This post discusses events of the most recent episode of “The Newsroom.”
“I don’t want to expand the definition of the news. I want to narrow it,” Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), the president of Atlantis Cable News says peevishly in the November 30 episode of “The Newsroom,” Aaron Sorkin’s drama about the cable news business which will end its run on HBO this coming weekend. Charlie is complaining about a potential buyer for the network, who wants ACN to crowd-source more stories and treat viewers more like potential colleagues who deserve to be listened to than like passive consumers who need to be taught.
But these two sentences are also a perfect expression of the broader worldview “The Newsroom” has tried to express for three years, now. Sorkin, who once seemed like an optimist about public life, is now producing the sourest, most staid series on television. “The Newsroom”s odd fetish for establishment power of all kinds might have found some of its nastiest expression in the most recent episode of the show, in which new media actually killed Charlie and producer Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) lectured a rape survivor at great length, this aversion has been part of “The Newsroom” from the very beginning. And it’s part of why Sorkin has given us possibly the worst prestige show on television.
I’ve spent some time in the past few days talking to viewers who have kept up with and enjoy watching (or at least hate-watching) “The Newsroom,” and I came away from those conversations convinced that we are watching essentially the same show. For “Newsroom” and Sorkin fans, the appeal of the show is in its dedication to old-fashioned standards of journalism, including avoiding soft stories and clickbait and being accountable when a story goes wrong (as with the Genoa plotline in the second season), as well as Sorkin’s dialogue and this particular cast’s ability to deliver it.
“I’m not talking about the apparatus,” senior producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.) tells his girlfriend Hallie (Grace Gummer) during yet another fight about the job she takes with a start-up site called Carnivore after being fired from ACN. It’s an amazingly bald-faced lie, or at least evidence of Jim’s utter lack of self-awareness, since “The Newsroom” is obsessed with the idea that working for certain outlets or using certain tactics in reporting and politics are professionally and personally disqualifying.
Over the course of the show, Will has side-eyed his own company’s morning shows and insulted Nina Howard (Hope Davis) for the mortal sin of resisting his “mission to civilize.” “The Newsroom” saddled Neal Sampat (Dev Patel), who writes the blog for Will’s show and is adept at internet research, with a deep, sustained and discrediting conviction that Bigfoot exists. When Hallie moves to Carnivore (a not-so-subtle stand-in for Gawker Media), Jim snarks at her for accepting a contract that includes traffic-based bonuses. In the world of “The Newsroom,” a new media outlet that hired an experienced reporter like Hallie suddenly insists on having her write nothing but personal essays, and under the influence of Carnivore editors, Hallie suddenly begins mining her private life with Jim for material. When a young mogul buys ACN, one of his first moves is to have doughy tech guy build a clone of Gawker’s old “Gawker Stalker” feature.
It’s one thing to critique new media–there’s nothing particularly noble about crowdsourcing teenagers’ stupid Tweets for clicks or Chris Hughes’ clumsy-seeming and tech-speak-heavy stewardship of the New Republic, which has a parallel in the purchase of ACN in recent episodes. But the huffy treatment “The Newsroom” extends to its competitors is the equivalent of a card sharp dealing from a stacked deck while whining loudly about the integrity of the other players at the table.
Sorkin and his characters never acknowledge that new media companies like BuzzFeed are funding exactly the kind of foreign reporting associate producer Maggie Jordan (a hugely misused Alison Pill) does in the show’s second season. Sorkin is so determined to re-litigate ancient media stories, like Jimmy Kimmel’s 2007 segment on Gawker Stalker (a bit of media criticism conducted by a comedian, not a Very Serious Business Journalist) that “The Newsroom” appears both vindictive and wildly out-of-date. And heaven forfend “The Newsroom” acknowledge that personal essays by young women might function as a necessary corrective to mainstream media coverage of issues like contraception and sexual assault, that men might find something worthwhile in “Sex and the City,” or that cultural coverage might raise important issues from angles policy coverage cannot reach.
And while the persistent contempt the “The Newsroom” directs at women, the Internet, and in particular Women Who Internet has garnered the most attention, Sorkin’s series has plenty of distaste to spread around for anyone who violates his (and Will’s) sense of how things ought to be done and how serious people of integrity ought to behave.
