The Newsroom Critical Review Essay

I have a serious question: why doesn’t Aaron Sorkin become a journalist? He sure seems to have a lot of opinions about how journalists do their jobs. This weekend, he used his now (thankfully) defunct show The Newsroom and the pages of the New York Times to yell at those who have used the Sony Pictures hack to publish news stories about the goings-on at the movie studio.

At one point in the series finale, which aired on HBO on Sunday, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) says that journalism isn’t a career – it’s a calling. Doesn’t it seem like Sorkin has heard that calling? Having made a lot of money off his Hollywood screenplays, he’s one of the few people who can afford to be a journalist these days. So why not apply all the high-minded ideals he’s espousing to the actual trade itself?

The answer is, because his idea of journalism, laid down since the first episode of The Newsroom – one that we revisit in this finale episode, bringing things full circle – is unsustainable. The finale revisits the events that lead up to McHale taking over Will McAvoy’s (Jeff Daniels) prime-time slot on the fictional ACN cable news network and trying to remake it into something to please fuddy-duddies like Sorkin who hate the internet and Twitter and blogs and BuzzFeed quizzes.

But as we see McKenzie meeting all the people that will make up their team, they all say the same thing: their ideal situation is one where journalism doesn’t have to make money, but can be important in its own right.

The problem with Sorkin’s fatally flawed mission is that it could never exist in the real world – or in the USA, at least. What he wants is something like the New Republic, which is being kept afloat by rich people who want high-minded journalism not designed for a mass audience. That is, at least, until Facebook mogul Chris Hughes bought it and now wants to change it into something sustainable, a move met with Sorkinesque flagellation by many in the old media.

We are entering into a new world where the internet is king and everyone else is still playing catch-up. Journalism will still matter, yes, but without traditional revenue models, someone needs to find a way to pay for it. But Sorkin never bothers to dream up a solution for what the journalism of the future will look like. He just writes off its quality or the balance between gif-based listicles and deep investigative reporting about weighty matters. He’s stuck in the past.

That was the problem with the finale, too. Rather than showing us where everyone might end up, it is busy with telling us how they got brought together three years ago. The Newsroom has always been about rewriting history, telling people in the present how the past should have been reported. We see Charlie (Sam Waterston) recruit MacKenzie, Don (Thomas Sadoski) get demoted and spar with Sloane (Olivia Munn), MacKenzie recruit Jim (John Gallagher Jr), and Will cuss out his flighty new assistant Maggie (Allison Pill).

The episode ends with Will starting another episode of his programming, proving that the news never stops, the machine keeps turning, and life continues on for these characters – Don takes an idealistic job, McKenzie becomes news director of ACN, Jim takes over Will’s show, and Maggie heads off to DC to become a field producer (whatever that is).

The Newsroom finale had many groan-inducing awful moments – Neal (Dev Patel) shutting down ACN’s website, Will’s jam session in the garage with Charlie’s grandsons, Will’s sophomoric jokes about McKenzie’s pregnancy, the complete waste of Tony winner Joanna Gleason playing Charlie’s wife – but the worst of all was the way this show continued to treat its women.

The female characters in this show, other than former ACN owner Leona (Jane Fonda) have no agency of their own. Leona’s only job in the episode was to convince a man, the new owner of ACN, Lucas Pruitt (BJ Novak), to hire the woman she wants as news director. Even a powerful woman still has to go through a man. Lucas has a PR problem because one of his other companies doesn’t pay women fairly. (Leona says: “Maybe you have a PR problem because you have an actual problem,” and I actually shouted at my television set: “Sorkin, heal thyself!”)

When McKenzie gets named news director, first Lucas has to ask Will’s permission to give her the job, and then Will takes it upon himself to announce the news, like it’s his to announce, even though McKenzie is his new boss. He even announces her pregnancy against her wishes. Will gets to do whatever he wants because McKenzie is treated like his property.

The same thing happens to Maggie. Her new boyfriend Jim recommends her for a job in DC. The only reason she would get this job, of course, has nothing to do with her talent but because a man recommended her – a man that she sleeps with. Then, when Jim is promoted to run Will’s show, he offers her a promotion so she can stay in New York with him. Yes, her career destiny is based on what Jim has to offer her. Sure she decides to go for the DC job, but her choices are two things that Jim has gotten for her, nothing she has earned herself.

