I started watching Aaron Sorkin’s newest TV show, The Newsroom, recently. It’s on HBO, but if you search for the episodes over Google you can usually find and watch them. I was a fan of his show Sports Night, and subsequently got into his next show The West Wing… and tried to get into his third show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and couldn’t. It was far less believable than The West Wing, which is saying something.
The Newsroom is about a cable TV news show, and like every other show Sorkin writes, the workplace is staffed with left-of-center idealists who want to do the real version of whatever their job is. On Sports Night it was real sports instead of entertainment; on The West Wing it was real governance instead of politics; on Studio 60 it was real comedy instead of shlock. (Problem is, Sorkin didn’t actually understand how to write sketch comedy, and wound up writing shlock. That’s why he lost me.) So naturally, on The Newsroom they want to do real news instead of what everyone else on TV is doing, which is trying to get you to watch their programs.
I didn’t see yesterday’s episode, so I can’t write about that. I did see the 8 July episode, “The 112th Congress,” which was about the 2010 Congressional races. The show is set two years ago so that Sorkin can take advantage of viewing two-year-old news in hindsight. It makes his characters look smarter than they are, ’cause they can successfully predict how relevant stories really are, every single time. (Or at least when he wants them to.) In real life, nobody knows how relevant any story will be. It’s a guessing game. Educated guesses, but still a guessing game. Anyway, in last week’s episode, the show’s news team correctly and near-precognitively realized how the Tea Party was making the Republican Party more extremist, and tried to sound the warning… and didn’t succeed, ’cause you know, history.
Anyway, the show had Jane Fonda playing the chairman of the network (playing in essence her ex-husband Ted Turner, so it’s actually some impressive stunt casting) who, because she had business with this new Congress, ordered the news division president to cut it out, or heads were gonna roll. Does this happen in real life? Conspiracy theorists always suspect it does. It really doesn’t.
In my experience, it only does if you’re an extremist yourself. I used to be a right-wing nutjob, and I only got threatened with job loss when I got especially nutty. News organizations pick a base, and try to pander to it: Left-leaning publications stick to the left, right-leaning cable networks suck up to the right, and daily papers, who like to think themselves moderate, try to stay smack dab in the middle of the road. These groups only care when there’s a risk of alienating their bases. If any MSNBC reporter started to bug their largely liberal audience for any reason, they’d sack ’em. Columnists and talk show hosts are given a lot more leeway, ’cause they have their own audiences. But if they lose those audiences, or threaten to lose the main audience—or, behind the scenes, they’re just plain awful to work with, like certain highly-rated talk show hosts who inexplicably left their networks to do Internet shows—they won’t last either.
So would you be considered an extremist if the sudden rapid ascent of the Tea Party horrified you, and caused you to give it some extra scrutiny on your news program? I seriously doubt it. Only Fox News considered it to be a legitimate grassroots groundswell, if you’ll allow me to mix a few metaphoric clichés. The rest of America realized it as the libertarian wing successfully taking over the Republicans. Grassroots means the movement is backed by average Americans, who can only donate $5 or $10 or $100 at a time—$2000 at the very most. There’s way too much money in Tea Party politics to call it grassroots. You know what an actual grassroots movement looks like? The Green Party.
Now, if Sorkin had depicted The Newsroom’s team going after corporate America, or advertising, or something else that truly hit close to home, then you could get me to believe the chairman of the company would order the news division to cut it out. Or if the chairman were secretly a Tea Partier herself. The issue has got to actually hit close enough to home. It doesn’t.
I watch Sorkin’s shows because I otherwise like the writing. He knows how to write witty banter. Not enough writers do. They’ll attempt to, but it’ll just be two people talking fast, and instead of wit there will be sarcasm. Or people will just be repeating one another; Sorkin’s guilty of this from time to time, and it looks like this:
He: So I bought the fedora.
She: You bought the fedora?
He: I bought the fedora.
She: I can’t believe you bought the fedora.
He: Well I did. I bought the fedora.
She: You’ve never bought a fedora before.
He: I bought a fedora just now.
She: You really bought the fedora.
He: I’m wearing the fedora, right now.
She: I still can’t believe you bought the fedora.
Full disclosure: I do not own a fedora.
This can go on for another 30 seconds. Or it can stop, the characters can talk about something substantive for about five or six minutes, and then just for fun this’ll come up again.
She: By the way, he bought a fedora this morning.
He (suddenly appearing): I can’t believe you’re bringing up the fedora.
Other person: He bought a fedora?
She: He bought a fedora.
Other person: He bought a fedora?
She: He bought a fedora.
Other person: He’s not a fedora person.
He: I am now.
Other person: You bought a fedora?
He: I bought a fedora.
Other person: I can’t believe you bought a fedora.
He: I can’t believe how much time we’re spending on this fedora.
She: I can. Somebody must have done a lot of mushrooms last night and thought this was amazing dialogue.
He: Stop breaking the fourth wall.
I have an annoying feeling this will be the only part anyone remembers of this rant, but oh well.