What Doesn’t Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom Have To Say About The 2012 Election?

Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom features Jeff Daniels as somnambulant newscaster and Republican with a conscience, Will McAvoy, in what some critics have suggested is a transparent attempt by Sorkin to deflect criticisms of liberal bias.  Daniels’ ex-girlfriend with the ridiculous name MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) is hired as the new executive producer of his nightly news programme and she accordingly inspires Daniels and the team to produce the news as it should be.  This is to say that the news ought to be decent and honourable, neither a partisan polemic nor an affected neutrality in which all opinions are deemed equally valid, regardless of their credibility, sense or basic internal consistency. 

Despite a suspiciously high rating on IMDB, The Newsroom didn’t receive much love from critics or the public, most of whom appeared to have tired of Sorkin’s trademark mix of overt sentimentality and naked emotional manipulation.  Not to mention the bespoke stylised dialogue – zippy one liners punctuated by longer monologues – which fail to disguise the sense that the characters represent little more than straw men to be torn apart or mouthpieces for Sorkin’s political views.

The Newsroom is typically Sorkin, perhaps more so, as though he’s been left on a medium heat like a red wine reduction – stickier and more concentrated.

Sorkin professes that the show is a drama about people and relationships as much as it is an idealised account of the media – a class of people more usually caricatured as morally bankrupt muckrakers and sleaze merchants.  And he’s not lying insofar as there’s a fractious will-they-won’t-they relationship between Ross ‘n Rachel stand-ins, Daniels and Mortimer, and the love triangle of Alison Pill, John Gallagher Jr and Thomas Sadoski, playing Maggie, Jim and Don respectively.  Dev Patel and Olivia Munn round out the cast as a hapless geek prone to ‘outrageous’ theories concerning the existence of Bigfoot and a smokin’ hot, socially awkward economist named Sloan Sabbith.  

The focus on character is one reason why The Newsroom utilises real-life news events, which means there is little need for exposition-heavy dialogue to recount the news and thus more room for characterisation.  It also enables Sorkin to use the benefit of hindsight to ensure he’s always right, which is nice.  But Sorkin is being disingenuous when he suggests that The Newsroom isn’t predominately a piece of soapbox television.

The West Wing gave audiences Martin Sheen as a POTUS the Americans didn’t have to feel ashamed of, initially because he could keep it in his pants and latterly because he didn’t use ‘now watch this drive’ or ‘let me put it in Texan for you’ as rhetorical flourishes.  Likewise, The Newsroom is an escapist fantasy of wish fulfilment in a country in which belligerent (tabloid) news programmes and the shadowy rightwing fringes dominate the political conversation more than is perhaps desirable. 

US politics, as we are told constantly, is more divided than ever.  The Tea Party has replaced the Neocons as the political bogeyman so far as the rest of the world is concerned.  It’s easy to sneer this far from the US, but in fairness the Tea Party’s extreme rhetoric is unsettling, not to mention their usurping of the language of patriotism and the questionable tactic of claiming divine inspiration, as Michelle Bachmann and Ricky Santorum both appear to have done.

There’s a theory runs that media outlets reinforce such division. This is especially so in a commercial environment in which the news is perceived as another form of lifestyle choice or entertainment.  Finally, news programmers are said to be loath to bite the hand that feeds, which is an issue when your company’s owners/shareholders are themselves potentially newsworthy and you have a number of journalists in your employ. 

But soapbox Sorkin has given himself a problem here.  In seeking to focus on his characters’ personal dramas, one note though they might be, there is limited time for such a complex issue.  In any event he’s idealised his team and there’s little interaction with other media rivals beyond cartoonish gutter-dwellers, about whom everybody can agree (hint: they be wrong ‘uns).

Luckily, the media isn’t Sorkin’s target at all, which brings us neatly to the question of the protagonist’s political affiliation.  He might be a liberal, but in the ‘anti-US’ speech in the pilot Sorkin makes it clear he sees himself as an American above all; he simply laments the direction the country has taken.

The story arc of series 1 may turn on a conspiracy theory concerning Daniels’ superiors and the pressure impliedly brought to bear on them by his targets, but that merely serves to highlight the real antagonists of the show.  Or, to borrow soaring Sorkian rhetoric for a minute, the real enemies of America: the Tea Party.

And make no mistake, shady billionaires the Koch brothers are repeatedly name-checked as originators and funders of the Tea Party – ie it’s not a real grassroots movement at all, but an exercise in manipulation.  The Tea Party generally is potrayed as a collection of extremist fundamentalists: anti-tax, anti-science, anti-women, isolationist, racist, simplistic and insidious.  The GOP nominees are likewise given special treatment – in a mock-up debate Alison Pill mockingly asks a Michelle Bachmann stand-in what God’s voice sounds like given He’s been talking to her.  

At others more moderate Republicans are harangued about why they continue to let their party be overtaken by the fringes, about why they’re seemingly content to be portrayed as RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) by fruitcakes.

Sorkin’s point seems to be this: America has a two party system, with two (realistic) presidential candidates.  There might be the odd Ross Perot, but mostly you’d struggle to name a third-party candidate without accessing Google.  For such a system to work there has to be some compromise in Congress and there have to be viable presidential candidates on both sides.  Otherwise, democracy struggles and the nation accordingly suffers.  Daniels’ character isn’t a Republican beard for Sorkin so much as he’s a mouthpiece for this point – a Republican president isn’t the end of the world, especially given the relatively narrow range of political positions open to POTUS.  An extremist, however, is either unelectable or too dangerous to stomach – would anyone ever really have wanted Sarah Palin to have access to the nuclear codes?  Santorum infamously compared homosexual activity to necrophiliac bestiality and is aggressively pro-life. Whatever your stance on those issues, his isn’t the language of a head of state, especially one as diverse as the USA. 

As for Congress there have been many quotes from Republicans confirming their desire to see Obama as a one-term loser, regardless of the cost.  The Tea Party appears to view compromise at any level as anathema.  Whether you agree with their policies or not, this is clearly no way for a government to function.

That’s my theory anyway. 

It’s unlikely Sorkin has had an actual impact – people don’t tend to enjoy being lectured about why their views are misguided so he’s mostly been preaching to the choir.  Then again, there are increasing signs of Republican dismay and rebellion against the shrill dictats of the Tea Party.

Something to ponder on election night, anyhow.

The Newsroom, then: as entertainment it’s tonally patchy, veering from saccharine to sanctimonious almost in a heartbeat, but it’s been optioned for a second series.  Expect next series to focus on the Superpacs, mudslinging from both candidates and particularly Romney’s flexible approach to facts.  And drone strikes.  Oh, and Veep-wannabe Ryan’s appropriation of 20th Century economist Friedrich Hayek, despite Hayek having serious reservations about laissez-faire policies, not to mention his tacit espousal of universal healthcare and welfare.  

You read it here first.

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