THE NEWSROOM RECAP 5: AMEN

THE NEWSROOM RECAP 5: AMEN

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 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 4: I’LL TRY TO FIX YOU

THE NEWSROOM RECAP 4: I’LL TRY TO FIX YOU

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 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.