I’m not the one who wants to be a star, Mama Rose.”— Sorkin has Elliot blame Don’s frustrations not on the quality of the news they’re putting out, but on Don’s romantic troubles. It’s a weird punt of what could have been a fascinating journalistic moment.

We do get some sense later that Will’s new approach may be in trouble, in the form of Atlantis CEO Leona (the allusion to Leona Helmsley cannot possibly be unintentional). “What happened to human interest stories?” she grouses at a meeting with Charlie, who thus far has protected Will from her wrath, and Reese, who we learn is her son. “Obesity, breast cancer, hurricanes, older women having babies, iPhones. He was great at that shit.” I don’t think Sorkin intended it this way, but her reminder to Charlie that “You don’t make money for stockholders, which I have a fiduciary responsibility to do” is a sharp puncturing of MacKenzie’s disdain for ratings, something Will warned Charlie about and that Charlie embraced.

Sorkin, and by extension MacKenzie, Charlie, and Will, may not like that news is a business, particularly not part of a large international conglomorate with interests that require Congressional approval and working relationships with major industrialists. But in the absence of an alternative model to pay Will’s staff and get him access to the airwaves, this is the environment he has to work in. Being obsessed with ratings, as Will was before MacKenzie got to him, may have been unattractive. But pretending that they don’t exist, or that Atlantis is a business rather than a non-profit, is to ignore that Leona’s interests and the show’s overlap. Leona has a duty to the shareholders to keep bringing in revenue, but she also needs her business to make money so she can keep paying out Will’s fat contract and the decidedly more meager salaries of his employees. And as we see in this clip, she’s thought through the business end of this proposition more thoroughly than Will, Charlie, and MacKenzie have:

In pursuing a new approach to news, Will’s been pretending the rules of the business don’t really apply to him. Neither he nor the show acknowledges that their revolution can’t possibly last if they don’t find a way for it to be financially sustainable. Now, in Leona’s parlance, he’s going to have to start playing golf, and find a way to make the machinery of the system work for him, and for the people who depend on him for their jobs.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for ThinkProgress.org. She is a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com and The Loop 21. Alyssa grew up in Massachusetts and holds a BA in humanities from Yale University. Before joining ThinkProgress, she was editor of Washingtonian.com and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in Esquire.com, The Daily, The American Prospect, The New Republic, National Journal, and The Daily Beast.

THE NEWSROOM RECAP 2: NEWSROOM 2.0

THE NEWSROOM RECAP 2: NEWSROOM 2.0

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For Aaron Sorkin’s characters, doing your job and falling in love are often inseparable processes: Natalie schooled Jeremy on television producing and love on Sports Night, Josh Lyman and Donna Moss bantered over bills on The West Wing, and Matt Albie and Harriet Hayes worked out their issues on the set of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The staff of Will McAvoy’s show, from the big dog himself down to his most junior producers, is no exception to this rule. The staffers all have romance troubles they’re working out on set, this week in the form of bizarrely histrionic public displays of angst. And while it’s grating enough to see competent women reduced to workplace fits at the behest of men, there’s a particularly weird contrast between MacKenzie’s extended meltdowns and her antiseptic approach to what she puts on the  air. She’s supposed to be the strongest female character on The Newsroom, but increasingly, it seems like she exists to mouth Aaron Sorkin’s platitudes and to debase herself before Will.

null“We don’t do good television,” she explains towards the beginning of the episode. “We do the news.” It’s the kind of Sorkinism on the journalism business that sounds good at first but doesn’t actually make sense after any careful consideration: good television and the news aren’t actually mutually exclusive. In the pilot, the staff of Will’s show congratulated themselves on covering Deepwater Horizon as a corporate cover-up instead of as a rescue story. The death or survival of a dozen people apparently doesn’t count as news in this schema, unless there’s a demonstrable government cover-up. It left me wondering how News Night might cover the tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri. Would the victims of that natural disaster be deemed unduly heart-tugging if Halliburton wasn’t somehow culpable.

Tonight, MacKenzie deems a source blogger Neal tracked down as unworthy, a man whose parents brought him to the U.S. as a child and who learned in adult life that he was an undocumented immigrant, a chain of events that led to the loss of his driver’s license and potentially his job. “I’ve got to budget 42 minutes. I’ve already spent 18 minutes on Jan Brewer and La Raza,” MacKenzie insists. “Even if we did have the time, it would be emotionally manipulative. We’d be putting him there to feel sorry for him.” Neal protests, “We should feel sorry for him. He’s getting screwed.” MacKenzie crisply tells him, “I don’t want to feel sorry for anyone. I want the facts.”

Again, this sounds good, but it represents a sterile approach to the news. Sometimes, facts are incomprehensible without faces and stories about how they function attached to them. If Will’s supposed to play lawyer, presenting the best form of each side’s arguments, then he needs to have the best possible clients representing those views of the world. In MacKenzie’s view of things, that’s apparently a talking head from the National Council of La Raza rather than someone whose life has directly been impacted by immigration policy—she never considers the possibility that she could bring both men on the air. Maybe that’s a tiny thing to quibble over, but it furthers a sense that The Newsroom is disengaged both from the realities of reporting, and from the kinds of personal stories that often further social change.

