Say it Like Sorkin: The Newsroom

Have you guys been watching The Newsroom? It's Aaron Sorkin's (creator of the iconic, much-lauded The West Wing) new show. It's all kinds of great, delicious, too-fast, too-eloquent, preachy, inspiring, retro-Sorkin-flexing-all-his-best-Sorkin-muscles television. And yes, it's cheesy in the way that Sorkin is always sorta lovably cheesy (hell the show's credits are something straight out of Seventh Heaven  -- or the 1995 Breaking Bad parody).  But maybe a little bit of unabashed sincerity, backed by some hard numbers and some prickly wit, is what our ironic-hipster-too-cool generation secretly wants?

Watch this short clip from the opening scene of the pilot so you can get roused and furious and discouraged and heartened and bitter and proud and terrified like I am. And also watch it so you can understand the rest of the piece because it's, like, the subject of the blog right now. (If you can't watch it, GQ published the text of the script [with annotations by Sorkin, who literally conducts it like an aria] here.)

 

You watched the clip? Okay, good. After that outburst, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) goes on to figurehead (if not spearhead) a renegade news show founded on the crazy notion of reporting un-sensationalized facts and well-reasoned opinions. He encounters the kind of blowback you'd expect: ratings pillaged by Nancy Grace, undue influence by financial friends of the network's conservative owner (the politically incongruous Jane Fonda, HBO's version of the Alec Baldwin/Jack Donaghy mix-up), losing valuable time reporting on rumors when his show insists on getting multiple factual sources. But there he is, launching this morally sound, easy-to-support fight for truth.

Lest I oversimplify, Newsroom has a bunch of interesting, complicating components. For one, it's set in the recent past, so it tackles news that's real and memorable and moving, benefited always by the dramatic irony of hindsight (i.e., we know that it's a mistake to undermine the importance of the BP oil spill; we know that Gabrielle Giffords is not dead.) But maybe bigger is that it's main character McAvoy, unlike Democrat Jed Bartlett, is a Republican.

Of course, like Bartlett, McAvoy is at his core a relatable, reasoned moderate (he wrestles through much of the show with being labeled a RINO, and worse). But, I think it's important that where Bartlett was a populist, Catholic Democrat, McAvoy is a libertarian, because his Republican leanings give him a unique platform to comment on the ascent of the Tea Party.

You see, McAvoy, like many of us (more of us than you think, I think), is a logical, lifelong Republican who finds himself suddenly a member of a party that is divorced from -- and devoid of -- facts. The first season progresses alongside the rise of the Tea Party and bears witness to the ways in which its members increasingly hijack the label "Republican" (a subject I wrote about here with considerably less eloquence and fewer rousing Thomas Newman scores). And because Sorkin's characters are second only to the Gilmore Girls in pace, pith and pop-culture, I'll let them explain it for themselves. Here's McAvoy describing the devolution of the Tea Party from middle-American grassroots movement to just another co-opted rich propaganda machine:


And here's a controversial, unabashed, no-minced-words clip from the finale of the first season:


I don't agree with the label "American Taliban," because frankly I think that's sensationalist and shock-value-y and unwarranted.  But I agree so very wholeheartedly that its disturbing and destructive to be part of a society that has stopped valuing facts.  It's disheartening to live in a place where pundits have their heads in their sand and their fingers in their ears and the supposed information disseminators, the gatekeepers, the truth-tellers, the fact-policers, the newsmen have stopped calling them on it.  If we're not holding each other accountable for partial answers and half-truths, and if we're willing to accept reactionary, unresearched platitudes and cliches as debate ground, McAvoy's right: we're not the country we thought we were. 

But we could be. It hurts and it sucks that McAvoy is right, but it's also really important that he's right.  And not to oversell Sorkin (as I am wont to do), but that opening speech, that little piece of not-so-fiction, is one of the most important, distressing, startlingly optimistic statements I've heard on politics or this country or our future in a long time. At least Newsroom is asking the question: when did we get to a point that we don't want to hear anyone who disagrees with us? When did we get to a point that we'd all made up our minds before we even turned on the channel? How do we get back to trying to find the truth?  How do we start listening and being open to having our minds changed? How do we get back to believing facts?

In the world of the show, this speech started a revolution. After saying that, McAvoy couldn't go back to the status quo; after hearing it, his staff didn't want to. Can't we embrace some of Sorkin's prescripted eloquence and pretend like it happened in real life? Can't we take some inspiration from the fictional McAvoy and his unfortunately fictional revolution and appropriate it into our own lives and votes and demands? Can't we stop putting up with this?

Let's disagree on tough issues, but let's agree on facts. And science. And numbers. And proof.  Let's be moral and confident enough to change our minds when we're wrong, and let's be graceful and trusting enough to forgive and welcome others whose minds get changed.  Let's demand better information, fewer filters, less commentary and fluff.  Let's demand real news and let's see what happens.

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Anonymous
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June 12, 2014 at 12:23 PM delete This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
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June 13, 2014 at 8:51 AM delete

Isn't the show over after 3 seasons? Only so much smugness even HBO can sell. http://m.us.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304765304577480384040084296?mobile=y

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June 19, 2014 at 9:56 AM delete

I like this piece, especially since you seem to genuinely care about the truth value of McAvoy's (Sorkin's) expositions and you can embrace that sincerity without resorting to a passive aggressive "ironic humor" tone or sanctimonious hyperbole. On the merits of the case, however, I have to say that while Sorkin's dressing of disparaging facts within a cloak of nostalgic patriotism may be effective, it is alarming and disappointing that such theatrics must be employed for certain points to gain an audience within our current mainstream political paradigm. To me, such a display illustrates that the problem is bigger than "demanding real news" since truth and facts are everywhere. One needs only the desire to look. A discerning eye can be developed over time with only the desire to look.

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