I really want to like ‘The Newsroom’. Honestly, I’m not rooting for it to fail. I want it to be the show that it has the potential to be. Unfortunately, from the episodes that have aired so far, it has become glaringly apparent that Aaron Sorkin knows nothing at all about broadcast journalism and has no understanding of what it should be.
In the third episode, called ‘The 112th Congress’, our hero Will McAvoy decides to become a crusader journalist and to reclaim the Republican party away from the Tea Party. He starts his broadcast by issuing an apology to his viewers for pandering to them in the past. “We took a dive for the ratings,” he explains, and vows to only bring them the news they actually need to know, not just the news they want to hear. His speech is rousing and inspirational, and also wildly inappropriate and unprofessional. The problem is that Sorkin doesn’t seem to recognize that last part.
The episode takes place in the middle of the Congressional campaign season, 2010. Will goes on a tear belittling know-nothing political candidates in a series of combative interviews that would make both Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann blush. This of course begs the question of why anyone would agree to appear on his show anymore. Nevertheless, the moles continue to blithely poke their heads up for him to whack with his Mallet of Truth. As election night wears on and it becomes clear that the country is going Red, Will becomes increasingly preachy and irate on air.
Do you remember Jon Stewart’s famous expression of exasperation and disbelief during the 2004 Presidential election when he realized that George W. Bush had really been re-elected? Will has exactly that moment here. The difference, of course, is that Jon Stewart is a comedian, and Will McAvoy is supposed to be an honest-to-God journalist.
Will claims to be a moderate Conservative, but he’s clearly a mouthpiece for Sorkin’s own Leftist views. Personally, I don’t disagree with anything the character says about the extremists in the Tea Party, but I can still recognize that his behavior is inappropriate and just plain bad journalism.
The show has the audacity to compare Will’s actions to Edward Murrow taking on Joe McCarthy. But Murrow earned his righteous indignation after spending decades building the public’s trust with both his integrity and his objective dispassion. Everyone in America knew that something had to be profoundly wrong to push Murrow so far. McAvoy is more like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. For as much bile as Aaron Sorkin spews toward Fox News and its ilk, he fails to see the irony that he’s already turned Will McAvoy into just another raving demagogue.
All of this greatly pleases Charlie (Sam Waterston), the head of the news division, while he defends Will to the network’s corporate brass, who aren’t so pleased with what’s been happening on their airwaves. This episode finally introduces Jane Fonda as Leona Lansing, the network owner. Credit where it’s due, this must be the single greatest piece of casting in the history of television. Leona spends most of the hour silently observing while Charlie bats away her underlings like the pests he considers them to be. When she finally takes control at the end, holy hell does she cut through the smug condescension that had permeated the rest of the episode. She gets right to the point and lays the hard truths on Charlie about the reality of owning and operating a news network (which anyone in his position should damn well already know).
Finally, this is what the show should be, an unflinching look at the real motivations of corporately-owned network news – not Sorkin’s fantasy idealized version. It’s too bad that this is just thrown in as a token at the end, and that Leona is set up as the show’s villain, because she says a lot of things that needed saying. I hope we get a lot more of her.