For most of the episode, we see MacKenzie as a hectoring, sometimes condescending, but always stringent idealist when it comes to her vision of how the news should be reported. She’s a schoolmarm, telling the audience what to think more than she’s actually teaching her staff how to do their jobs. Given this characterization, you’d think The Newsroom would want to give her a rich, complex personal life, and maybe a sense of humor, so the audience could engage with her as something other than as a scold. But instead, she comes across as an immature, hystrionic brat who demands that everyone else be riveted by her weirdly mundane problems. When she finds out that economics anchor Sloan (Olivia Munn)—who MacKenzie has asked to anchor segments because “If I’m going to get people to listen to an economics lesson I need someone who doesn’t look like George Bernard Shaw”—thinks that Will cheated on MacKenzie and that’s why they broke up, she goes ballistic. “You need to do this. You need to go from person to person and tell them that Will is an extraordinary man with a heart the size of a range rover,” MacKenzie demands. To her credit, she backs off almost immediately, realizing she’s asked for something bonkers. But I’ve still never loved Olivia Munn more than the moment when Sloan informs MacKenzie briskly that she has no intention of re-arranging her day to rectify what MacKenzie views as a massive injustice, because she has facts to report. We don’t learn much about Munn in this episode, but she comes across as brisk and perceptive, a slightly more realistic Avery Jessup from 30 Rock, and at this point, she’s the only character I’m looking forward to getting know better.

That meltdown alone might have had me wondering whether MacKenzie has a split personality, or is just the victim of being Sorkin’s vessel rather than an actual person. But it’s not as if Sloan’s chat with MacKenzie has righted her ship. “Are people here under the impression that Will is an ass?” she asks her staff in a fit of panic, later. “You’re wrong. It’s wrong. And it’s an injustice.” Then, in a plotline that more likely originates in Sorkin’s well-publicized antipathy towards technology than from any actually plausible experience of a war correspondent who’s been filing stories from overseas for years, she sends an email meant for Will that goes to the entire office, then responds by destroying a staffer’s BlackBerry, demanding that she wants “everyone to delete the email you just received. Honor system,” and begging someone to destroy Will’s computer with a baseball bat in an increasingly hysterical tone.

I don’t particularly blame Will for being upset that MacKenzie broke his trust—he’s a vulnerable, vain, prickly man, and I can buy that he wouldn’t want anyone to know he was cheated on even though it was MacKenzie who transgressed. But when he screams at her “You know how something happens in an instant that is so astonishing you completely shut down? That doesn’t fucking happen to me,” he loses me. “The women who are here exist, quite simply, on the theory that nothing is more dramatically important than a man becoming great, and men cannot become great without women to inspire, provoke, and drive them,” NPR’s Linda Holmes wrote in her terrific review of The Newsroom before its release. Like Linda, I find that worldview inherently unattractive, and there’s additionally distasteful in the idea that we’re supposed to care so much about the fact that Will’s composure has been rattled.

When the lives of undocumented immigrants are at stake, emotion is a pointless distraction. But when MacKenzie’s upset or Will’s been wronged, we’re supposed to believe that their feelings are the most critical thing in the world. I know that The Newsroom wants me to feel more attached to its characters than to their subjects. But after two hours in their company I’d rather be hanging out with an undocumented immigrant in Spokane, Washington, than the supposedly-brilliant, self-absorbed people who snidely dismiss him as less than newsworthy.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for ThinkProgress.org. She is a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com and The Loop 21. Alyssa grew up in Massachusetts and holds a BA in humanities from Yale University. Before joining ThinkProgress, she was editor of Washingtonian.com and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in Esquire.com, The Daily, The American Prospect, The New Republic, National Journal, and The Daily Beast.

VIDEO ESSAY: Sorkinisms, by Kevin T. Porter: A Writer Under a Microscope

VIDEO ESSAY: Sorkinisms, by Kevin T. Porter: A Writer Under a Microscope

EDITOR'S NOTE:

I don't know what to think of this video.

I know what its creator, Kevin T. Porter, wants me to think of it. He makes it clear that he considers this exhaustively researched and edited work to be "a tribute to the work of Aaron Sorkin"—a "playful excursion through Sorkin's wonderful world of words."

But that's not exactly how the piece comes across.

"This piece is not intended as a critique," he writes.

Mr. Porter's careful admonishment to his viewers does little to change the simple fact that this video—edited in a way that exposes the repetition in Sorkin's syntax—puts the whole enterprise on trial, arming Sorkin-haters with all the evidence they need to scream "hack!"

And they have a strong point.

On the one hand, the sameness laid bare in this piece can be easily be derided for its lack of imagination, and yet it can be celebrated on the other because—let's face it—Sorkin-speak has that unique tendency to transcend everything else in the frame, including story, plot, lighting, and direction. It's that much fun to hear.

But, the same point can be made about writer/director Joss Whedon, a writer with a voice so unique that he has built his own cult following of half-crazed fanatics—now that The Avengers has raked in a billion or so, the Whedonites will rule the world. Yet every character Mr. Whedon has ever created talks like some version of himself.

If anything, this remarkable video reminds us that writing is not golf.

Anyone who has ever rented a pair of clubs for the first time, stepped on to a fairway, and taken a swing at a ball off the ground knows that golf is damn hard. The very act of playing it bathes you in such abject humiliation that I personally think the New York Department of Corrections should force convicted felons to do it as punishment.

Writing, on the other hand, seems deceptively easy—especially for a first-timer. In fact, I'd say it takes a good while to discover how bad you are at it; one's identity as a writer, similarly, comes together only after one suffers a slower but just as humiliating journey through the complicated world of syntax, dialogue, and grammar.

Perhaps it's fair to say that the Sorkins and Whedons of the world have earned the right to their unique voices, and therefore they deserve a respectful place in popular entertainment.

While it is true none of these guys are ever going to win the Paddy Chayefsky award for realism, somehow, we still fall for them all the same. — Ken Cancelosi