This episode of The Newsroom was the closest the show's ever come for me to doing what I think it wants to be doing: effectively interweaving accounts of principled reporting and the ethical dilemmas of journalism with snappy explorations of its characters' personal lives. Unfortunately, it founders on the same shoals it always does: MacKenzie's and idiot, and Will thinks it's all about him. This week, the reasons we know that Atlantis, the company that owns News Night, is a Fictional News Paradise of Legend are that its gossipy morning show makes a real effort to teach its viewers about a substantive media conflict of interest, and that it took almost a year for one of more than 100,000 people who received a hugely embarrassing email about major figures in the organization to figure out that it might be of interest to media reporters. Not to mention that it’s truly hilarious to think that anyone wouldn’t have known Will and MacKenzie dated when they were together because journalists are notorious gossips, a quality you’d think would be catnip to Sorkin.

nullBut no, the real problem here is the rift between the rest of the episode and Will’s defense of MacKenzie to Nina, a reporter, when he has been tipped off by Gary, the Smart Black Guy Who Isn’t Afraid to Criticize Obama, Validates Jim’s Seduction Techniques, and Also Has a Sideline in Bribery, that TMI takes payoff money from celebrities. “I hired the best EP in broadcasting in spite of her being my ex-girlfriend,” Will tells Nina, who he believes is going after him for sexually slighting her at New Year’s (never mind insulting her job), in angrily warning her to step away from his staff. But nothing in the show indicates that. In fact, everything we see indicates that MacKenzie is a disastrously ill-informed and naive woman.

She misses that her boyfriend Wade is using her to prep for a Congressional run, which would be a heartbreaking tale about a skeptical journalist letting down her guard and being disappointed if she didn’t know so little about everything else. She confesses to Sloan that her economics knowledge only extends as far as thinking “a lot of what’s going on in the world has to do with the economy,” and that her oversight of the economics statements she’s producing consists of the following: “I pretend to read what you give me, then I nod.” Her response to the news that the Army is filling the power void in Egypt? “The army’s not the good guys?” All of this might have been cute for Mary Richards back in the days when she was still ordering Brandy Alexanders during job interviews, but there’s something distasteful about Sorkin’s asking us to buy incompetence in the guise of dizzy adorability. Nina would be justified in investigating MacKenzie’s utter lack of qualifications even if there weren’t ethical lapses in her current performance or errors of judgment in her past.

This glaring contradiction is doubly unpleasant because it sullies the best job The Newsroom’s done so far at actually showing the challenges and pains of directing correspondents on the ground from a cable control room. The reason the coverage of Tahrir Square works is that Will and his team don’t magically discover a major scoop simply because they care about it more than anyone else, or avoid a major error because they’re so much more ethical than their competitors. The episode is, instead, largely about process and the dangers of reporting in a war zone.

First, Elliot and Don’s frustrations, which have been boiling since election night when Don urged Elliot to jump into the scrum of commentary, end up having real consequences. Elliot, who’s been confined to his hotel room giving useless broadcasts that add nothing to the network’s coverage of Egypt, hits the streets after Don’s pestering, and is badly beaten by the crowd. On his return, Don wants to put him on the air for reasons related both to public interest and his own interest. “We show what’s going on. Journalists are getting beaten up,” he urges Charlie, Will, and MacKenzie. “I know that we’re not the story. But Jesus, goddamnit, nobody else is going to know . . . In the media, we’re all effete, elitist assholes.” In a show that’s all about trying to paint a journalist as hero, this is the first moment that’s effectively captured the anxieties of reporters about their standing in the wider world, and the risk and guilt that accompany those times when journalists are recognized by the broader public for their personal accomplishments.

And the show navigates a more difficult set of emotions skillfully, too. “I sent him down there. I bullied him into going out into the street and they beat him up with a rock,” Don confesses to Will. “I know. Everybody knows,” Will tells him, before getting at the petty kind of thinking that can plague journalistic accomplishment. “We’re all jealous it isn’t us with the bruises on our face. You didn’t give him an order. You gave him permission.” That kind of emotion, or the self-congratulatory sequence after the show when the News Night team managed not to disastrously screw up their reporting on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting, are interesting, ambiguous places to be, the actual baseline people like Will and his staff are trying to rise above. It’s not really gossip columnists and media reporters who make up the Pit from which decent newsmen must rise. Instead, it’s their own venality.

