Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Newsroom

People make fun of Aaron Sorkin ("The West Wing," "The Social Network," neither of which I have yet seen) for his lofty, lengthy monologues, complaining that 'people don't really talk that way,' and things to that effect. He is accused of not only speechifying, but also of a self-righteousness and being pompous and smug.

A brilliant, irascible, wordy former cokehead who tends to ramble and piss people off?

No way.

But the vitriol against his new show "The Newsroom" has been weird, and seems to go beyond the usual complaints of Sorkin-esque verbal diarrhea, self-righteousness and pontificating.

This clip gives you the general idea both of what the show is about and what Sorkin-speak is like. Jeff Daniels plays a blunt, bluff, demanding cable newscaster, a hard man to work with in the newsroom (people think the character may be based in part on Keith Olbermann) but who appears to the public as an affable, bland nice guy. He actually shouts at one point in the pilot episode, "I'm affable!" to accusations that he is anything but.

But criticism of this show seems particularly sharp, and I can't help but think that some of that comes from actual journalists' "news-guilt" if you will. There is a whining tone and a defensiveness in these reviews that perhaps speaks to journalists' awareness of the increasing failure of journalists to practice journalism in recent years. You get the sense from the tone of people working at actual news outlets that the show has scratched at deeply buried sense-memories of their own former idealism and hope, hidden strands of the original journalist DNA that led them to The Fourth Estate in the first place, their forgotten drive to tell the truth, no matter how painful that truth might be. They have forgotten how to, or have lost the courage to "speak truth to stupid," as Emily Moritmer's character says.

Here's an example from Emily Nussbaum's review in The New Yorker:

Sorkin’s shows are the type that people who never watch TV are always claiming are better than anything else on TV. The shows’ air of defiant intellectual superiority is rarely backed up by what’s inside—all those Wagnerian rants, fingers poked in chests, palms slammed on desks, and so on. In fact, “The Newsroom” treats the audience as though we were extremely stupid.
Which is pretty funny, considering how the actual news has been dumbing down its product for years--along with some other people who have dumbed down their own. The media on all sides relentlessly, breathlessly reduces the complexities of elections to horse race statistics, blithely reassures us that the same bright lads who created the financial meltdown are the ones to right the ship, and create false  equivalancies even w/r/t the most retarded of the right's pearl-clutching and trumped-up faux outrages.

That's just a few examples of how the news shamelessly and relentlessly props up the the ruling class and comforts the comfortable and afflicts the afflicted. Of course journalists should feel ashamed and defensive when someone comes along and says, "Hey, there is real value in beliefs, there are things worth fighting for, there are ideals we should hold ourselves to. There is such a thing as objective truth. Idealism is not just something we pay lip-service to. Or at least it used to mean more than that. We should not, we cannot give in to the temptation of knee-jerk cynicism. It is a lazy and mindless pose."

But let's let Miss Nussbaum of the New Yorker continue:

“The Newsroom” naïve it’s cynical. Sorkin’s fantasy is of a cabal of proud, disdainful brainiacs, a “media élite” who swallow accusations of arrogance and shoot them back as lava. But if the storytelling were more confident, it could take a breath and deliver drama, not just talking points.
 See, I think it's the required cynicism of people like Nussbaum that informs this piece much more than the show itself. If you see someone doing the right thing--even in a fictional setting--it stings you in the spot where you know you aren't doing the right thing yourself.

Here's a bit from Matt Richenthal's review for something called TV Fanatic, perhaps not as high-brow as the New Yorker, but coming from a similarly insecure, whiny place. He's talking about the 20/20 hindsight nature of Sorkin's use of actual news events in the recent past, in this case, regarding the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico:
Moreover, it's simply unfair to the real-life reporters The Newsroom criticizes when News Night's big break comes as a result of one employee having a sister who works for Halliburton and a college roommate who works for BP.

We can all probably agree that many media outlets have failed to properly do their jobs in recent years, but we can also agree that none of them had the kind of access Will is fortunate to have at his fingertips the moment the spill takes place. They had to actually report on the catastrophe and that takes time.

Yeah, guys! It takes time to not do our jobs properly, which we can all agree has happened. News reporting is HARD!

So at the same time that he acknowledges even tangentially that the news media have failed spectacularly on a variety of fronts, he gives himself and his brethren a pass for doing so. Nice work, Matt!


I've been reading a lot of David Foster Wallace lately, and I love that even as brilliant and depressed and troubled as he was, he fought against the poison of cynicism, of socially-prescribed "anhedonia" as he called it. It's that state you see in all the bars on weekend nights, where young and beautiful and rich people look bored out of their minds and benumbed to any kind of feelings of joy or excitement. That bitterest of all pills that adulthood brings: when we are told we must not care so much, that hope is misplaced, that only fools and children actually BELIEVE in things. That we mustn't feel.

Well, fuck that shit. You might as well already be dead if that's the case. I intend to continue to feel and think and hope, despite the pain it causes. If that gets taken away, if you LET THEM take that away, you have nothing left. You are nothing but a product-consuming shit-factory waiting to die.

"The Newsroom" reminded me that there is an America that I love. Here there are--we are--the best of human ideals. There are ideas and hopes to which we once aspired, and those things have been taken away, obfuscated and watered-down by the people in power, those who would prefer not to have their authority challenged, those who love America and democracy and freedom only so much as it benefits themselves.

The powerful believe in America about as much as they believe in God.

They are the most un-American, undemocratic class of people in this country because they don't want anything to change, at least not anything that would challenge their place on the food chain. Why do you think nothing ever gets done that could actually benefit the human race as a whole: the environment, financial reform, tax inequality, education, student loans--all of these are strangely static while new laws restricting the internet and public protesting fire through legislatures at lightning speed.

Fuck the comfortable. It's about time someone afflicted those bastards.

I guess newspeople just hadn't realized how incrementally they had become part of that comfortable class.


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