One thing is even more certain in Aaron Sorkin’s social world than the beloved screenwriter’s trademark walking-and-talking professional banter: the rote designation of his characters—in their own dialogue—as “smart.” Indeed, their intellectual self-regard is so overweening that they are compelled to disclaim it mid-tantrum. Early on in the over-amped professional intrigue of Newsroom, Mr. Sorkin’s summer HBO study in high-minded newsgathering, Don, the disgruntled senior producer for evening news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) dresses him down thusly: “You are a smart, talented guy who’s not very nice.” A few beats later, we get McAvoy’s own compulsively admiring rejoinder: “You’re jumping from a sinking ship. You were always the smartest guy around here.”
Indeed, Newsroom, which Mr. Sorkin has tirelessly flogged in his own media interviews as a paean to the endangered idealism of the news business, comes bearing the none-too-subtle brief of reviving the apostles of the American intellect with fresh infusions of cultural and political power. The show’s opening set piece features Mr. Daniels delivering an unscripted jeremiad, in the great fictional tradition of Howard Beale, the “mad prophet of the airwaves” featured in Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 news satire Network. Only where Peter Finch’s unhinged anchor offered a litany of searing political grievances, Mr. Daniels bemoans the passing of a genteel, high-achieving American meritocracy—a time when the idea of intelligence didn’t “make us feel inferior,” when the country went to war “for moral reasons,” and when it “cultivated the world greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy.” What’s more, he fulminates, “we were informed by great men, men who were revered.” Lest the show’s viewers forget this crucial point, the opening credits of Newsroom feature footage of the long-departed lions of the postwar network news scene: Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley.
However, as is the case in most of Mr. Sorkin’s productions, these dazzlingly smart creatures fall into pat, pasteboard character arcs: They are either loyal or cunning, cynical or idealistic, clever or, well, cleverer. They are, in short, model American meritocrats—people who hew to the bedrock belief that an academic credential or a professional award is the most invaluable window into the human soul. In another of the show’s strangely lifeless confrontations, disgruntled senior producer Don (the cunning one!) seeks to discredit a distrusted incoming executive producer, bearing the echt-preppy name of McKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) with this curiously precise kiss-off: “She’s like a sophomore poli-sci major at Sarah Lawrence.” His rival senior producer Jim Harper (the loyal one!) one-ups him, though, by citing the two Peabody awards (and one battle wound) she earned covering the war in Afghanistan. It is without a doubt the whitest version of “the dozens” ever played—except, perhaps, for this priceless snatch of shouted dialogue from the bow-tied, dipsomaniacal network exec Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston): “I’m gonna beat the shit out of you; I don’t care how many protein bars you eat!”
Not even a grizzled on-the-job drunk is permitted to forget for a moment, in Sorkin-land, the American culture of self-disciplined high achievement.
With this kind of omnicompetent brilliance everywhere on display, it’s little wonder that Mr. Sorkin seems to think that the entire problem with TV news can be solved via a shift in format. Charlie Skinner believes that news can be great again if the network just gives it enough time and space to breathe, in an hourlong newsmagazine format, with gloriously exciting real-time reporting bringing it, just barely, in under deadline. “We just decided to,” he says of the media’s halcyon age of network news reporting, as though the wise men atop the Big Three’s news operations might just as easily have decided to cure cancer, or carry off a cup at Wimbledon.
Or, as Mr. Sorkin’s meritocratic fancy would have it, a more tightly focused, and properly motivated (idealistic!) body of valedictorians could report out the tangled, much-litigated saga of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in, oh, 20 minutes or so. Mr. Sorkin shadowed several cable news organizations as part of his research, but not long enough to learn that the unglamorous work of investigative reporting involves much more than hanging up a prestigious credential and letting the plaudits roll serenely in. As news of the explosion on the BP rig comes across the wires, the savvy Harper—the loyal one, remember—works the phones and sizes up, in no time, the true environmental devastation in the offing. When McAvoy and McHale press him for his sources, he divulges that, yes, his former college roommate is a senior executive at BP, and his sister is placed in a sensitive spot high up on the Halliburton chain of command.
This is a risibly awful depiction of the activity of reporting, and not just because it conforms in every way to the smugly insulated social vision of Sorkinism. It so happens that throughout the BP spill crisis, I was a national news editor—at one of the online news outlets that Mr. Sorkin and his characters all gleefully despise on uninformed principle—and I can attest that family connections and school ties produced precisely zero worthwhile reporting on the catastrophe. (The only thing less plausible at that time would be turncoat executives at Halliburton and BP serving as primary sources on the disaster.) Indeed, for all the wall-to-wall coverage that TV news shops devoted to the BP-spun versions of the disaster, much of the best reporting came from unconnected, hard-working reporters on the ground, such as Mac McClelland with Mother Jones and (I am proud to say) Brett Michael Dykes, the spill reporter I supervised at Yahoo News.
But for Sorkin to grasp this essential point, he’d have to suspend, ever so briefly, his unquestioning allegiance to the world-changing excellence of the credentialed overclass. Much is made in the show of the inherent democratic value of newsgathering. “There’s nothing more important in a democracy than a well-informed electorate,” intones McHale—who was, of course, the daughter of Margaret Thatcher’s ambassador to the U.N. But in the sort of blinkered social order where citizen-viewers must be patiently tutored in the high-professional folkways of anchorman reverence, the struggle for democracy has already been waged and lost.