In Defence of… The Newsroom
And boy is there a lot that needs defending.
In the last three years The Newsroom has been accused of everything from supporting terrorists to endorsing rape. It’s been accused of being smug, shrill, and – most frequently – of being condescending and dismissive to hard working American journalists. Of course, the vast majority of this criticism has come from the self-same American journalists the show is portraying. Hmm. What could it all mean?
Ultimately The Newsroom is critical of modern journalistic practices. Undeniably this is true. But it’s not critical of the journalists caught in the machine so much as the machine itself. The Newsroom reminds us of the dying art of investigative reporting, and the way important news is invariably compressed down to 90 second bites in order to find time for a puff piece about Lady Gaga’s new dress. Sorkin may go about his business in an ideosyncratic, idealistic – and, yes, liberal – way, but it’s the same exact approach he took to the West Wing: a show universally beloved by the same journalists today ragging on The Newsroom. Both shows are critical of institutions but finally optimistic about the human beings inside those institutions. That hopeful and positive attitude is what draws viewers to Aaron Sorkin shows. He tells us that the corporate news media is screwed, but gives us peppy and witty people to help the medicine go down.
Are these peppy journalists true to life? No, almost certainly not. (And real-life journalists have been pretty vocal in pointing that out.) But then I doubt anyone who actually worked inside the west wing would describe that show as being true to life either. The West Wing was a liberal fairytale, pure and simple, with Saint Martin Sheen as our saviour – and as a liberal who loves fairy tales and Martin Sheen I have no problem with that.
The Newsroom is no more or less accurate than The West Wing ever was. Sorkin doesn’t seem particularly concerned with verisimilitude. He wants to engage his audience with relevant social issues, while spicing things up with soapy human stories and funny dialogue. You know, the Aaron Sorkin way of doing TV.
The Newsroom’s main theme is the constant tug-of-war between commercial interests and public service. It’s how news media never makes a profit and therefore must be subsidized by other parts of the corporation. But, as Sorkin repeatedly reminds us, that financial sacrifice is entirely beneficial for society, and adds to the prestige of the corporation. To that end, much time in The Newsroom is spent watching decent people making tough choices – and often compromising on their values – for the sake of the corporation to which they’re beholden. They’re idealists forced to live in a pragmatist reality – you know, just like that multi-award-winning The West Wing.
As someone who has never worked in a newsroom, this central theme strikes me as compelling and real. And let’s face it, Sorkin’s cynicism towards corporations is hardly a revolutionary concept: we live in a world where corporations aren’t generally regarded for their public service so much as their endless greed, buying of political favour and environmental destruction.
So while The Newsroom is always a TV show, and should in no way be confused for a reality show about a newsroom, it’s still asking valid questions on a weekly basis. It’s still primarily a show that wonders whether a money-driven business can also be a valuable public servant, and it wonders what happens when the corporate bosses decide they don’t want to be public servants anymore, and where that leaves society.
The Newsroom: Dated, Soapy Cliches?
Much derision has been heaped on The Newsroom for the soap opera elements within the show. Those elements are seen by many as mannered, dated and artificial. Again, this is a curious reading of the text, and seems to completely forget who we’re dealing with. A-a-r-o-n S-o-r-k-i-n. It seems obvious to this viewer that Sorkin loves fast talking, screwball characters, regardless of how true to life such characters might be. I don’t know how many times Sorkin has seen His Girl Friday, but I bet it’s at least ten. And so yeah, imitating Howard Hawks is gonna make your show seem old-fashioned and not entirely of this earth. As someone who loves many of Hawks’ films, I have no problem with that. I’m not confused enough to believe I’m watching reality here. No one talks like that in real life. Just as no one talks like they do in Buffy, or The Wire or Seinfeld. It’s stylised and funny and clever, and that’s plenty for me. It displays a heartfelt, deep-down love affair with language.
This criticism is also puzzling given the universal acclaim afforded The West Wing. The West Wing was one of the talkiest shows ever produced. The relationship between Josh and Donna was pure screwball. It even had the will-they-or-won’t-they romance aspect which Sorkin has brought back with Will and MacKenzie. And Maggie and Jim. OK, so a slightly overplayed hand, but if a trope works then it works. And no trope works better than will-they-or-won’t-they. Ask the multi-millionaires who created Friends.
So much of this backlash against The Newsroom reads like sour grapes. Sorkin has dared to shine his liberal spotlight on their profession and they’re not happy about it. He’s dared to suggest that corporate media isn’t all it should be; that gossip is not news; that investigative journalism has largely been replaced by McNews. Yeah, OK, it’s all been gift-wrapped in Sorkin-style high jinks, but again, what were these critics expecting? Did they misread the credits and think David Simon was showrunning this thing?
Given Sorkin’s track record, it was inevitable that The Newsroom would turn out to be a liberally biased, verbose, cleverly written exposé-light on the failings and successes of modern TV journalism. It’s exactly what it was expected to be, and what it was supposed to be. It’s certainly flawed and it’s certainly not in the same class as The West Wing. But the critical mauling it’s been getting for three years now is bafflingly out of proportion, and altogether inexplicable.
And it has Jeff Daniels playing a smart arse.