But The Newsroom, sadly, can’t linger there, in that rich and ambiguous place. No, it has to end with a recreation of Rudy. After an Egyptian stringer is taken prisoner, so upsetting the News Night staff that they repeatedly injure themselves and corporate refuses to ransom the young man, Will insists on paying for his rescue. Because the self-injuries have to be seen to be believed, watch below:

This all might have been more effective had Will not already tried to bribe Evil Nina, and in a prior episode, privately paid for the cab rides of an undocumented immigrant so the man could get to his job. And it might have worked even better if it was a subsequent attempt to create a complicity between Neal and Will, who ridicules Neal’s internet abilities and obsessions much of the time, but who does seem to respect the younger man’s skills and passion. But no, it has to be about how the whole staff does their bit to pay Will, who makes $3 million a year, for his act of generosity, and then celebrates him publicly.

It’s amazing that a man, and the show that celebrates him, can recognize any news when they spot it, given how much time Will and The Newsroom spend in a self-regarding set of funhouse mirrors that seem to reflect only the most flattering version of Will back to him.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for She is a correspondent for 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 and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in, The Daily, The American Prospect, The New Republic, National Journal, and The Daily Beast.



One of the reasons I wish The Newsroom spent more time following its characters as they report stories is that there’s a thesis floating through the show about what happens when people apply the methods they use in journalism to their personal lives. Jim is honest and straight-forward but doesn’t promote himself enough, Maggie is passionate when she has an idea but not always very clear about what he wants, MacKenzie is constantly on the brink of hysteria, and Neal is enthusiastic about everything, be it Bigfoot or his dishy girlfriend. The one person we see doing both a lot of dating and a lot of news work is Will. And as he starts dating with intentions other than irritating MacKenzie in this week’s episode, he can’t shake his on-air persona, and the results prove, if not disastrous, the waste of some delicious-looking drinks.

nullIt turns out that a mission to civilize may work for long-term viewers who only have to deal with you for an hour a night—as you’d think any of the women in his office could have warned Will (even though Sloan tells us herself that she’s a social incompetent). But it’s much less effective when it sounds like you’re patronizing to a woman you don’t even know. First, Will tells a gossip columnist in the middle of a New Year’s Eve party, “You can be part of the change! You don’t have to go back to writing gossip!”—which underscores the fact that, as she’s clearly explained to him, she’s happy with her job and has no particular moral qualms about doing it.

Later, he gets his picture on the cover of a gossip magazine, bumping Jennifer Aniston, because he can’t stop himself from lecturing another date—Kathryn Hahn, who HBO should consider making the star of her own show rather than a vehicle for lessons taught to characters like Will and Girls’ Jessa—on what would happen to her if she pulled a gun on an attacker. Will ends up pointing her own unloaded pistol at her, looking like a jerk in the moment, and in the papers.

Finally, he tells another date that she’s a bad person for enjoying the reality shows the gossip columnist covers, because the “chocolate souffle on this menu is a guilty pleasure. The Archies singing ‘Sugar, Sugar’ is a guilty pleasure. Human cockfighting makes us mean and desensitizes us.” When she asks if he thinks she’s a mean person, he tells her, “Yes, but thank goodness you met me in time!” Throwing drinks in people’s faces seems to be the way powerful women express their displeasure on television these days in shows from The Newsroom to Smash, but Will’s dates are among the most justified libation-flingers anywhere on the small screen.

That’s not to say there isn’t some real pathos here. It’s sad to watch Will joust with Wade and MacKenzie in his office only to go quiet outside it. “Do people really just walk up to people?” Will asks Sloan. “I’ve seen it on TV,” she tells him. Later, when Charlie lectures him on his emotional life, Will lashes out at his boss as a peddler of fantasy. “It doesn’t work like in the movies,” he says, wounded. “It doesn’t work at all.”

The Newsroom might have less gender trouble if it directly and consistently explored the ways in which traits and behaviors that help men succeed in business end up limiting their abilities to have successful, reciprocal relationships with women. But doesn’t go there this time, portraying Will’s dates as a series of shallow shrews and crazy broads, acting as tools of the devious and mostly off-screen Leona, who retaliate unfairly when they toss cocktails at him or land him in the gossip column. The show may think Will is bad at expressing himself, but it doesn’t really bother to question the arrogance of his mission to civilize. This episode is, after all, called “I’ll Try to Fix You.”

But the show does one smart thing: it makes Will’s inability to get over the end of his relationship with MacKenzie look foolish, and it has him suffer real consequences for clinging to his resentment. It turns out that when he renegotiated his contract so he could fire MacKenzie at will, he took a non-compete clause in trade. “How much do you hate me?” MacKenzie asks him, shocked at Will’s stupidity and pettiness, the fact that he’s willing to risk ending his own career in order to retain the ability to threaten and intimidate her. It was one of the first moments when I felt like The Newsroom and I see Will the same way, as an angry man whose superiority complex carries with it the power to harm himself and other people.

