Praise be to the gods that I watched the premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s new project The Newsroom the day I read these words by Felix Salmon:
This is because TV news is ultimately much more an arm of the entertainment industry than it is of the news industry. Its star anchors get paid millions of dollars because they’re popular on TV, not because of their reporting skills; and while the occasional news magazine program will sometimes break news, newspapers and websites have always been the undisputed leaders on that front.
In other words, print media is converging on TV news, and will ultimately become the kind of trusted source of live-breaking news that CNN used to be. Meanwhile, TV news is never going to converge on the rest of the news industry; instead, it will drift further and further into the realm of entertainment.
All of which is to say that if you want to be a journalist, don’t work in TV. The pay might be better there, but if there’s any real journalism going on there right now, there probably won’t be in a few years’ time.
Man. Truer words.
This is obviously opinion and speculation, no matter how well-founded. I just happen to feel like jumping on this train. But it explained a lot of my visceral and immediate discomfort (disdain?) while watching The Newsroom, almost from the second protagonist Will McAvoy opens his mouth.
The show opens with McAvoy being asked why he thinks America is the greatest country in the world. Not if. Why. I just graduated from a great university, and the absurdity of that sophomoric question posed (with subtle cleverness from Sorkin) by a sophomore, was my first red flag. McAvoy breaks and a tirade about how America sucks now but used to be great ensues.
I didn’t agree with any of it, except that America is probably not the greatest country on Earth. I don’t share Sorkin’s politics, and Will McAvoy is an acolyte of the liberal Road to Serfdom hypothesis: America used to be awesome when monolithic intellectuals could have their way with everyone. Now dumb people get to talk to much. That’s parody but I think that idea is at the core of the narrative. How else can you think that people are worse off today? Gays can serve in the military. Black people can vote. College access, if not attendance, is nearly ubiquitous. Everyone has higher incomes. We have a lot of problems, but it defies reality to claim that people are dumber and worse off today. By nearly every objective metric, they are better off and have greater autonomy.
“But no, this isn’t the real problem,” I tell myself. I LOVED The West Wing. Sorkin engages in the same kind of politics and imbues his characters with rapid-fire dialogue punctuated by sublime monologues — usually appeals to a greater good. I’m down with that, even if I don’t agree entirely with the details. But that’s not The Newsroom.
The West Wing, like The Newsroom, is a show about aspirational people. In The West Wing, those people worked for the leader of the free world. They had various ranks, but they were part of a powerful hierarchy that spent every day all day trying to more forward against the onslaught of the present. Jed Bartlett has dreams, man. But first, he has to deal with angry Bible thumpers.
The difference between The Newsroom and The West Wing is that this kind of incessant grind against the world as it is was exactly what the Bartlett administration signed up for. The pushback was positive — the idea that from the mess of modern American democracy a greater good can emerge, humbly, from the minimal victories. Governing is a slog through the Marne. It is a search for moral lights in a deep haze.
The Newsroom isn’t that kind of show. Like The West Wing, it started off with its protagonist getting really pissy. But in The West Wing, President Bartlett righteously, albeit angrily, sets the whiners straight. In The Newsroom, it is the protagonist who does the whining. What he’s putatively battling is an ignorant narrative about American Exceptionalism. But he’s really just beating up on a stupid kid. In Will McAvoy’s world, he’s an island of sanity. In this way he encompasses the negative form of pushback — the opposite of the Bartlett Administration. He didn’t sign up to change America for the better. He’s an egoist. He is incorrigible. He’s an ass. He repudiates the world as it is, rather than embracing it. He’s an eloquent Keith Olbermann.
To top it off, he’s a news anchor. That’s where Salmon’s insight really did it for me. McAvoy’s a member of a class of people who look at the greats like Cronkite and think they are guardians of liberty. Americans look to anchors to speak truth to power and to show them the way, according to these people. In reality they are sophisticated, and often intellectual, entertainers. They’re superfluous. They occupy one’s time. They often supplement news and analysis from elsewhere at best and at worst they are background noise accompanying the nightly routines of America’s modern families who are too neurotic to accept silence. They take the hard work of the real guardians of democracy and they speak it with makeup on in front of a camera. When that’s not enough, they engage in pugilistic interrogation of partisans.
It strikes me, then, that while I don’t agree with Will McAvoy’s tirade about America being once great but no longer, I see why he might have said it. Characteristic of his ego, he yearns for a time when he might have been Americans’ sole source of news not found in print — a nightly fixture on one of only several channels. Deep down, he yearns for an America where everyone listens to him, by lack of choice if for no other reason.
That would surely account for why I am not liking The Newsroom. It would probably make it one of Sorkin’s more cynical projects. It certainly makes Will McAvoy a peculiarly petulant protagonist.