The pilot of The Newsroom on HBO was an artistic, factual, and an ideological failure, and critics are not responding favourably. Particularly young critics in new media, the very content management and distribution method executive producer Aaron Sorkin notably left out of this attempt at an indictment not just of modern journalism in the United States, but of the nation’s residents. This episode felt at times like a long rumination on Sorkin’s loss of relevance, paired with bitter raging against the dying of the light (cheer up, Aaron, the sun will rise again!).
Artistically, the episode left much to be desired, with an extremely long and slow buildup that lasted almost the entirety of the first half of the pilot before any action developed. While this might be acceptable in an established series where viewers have come to know the characters and their setting, for a pilot, it was a nearly fatal mistake. It was dull and listless, evoking little to no interest in the characters or their backstories because they all fit so neatly into stereotyped boxes. For those who lasted through the snoozefest to the action, The Newsroom still rang hollow in many ways.
Sorkin’s contempt for the Internet and alternative media dripped throughout the episode, which was laced with nostalgia for a prior era in journalism, one dominated by white men pontificating behind the news desk. The pilot opines that anchors are cowards who refuse to make a stand for their political beliefs, complete with a fiery (and classic Sorkin) monologue at the beginning, where viewers are harangued about the fact that the US is not ‘the greatest country on Earth’ after Sorkin uses a blonde college student to represent the irreparable stupidity of America’s Youth Today.
The Newsroom is wrong, though: American media is in fact in a state of very politicised media, and controversial opinions from well-known anchors are nothing new. Most major anchors provide highly partisan reporting and it brings in significant revenue for their networks, as do the stories they cover. Furthermore, deep, informative news for those interested in it is still available; and television is no longer the sole distribution medium.
Yes, there is an obsession with the superficial and the quick story in the US media, but this cannot be fairly ascribed either to lazy anchors and newsrooms or audiences with short attention spans. Something deeper is driving the soundbite trend in mass media, something which has been artificially created through larger cultural influences like the pressure of capitalism on the media to produce high-turnover, rapid-view news.
Sorkin may be offended by these kids today, but pioneers in new media are building a journalism focused on factual, detailed, ethical reporting; take, for example, the detailed and extensive coverage of the Deepwater Horizon spill offered by Mother Jones in 2010, as a foil to that showcased on ‘We Just Decided To.’ Sorkin may think little of blogs and Twitter, but they are a growing and legitimate part of the media landscape, and something that he will need to face if he wants his critiques of modern media—and there are critiques to be made—taken seriously.
And the electorate is not in fact a herd of gormless sheep willing to follow the first leader who presents. While the members of the newsroom congratulate each other on their self awareness and inform each other that they are ‘speaking truth to stupid’ for HBO’s elite audiences, millions of people across the United States are actively seeking out and evaluating their own information. Not, as Will McAvoy claims, looking for their own facts, but actively finding the truth behind the facts.
As an authorial insertion, McAvoy mirrors Sorkin to a level that is almost uncanny; like Sorkin, he’s difficult to work with, impatient, and determined to retain as much control as possible. He’s determined to attribute negative traits to everyone around him, particularly those with whom he disagrees, and believes he’s the only intelligent man in the building. And like Sorkin, he appears to be trapped in an outdated era, firmly insistent on remaining a relic rather than a rebel. It is telling, too, that despite a female executive producer on the show, Sorkin clearly believes in a news heavily dominated by men, and obviously thinks men should be the face of the media as its presenters, creators, and arbiters.
Sorkin’s The Newsroom may not be what critics or audiences want, but Sorkin appears prepared to write that down to sheer bloody-mindedness, rather than the ability to independently evaluate media. His patronising attitudes about viewers and reviewers were notoriously showcased in The Globe and Mail last week, where reporter Sarah Nicole Prickett highlighted exactly how much of an ass Sorkin can be when confronted with the very media he claims to be depicting and engaging with. Her tart, damning commentary is the sharpest indictment I’ve seen of Sorkin (and the show) yet, and it speaks volumes about the attitudes behind The Newsroom and what we can expect to see from coming episodes.
The best line in The Newsroom so far has absolutely nothing to do with media, politics, or the people of the United States: ‘I ain’t afraid of anything, except jellyfish, which is completely normal.’ Perhaps that tells you all you need to know about the show.