And it’s a relief that unlike in the pilot, where Will and MacKenzie argue about their relationship and philosophies of news, oblivious to the fact that their employees are reporting the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the two of them stop this argument (even though I hope they revisit it) to start covering the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. Once again, though, it’s a story about how Will and the News Night team get the story right.

But in a slight improvement from the show’s dominant newsgathering tactic, they don’t score because they have secret knowledge from being related to sources, or living with them, or hiding under their beds, or as is the case at the beginning of the episode (when MacKenzie’s boyfriend Wade tips Will to a hot story about the underfunding of the fight against financial fraud), because they’re dating. The show clearly hasn’t abandoned the idea that that’s how reporters get information: when Will complains that “I’ve got a staff of paid professionals” doing reporting so he doesn’t have to talk to MacKenzie’s squeeze, she tells him that his employees are “mostly using inside sources like Wade.”

This incident is one of the few times we’ve actually seen the process of deciding what to put on air dramatized and given more than a few seconds of screen time, as is clear in Reese's confrontation with Will during a commercial break:

And at least the team makes the right judgment call because of the principles guiding their work. And as the World’s Biggest Don Fan, it’s gratifying that the show’s writers, after spending so much time beating up on him as a weak-willed sellout, let him be the one to tell Will, “It’s a person. A doctor pronounces her dead, not the news.”

The celebration that follows is a little over the top—not making an error isn’t the same thing as advancing a story or getting an exclusive. But it’s the loosest we’ve seen these characters, given that they’re normally composed to the point of rigidity. And I was totally with Will when he declared, “You’re a fucking newsman, Don. I ever tell you otherwise, you punch me in the face,” both because it recognized Don’s integrity, and because it made Will feel like a real journalist. One of the stranger things about the show is that its self-congratulation is so pure: there’s no trash talk, no visceral distaste for News Night’s rivals, none of the slightly creepy but inevitable celebration of scoops in a way that reduces human experience to a victory or defeat. I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but I appreciated the venality of the moment. Will and the team are so wrapped up in their own sense of righteousness that they forget the Congresswoman who may be dying, the civilians who are already dead. The Newsroom would be more fun as a show that actually weighs Will’s flaws and virtues without tipping the scales in his favor, that questions whether what the news needs to stand against the suits is not saints, but jerks.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for She is a correspondent for 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 and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in, The Daily, The American Prospect, The New Republic, National Journal, and The Daily Beast.



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 She is a correspondent for 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 and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in, The Daily, The American Prospect, The New Republic, National Journal, and The Daily Beast.




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 She is a correspondent for 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 and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in, The Daily, The American Prospect, The New Republic, National Journal, and The Daily Beast.



HBO’s been trying to sell The Newsroom to audiences on the strength of its opening scene, when Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a bland and personable cable news anchor trapped in his own private hell somewhere between a shout-y liberal and a conservative, snaps and delivers a rant about American greatness—which he immediately blames on vertigo medication. This isn’t the first Sorkin show to have its action kicked off by a rant—Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip began with a sketch show executive producer having a public breakdown—but what most people see as temporary YouTube phenomena, Sorkin sees as an opportunity for a national conversation.

nullThe subject of that conversation, and key to that lost American greatness, we are told in the first episode of The Newsroom, is helping Americans overcome their fear of intellect, and some responsibility for their improvement lies in cable news. I know Aaron Sorkin can write a barn-burner of a monologue, but going into The Newsroom, I was curious to see what comes after McAvoy’s meltdown. If Aaron Sorkin is going to argue that the key to America’s salvation is in fact better, invigorated cable news programming, and a return to commonly accepted facts, it seems like he’d place great value on news reporting.

But in this first hour of the The Newsroom, Sorkin’s view of what it takes to do great reporting is . . . puzzling. The staff of Will’s show figures out earlier than anyone else that Deepwater Horizon will be a major environmental catastrophe because Neal (Dev Patel), whom Will has earlier identified as “the Indian stereotype of an IT guy” proves to have exceedingly useful insights into the workings of offshore drilling rigs. He gained this knowledge, possessed by no one else on any staff of any publication in all the land, because, my hand to God, he “built a volcano in primary school.” Executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), at one extreme on her regular pendulum swings between tough, smart producer and flaky, romance-obsessed girl, declares she didn’t know you were actually supposed to learn anything from mucking about with paper-mache and baking soda.

I wish I were joking, but the rest of the staff’s reporting proceeds with similarly magical ease. Jim, possessed of the world’s most coincidental personal connections, turns out to have a college schoolmate working at BP (who makes time to give Jim a ring in the midst of a massive disaster) and a sister who works at Halliburton. “She’s got a PhD in mechanical engineering and she voted for McCain,” Jim explains, in one of the show’s strained attempts to prove that moderate Republicans are something other than unicorns. Will is disbelieving that Jim’s luck could be so good, not just in knowing these people, but in convincing them to flip on their employers and possibly end their careers.

