In Sunday's premiere of Aaron Sorkin's new HBO series, "The Newsroom," a plucky news producer named Mackenzie MacHale — I know, that name, but bear with me — pleads for a better newsroom.
Mackenzie (Emily Mortimer) lectures lead anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) about "reclaiming the fourth estate!" and "reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession!" while using a series of trendy nonsense phrases like, "it's part of our DNA."
That's not how smart people talk. It's how pretentious people talk when they aren't really saying anything.
"The Newsroom" seems similarly smart on the surface. But it's all a set-up. As much as the show claims to celebrate the power of discourse, the arguments are as one-sided as a Harlem Globetrotters game.
Sorkin's series imagines the quixotic quest for the perfect newsroom. It imagines one where bright journalists make quick decisions about what stories really mean — and present them as forcefully as possible, without trying to insert some artificial balance in stories where no parity exists. An example of a one-sided story, according to the show, is the "birther" movement, in which birthers are clearly in the wrong and have no good arguments.
The problem with Sorkin's model? It's the one we already have, at countless news outlets. And it doesn't serve us very well. Instead, it contributes to the kind of country Sorkin criticizes on the show — one in which people seek out news and entertainment that confirms their existing beliefs.
Which makes us all dumber.
Even as he makes his argument for more opinionated news, Sorkin suggests, wrongly, that viewers will abandon news and news-like shows that take a strong point of view. Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow, and the MSNBC-era Keith Olbermann would disagree.
Maybe Sorkin has earned the right to pontificate about whatever he wants to, given an amazing track record that includes "The West Wing," "Moneyball" and "The Social Network."
But "The Newsroom" isn't persuasive. It doesn't even seem to want to persuade. It wants to preach. In this case, the choir is liberal, and the sermon is about how much smarter the choir is than that other choir across town.
Sorkin devised the show in part after quizzing real-life network news professionals about what their "utopian news broadcast" would be. The second episode features the insufferable Mackenzie telling her news team that they should always ask themselves, "Is this the best possible form of the argument?" when attempting to present both sides.
That's a rule every reporter should follow, and would bring an end to the cable news atrocity of letting a charismatic expert argue one side of an issue while a blithering idiot argues the other, all in the name of supposed fairness.The audience is there for the Globetrotters, but the network brings out the Washington Generals for them to beat up on, just to create the farce of a game.
"The Newsroom" newscasts quickly degenerate into McAvoy espousing almost exclusively liberal arguments (which also happen to be Sorkin's) while dismissing the conservative side — or presenting its arguments in less than "the best possible form." A corporate overlord played by Jane Fonda in the third episode calls the show's fictional cable network, ACN, "MSNBC's more combative brother." That sounds about right.
In the second episode, a stunningly stupid (so stupid it feels unrealistic) move by associate producer Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) causes the governor of Arizona to cancel a planned appearance to defend her state's venomous anti-immigration law. (Almost all of the stories covered on the show are real news stories. Sorkin's team tries to cover them as he believes, with the benefit of hindsight, they should have been covered. There's a very cool moment when we first realize this.)
With the governor no longer available, the newsroom has to go to the second-tier advocates of the law. And there's apparently a huge and immediate dropoff in the quality of their arguments. The show ends up with a beauty pageant contestant, a flat-out racist, and a nearly monosyllabic gun nut.
Yes, the point is that the broadcast fails because these Washington Generals aren't the best advocates for the Arizona law. But Sorkin also stacks the deck by pretending the Generals were the best team available. There's the Arizona governors office, and then a bunch of losers. That kind of political cartooning doesn't do anything except make liberals feel superior, if they buy into it.
And self-satisfaction doesn't help liberals win elections. Information does.
Real journalism — the kind of deep-dive into conservative movements that the New Yorker does so well — might help liberal viewers understand what they're really up against. Instead the show invites them to throw up their hands and say, well, the other side is just crazy.
That's not helpful. That's hopelessness.
Daniels' McAvoy is an anchor with a Tom Brokaw-like reverence for America's past greatness and, the show says, a Jay Leno-like knack for offending no one. (Except that lots of people hate Jay Leno for being so middle-of-the-road. But okay, we get the idea.)
McAvoy tries desperately not to upset Democrats or Republicans — until he offends them both by essentially calling Democrats losers and Republicans stupid in a public display of radical honesty that begins the first episode.
I'd love to watch a show about an anchor who refuses to bow to the pressure to embrace partisans on either side — a lonely independent in a news landscape where networks align themselves not just out of ideology, but for the sake of branding and ratings.
But no. It turns out McAvoy refuses to take a side not because he's brave, but because he's a coward. He's afraid expressing a viewpoint will hurt him in ratings. (Never mind that this runs counter to real life, in which the right-leaning Fox News and left-leaning MSNBC both beat the old-fashioned, non-partisan CNN.)
McAvoy soon finds the courage to embrace the righteous partisan path, which also happens to be Sorkin's. Soon he's dunking on the worst arguers the Washington Generals — er, Republican Party — can offer: Racists, Tea Partiers, stuffed-shirt congressmen.
It's fun to imagine you're in the game or root for a side. But the game, and the world, also needs reliable commentators.
The problem is, it's more thrilling to play than to make calls. "The Newsroom" makes every attempt to be romantic, in the adventurous and the amorous sense. Characters (not believably) quote lines from broadcast musicals, and everyone in the newsroom used to date, or wants to date, or keeps dating and breaking up.
The actors do a great job of selling some lines that no human being would ever say, which can be one of the pleasures of watching Sorkin stories. But you wish actors like Daniels, Fonda, Sam Waterston, and Dev Patel had more opportunities to sound like humans. Mortimer faces the biggest challenge. Besides being pretentious, her character is prone to really stupid mistakes that are supposed to humanize her, like accidentally sending achingly personal emails to her entire staff.
The show's third episode suggests that the news broadcast suffers in the ratings once Mackenzie and Will bravely decide to make it better. This is the most condescending part of the show: The notion that as the news gets more liberal, it also gets smarter, and that the people who don't appreciate it are just wrong.
The show would be much more interesting if the other side at least had a chance. Not because both sides are equally right, but because everyone's arguments get better when they face real competition.
I say this as a Globetrotters fan.