Aaron Sorkin is telling us yesterday’s news

HBO, "The Newsroom"

I thought about going with “Aaron Sorkin is yesterday’s news,” but that seemed excessively mean. And probably inaccurate.

A recurring subplot in Sorkin’s previous worst show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, dealt with a character who was developing a TV show about the United Nations, which he was planning to put on HBO because it was too highbrow for the network TV audience — an idea that Amanda Peet’s fake programming director tried to dissuade him of. So it’s probably telling that now, after Studio 60 collapsed under its own baggage and Sorkin himself got to put a show on HBO, his big idea was apparently to make Studio 60 again.

The Newsroom works considerably better than Studio 60 did, largely because it doesn’t have to sell the idea that a fake version of Saturday Night Live is somehow central to the soul of American society. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t seem to advanced its analysis of the news industry much beyond a few wistful lines about how much better America was when a bunch of old white men told us what to think every night.

I respect Murrow and Cronkite as much as the next guy, but a lot of their power came from the lack of competition. When the typical American’s television could deliver three channels, it was easy to concentrate resources into a handful of elite institutions that could decide what news was important and how to present it. They weren’t immune to the need to worry about ratings or keeping the public and advertisers happy, but it’s a lot easier to lose viewers these days. And it helped that the great middle-class consensus of the mid-twentieth century was overwhelmingly dominated by WASPs.

The Newsroom ignores all of this, and pretends that the newscasters of our grandparents’ generation reached massive cultural relevance because “we just decided to.” In doing so, the show papers over the fact that making a great news show is hard, and especially the tension between getting the story first and getting the story right.

Its first episode, which revolves around the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, ties itself into knots in order to show a triumph of news programming that doesn’t depict any actual reporting. The show’s fake news network manages to learn how serious the story is before anyone else because one character’s college roommate and sister just happen to be inside sources who apparently can’t get him on the phone fast enough in between their highly confidential crisis meetings. In other words, they get the story first by being so implausibly lucky that even the characters have to complain about it.

Worse, it sends completely the wrong message. The show never bothers to explain how doing an hourlong show about the oil spill that very night, before the real news networks had learned how big the story was, would fundamentally change American society, because of course it wouldn’t. Getting a story first is a prestige coup for a news network, but — as CNN and Fox demonstrated last week — jumping the gun on a developing story doesn’t always make you a hero of journalism.

The show’s second episode tried to advance the formula, by positing a bold new model in which the host brings on guests and asks them tough questions. This is not only a much less revolutionary idea than the show seems to think, but it can’t even carry it through, by having the staff getting sidetracked by arguments about which order they should air the stories in and generally acting like idiots. Even better, the show is based around the signing of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, which was controversial for weeks before it got signed, but apparently nobody on the staff bothered to talk about it or maybe do some kind of pre-recorded feature, meaning the producers got left scrambling to find somebody to sit in front of a camera and get fed talking points.

What’s most bothersome about the show, though, is that it never bothers to explain just why America was so much greater before my generation was born. From what I can tell, the country has made phenomenal social progress in practically every area since the white picket fence era of the 1950s or the mess that was the ’60s. The fact that we haven’t solved every problem that our predecessors wouldn’t even acknowledge is a sign that we’re more aware, not lesser citizens. And by creating a show that focuses on the personal drama and neuroses of its characters to the exclusion of any real journalism, The Newsroom is a pretty good case study of what’s really wrong with modern media. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s what they were going for.

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