In one storyline, Will condescended grandly to a representative of “Occupy Wall Street” (Aya Cash) who, in addition to being a younger, attractive woman of the sort who so often seemed to be in need of his correction, is written to be a cliche-spouting, shallow radical dummy, rather than someone able to articulate the value of working outside the electoral system. I suppose that kind of take-down — a form Will himself was all too willing to condemn when practiced by Hope Davis’ gossip columnist — is entertaining if you really think there’s nothing to a movement like Occupy. But watching Will dismantle the weakest presentation of an argument has made me think less of his capabilities, not more.
And in other storylines, “The Newsroom” has featured two plots about whistleblowers or leakers, both of which ended in the same way: the source’s suicide.
In the first season, Charlie rejected a story from Solomon Hancock (Stephen Henderson) in part on the grounds that he has an imperfect personal life and had his security clearance downgraded, an event Solomon attributes to retaliation and Charlie sees as potential proof of incompetence. Solomon is disgusted when Charlie suggests he see a therapist: “I come to you with a story, the NSA is–and you want to send me to a doctor?” he demands to know. But when Solomon jumps off a bridge, he proves Charlie right in his assessment of Solomon’s mental state.
This year, an Edward Snowden-like leaker, Lilly Hart (Clea Duvall) reaches out to Neal with a trove of documents that provide a wide-ranging look at American intelligence operations. The plots that follow are less about the potential news value of the trove of information and more about the risks posed by it. Neal has to leave for Venezuela to avoid being extradited. The ACN team has to scramble madly to try to get an American asset who would be put in danger by their reporting to a safe place, while Lilly shows a bizarre level of disregard for the man’s family, given that she was initially motivated to leak by the deaths of 36 people in riots prompted by American intelligence operatives.
Before nobly going to jail, Will gives an eloquent courtroom speech about his disgust for whistleblowers and the damage they do, but still manages to maintain his status as the good guy by insisting that he can’t reveal his source’s name: He bolsters the government’s argument, except for the bits that let him martyr himself. And once he is in prison, Rebecca (Marcia Gay Harden), ACN’s attorney, protests that “you can’t lock up a man for 52 days without him knowing when or even if he’s ever getting out,” as if Guantanamo Bay had been tidily closed and its residents repatriated years ago. With that level of preciousness about how the world actually works, and the conviction that Will’s relatively gentle prison stay is the biggest sacrifice anyone could make, it’s no wonder “The Newsroom” plays down the potential significance of Lilly’s leak.
But wait! It gets worse! Ultimately, Lilly commits suicide in a flashier manner than Solomon before her, shooting herself outside of the Department of Justice. In telling this story not once but twice, “The Newsroom” seems to be reinforcing the idea that to abandon respectable means of dissent and to question governmental claims that secrecy is necessary are evidence of mental illness. That’s an awfully ugly idea, worse than the show’s fairly predictable get-off-my-lawn disdain for new media.
But the confidence “The Newsroom” has in Will McAvoy to determine what is news and what is not, what is worthy and what is trash, does have consequences. There is plenty to object to in the show’s depiction of a debate between Don and Mary (Sarah Sutherland) about the website she started to out her alleged rapists after both campus and city police refused to act — including, as Emily Nussbaum noted in a great piece about the episode, the obsessive concern “The Newsroom” shows for the risk vengeful women pose to the reputations of powerful men.
The thing that made me truly crazy about the plotline, though, was not that Don defended the idea that accused rapists should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, or that he was uncomfortable with the idea of trying to stage a debate over a specific allegation on air. It was that Don had tracked down a woman who was emotional but articulate in her defense of a position that differed from his (that it’s fair to out rapists when the courts fail to act), and who was prepared to accept personal exposure to make her case on national television, and then lied to his bosses to keep her off the air, saying he hadn’t been able to find Mary. When Rolling Stone gets sketchy about whether they were able to contact an alleged rapist, we rightly recognize that as malpractice. When Don tells an outright untruth to keep a young woman from speaking publicly, his colleagues treat him like he’s standing up for important principles.
Don was doing what Charlie said he wanted to do: narrowing the definition of news. And “The Newsroom” is utterly incapable of acknowledging that while there are problems with broadening news to include celebrity reporting or cultural kerfuffles, there are also serious consequences to shrinking your range of coverage and your sense of who is fit to be part of it.