If you’re a biased radical Liberal where you blame everyone else for eberything and have perverted Liberal world views, then you’ll love The Newsroom. HBO’s new Liberal news series by Aaron Sorkin, who brought us un-sophisticated Left Wing dramas such as West Wing and The Social Network.
Aaron Sorkin’s most recognizable motif is two characters walking down a corridor talking fast. Given that walking and talking at the same time can be an intellectual challenge for some, Sorkin’s scripts are often mistaken for being very, very clever. But they are actually the verbal equivalent of smoke and mirrors. The constant movement distracts from the banality of the conversation and the rat-a-tat-tat of the words distracts from the fact that nothing is happening right now. Upon this facade, Mr Sorkin has built a career.
There’s nothing wrong with that, except when it is used to promote a brand of politics that is actually not half as smart as its mise-en-scene. Sorkin insists that he is non-partisan and powerless but we all know that is a complete lie. Most Liberal deny who they really are.
But he shares a belief – common in Hollywood – that reasoned dialogue and open minds lead inevitably to liberal conclusions. If only all Americans had a PhD from Harvard, the US would have no army, no death penalty, abortion on demand and empty churches would probably be recycled as government-run day care centres. Because all of this, you see, is logical. More Liberal perversion.
Sorkin’s prejudice becomes apparent five minutes into the premier of The Newsroom. Our hero, dull news anchorman Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels), is on stage for a college debate between a cranky conservative and a liberated liberal (Will sits in between, wincing at their sound bites). McAvoy looks as bored as we feel. But when he is asked by a student what he thinks makes America so great, he loses his cool and launches into an “I’m As Mad As Hell And I’m Not Going To Take It Anymore!” rant. He takes us through the numbers in a way that only a scriptwriter could imagine is naturalistic: “There’s absolutely no evidence that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re seventh in literacy, twenty seventh in math, forty ninth in life expectancy…” and so on. [For the record, America might not be the greatest country in the world but we are still wondering why every body in the rest of the world wants to come here.]
Dan Rather, Genuine Liberal News Anchor, has compare the Newsroom to Citizen Kane.
Will’s rant becomes an internet sensation and he returns to work committed to creating a news show that will only ever tell the truth. It quickly becomes obvious that Sorkin associates the telling of the truth with the reviving of America’s lost liberal tradition – New Deal, Fair Deal, Camelot and the Great Society. The Newsroom’s swift descent into heavy handed nostalgia betrays those sympathies. “America sure used to be [the greatest country] … We never beat our chests,” says McAvoy, who bemoans the death of political courage and the end of liberal reform (“We used to make war on poverty, not on poor people.”) We see images of Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite flashing past, along with a romance for the days when newsmakers tried to tell the news rather than pitch it to partisan audiences in language so simplified that it’s almost baby talk. Just in case you’re missing the point (that the world ended with Richard Nixon’s election in 1968), Sorkin told a reporter in an interview, “I think I would have done very well, as a writer, in the forties. I think the last time America was a great country was then, or not long after. It was before Vietnam, before Watergate.” It was also before Civil Rights.
Sorkin’s rosy view of the golden age of liberal journalism is wrong on two counts. First, the journalism wasn’t all that great. It was top-down, patronising stuff that patiently told people what it thought they ought to know. Some things weren’t reported (Jack Kennedy’s love life for example) and while individuals like Murrow condemned McCarthyism, the rest of the press was happy to play along. Second, partisanship was in fact rife. When the Nixon White House turned against the media in the late 1960s, it had good reason. It was tired of the administration’s policies being “interpreted” in a manner that appeared to be balanced but was actually biased comment. Nixon was opposed by a powerful industry that gave additional air time to rioters and liberals because they made far better TV than rational, conservative talking heads. Fox was conceptualised in opposition to this kind of monopoly.
And we should not mistake Sorkin’s 1940s liberalism for genuine radicalism. At its heart is Hollywood’s old fashioned faith in the moral (and narrative) power of an articulate white man. The few ethnic minority characters in The Newsroom are stereotypes with little to say (we even get an Asian computer nerd) and the role of women falls under the sub plot heading “relationship issues for McAvoy to resolve.” No, the focus is upon McAvoy, who is a latter-day Atticus Finch. He is the journalistic equivalent of President Jed Bartlet in West Wing, who did a similar job of bringing some common sense to a Washington plagued by Right-wing populism. “Speak up for us,” Sorkin imagines gays, women, African-Americans and disabled saying to his heroes. “For we cannot find the words ourselves.”
The question The Newsroom and West Wing ask is, “Why can’t we have Presidents like Bartlet or anchors like McAvoy anymore?” But the answer isn’t the death of courage or the corruption of the press by money. It’s that both are unwanted in a post modern, globalised, media saturated world that no longer looks unquestioningly to liberal college graduates for leadership. The Newsroom is about as relevant to modern life as The Little House on the Prairie.