But instead of validating that suspicion, or showing Jim working to convince his sources to go public, The Newsroom cuts away as soon as anyone on staff has a source on the phone. The show is supremely uninterested in the actual and lengthy processes of source development and research. Maybe it’s a tactic to keep the focus on Sorkin’s fast-talking, fact-spewing sock puppets, or to make sure the show whips through a story from the near-past each week, but it lends an airless quality to the proceedings. Everything we need to know, apparently, is already here in this glass and chrome box. This weirdly antiseptic view of journalism turns reporters into brisk bureaucrats, rather than endlessly curious people reaching outside their own experience. It’s not like this process can’t be made fascinating—the BBC miniseries State of Play made the reporting of a single story a thrilling six hours of television. But it’s not a vision that The Newsroom shares.

If there’s a naivete to The Newsroom in its pilot, it’s not coming from the belief that the news would be better if the staffs of cable news shows cared to make it so. It’s coming from the idea that caring is enough to make people admit their misdeeds and tear down walls of government secrecy. In one of the episode’s most credulous sequences, the Minerals Management Service, which was responsible for inspecting rigs like Deepwater Horizon, immediately agrees to have a representative be interviewed on-air by McAvoy just hours after the disaster, and at the request of Maggie, McAvoy’s newly-promoted assistant.

In 2010, the people who broke the news that MMS had failed to inspect Deepwater Horizon as often and as rigorously as their internal standards required were reporters for the Associated Press. In the story in which they broke that disturbing news, the AP writers noted “In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by AP, the agency has released copies of only three inspection reports, from Feb. 17, March 3 and April 1. According to the documents, inspectors spent two hours or less each time they visited the massive rig. Some information appeared to be ‘whited out,’ without explanation.” The challenge in reporting the truth of Deepwater Horizon wasn’t that no one cared or no one asked how a reckless pursuit of profit and lax oversight caused a disaster. It’s that powerful interests in both the government and the private sector were uninterested in releasing information critical to understanding the disaster and had tools at their disposal to delay providing it to reporters. The Newsroom is plucking the lowest-hanging, juiciest fruit on the vine in sequences like these, oddly unaware that there are bigger targets.

That misdiagnosis of the problem continues when Will gets the Minerals Management Service representative on the phone. Will executes a merciless, snarky pummeling on the guy, full of suggestions for the drastically underfunded agency like, “Would an easy solution be to have oil companies pay for the inspections, like car owners do?” But when it turns out the guy is a trainee four months into his training (something it seems Maggie might have asked about, or at least Googled), Will doesn’t try to draw out what it’s like to be doing inspections you’re unprepared for, or focus attention on a Congressional budget that’s bled dry what turned out to be a critical agency. No, he’s pleased to have delivered a drubbing, no matter that he’s thumped the whipping boy rather the people with actual responsibility and power.

These may sound like quibbles. But Sorkin told New York Magazine recently that having his characters revisit events we’ve already experienced “gives me the chance to have the characters be smarter than we were.” The fact that they face essentially no challenges, that they do by magic and luck what in real life took hard work, sacrifices the potential drama of the episode. It would be much more fun to see this young team of reporters face actual obstacles to getting the information they need, to feel doubt about whether they’ll wrest it from agencies and corporations, and to see them both succeed and fail. Sorkin’s essential uninterest in this process shows how limited his ambition is: he thinks it’s the style in which information is delivered that’s the problem, not the difficulties in tracking it down and the available manpower to do it.

The Newsroom doesn’t have a sense of how journalism works, and its characters aren’t exactly consistent in their approaches, either. The Newsroom tells us that Don (Thomas Sadoski), Will’s old executive producer, previously had a vicious blowout with Will after Don pushed him to be more aggressive in an interview with Gen. Stanley McChrystal. But when Deepwater Horizon starts burning, suddenly Don’s a coward. “You’re going to do an environmental story and you don’t want to at least wait until there’s a picture of an oil-covered pelican?” he asks.

On Will’s first day back, when presumably he’d like to present a respectable night of programming, he and MacKenzie, who apparently love the news, quote Cervantes and speechify at each other while their younger colleagues do the work the bickering senior reporters will later get credit for. Perhaps the most telling thing about the pilot of The Newsroom is how long it takes for Will and MacKenzie’s colleagues take to let them know that a major story is breaking—and the fact that the two journalists are too infatuated with each other to be curious about what’s going on outside Will’s office. Maybe now that MacKenzie and Will have worked out a fragile truce, they’ll start breaking stories themselves.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for She is a correspondent for 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 and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in, The Daily, The American Prospect, The New Republic, National Journal, and The Daily Beast.