There was also the argument between Sloane and Don, who are also dating (have any of these people heard of OkCupid?). Sloane criticises Don for messing up an interview with the head of Goldman Sachs and Don turns around and criticises her for being ever worse at her job, and he wins the argument. A woman can never criticise a man because she is always frivolous and silly. While men are off doing important work like saving journalism and playing blues in the garage, the women are sitting around nattering about their relationships.

The Newsroom has always been one man’s depressing vision for the way the world should work. Thank goodness we are not living in Sorkin’s America, where the only values that matter are the ones of a bygone era and where women are so much better when they let the men do all the important work. The Newsroom got more than its fair share of attention during its three-season run, but I couldn’t be happier that the worst show on television is finally over. I’m happy to keep spitting on its grave, at least until Sorkin mans up, finally takes some of his own advice, and heeds his calling.

This is something that Neil Sampat could tell you without even gazing up from his air-gapped computer, but if you search on UrbanDictionary.com for the term hatewatch (v.t., “watching a TV show or movie that you hate because you hate it”), the lone example provided is Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series The Newsroom.

"Hey, why do you watch every episode of The Newsroom if you think it's so bad?"

"I'm hate-watching it, hoping it achieves self-awareness."

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Television viewers do not hate-watch Modern Family or The Big Bang Theory, two blandly humorous but popular programs that drifted into irrelevance a few seasons ago. Viewers do not hate-watch The Walking Dead, even though most of us look 10 times more haggard after one night at a KOA campground than Rick and the gang. Viewers do hate-watch the New York Jets, but can you blame them?

However, viewers, and particularly television critics, have been hate-watching The Newsroom since it first aired on June 24, 2012. After last Sunday’s episode, which featured the death of a central character and just happened to be datelined June 24, 2013, the Web was deluged with screeds denouncing not only the show but its creator. The vitriol, however, had little to do with the fatal heart attack suffered by Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) and more to do with a campus rape subplot.

Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post called The Newsroom “the worst prestige show on television.” Eric Thurm of Grantland led with “I come to bury Aaron Sorkin, not to praise him,” before informing us that the episode may make it impossible for Thurm “to take anything [Sorkin] writes or has written seriously ever again.” Yes, THE Eric Thurm penned that sentiment.

Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorkerdevoted 11 paragraphs to the rape subplot while arguing that she’d “love to see a show wrestle with these issues in a meaningful way.” You have to wonder if Nussbaum appreciates the irony of that.

The show’s most popular offscreen character, referenced in both its first and final episodes and many betwixt, is Don Quixote. Sorkin has fashioned The Newsroom’s protagonist, ACN anchor Will McAvoy, and hence himself, as the delusional knight on a “mission to civilize.” Ironically, and this is something that Sorkin has conceded, that quest has been quixotic.

In fact, in last week’s episode, Sorkin basically invents a dialogue between himself and the series’ plethora of hate-watchers.

“Your mission to civilize, how’s that going?” McAvoy’s cell mate (a hallucination of McAvoy’s alcoholic, blue-collar dad) asks.

“Not well,” McAvoy concedes.

“I don’t want to see you get your ass kicked,” the cell mate says. “No, I lied. I totally want to see you get your ass kicked.”

Since its very first scene (the series finale airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO), The Newsroom has swung for the fences and outraged critics. While taking part in a media panel at Northwestern University, our protagonist, McAvoy, is roused from his career slumber by a question posed from a comely sophomore. Too, he is roused by another figure in the audience holding up a card and prodding him to answer candidly. What follows is a polemic that provides McAvoy’s—and one might presume, Sorkin’s—perspective on how far the United States has wandered from its ideals.

McAvoy’s rant went viral in the series, as it has in actuality (more than 1.4 million views on YouTube). Of course, if you watch that scene, you’ll hear McAvoy spout an astounding number of geopolitical statistics off the top of his head, a feat that strains credibility. But critics at the time did not decry McAvoy’s statistical savantism. What they had a problem with is the idea of a main character longing for the days of what another, apparently out-of-touch news anchor once dubbed “the greatest generation.”

(One wonders how long Archie Bunker would have survived in the age of the Internet and Twitter. Those were the days.)

As James Poniezowik of Time wrote that first summer, “The Newsroom needs to be reviewed two ways: as a drama and as an editorial. Its chief problem as a drama is that, well, it’s an editorial.”

And its chief problem as an editorial is that, well, Sorkin’s characters’ politics fail to dovetail with those of many reviewers. And so, because many reviewers happen not to see eye to eye with the characters and, hence, Sorkin, they refer to the show as “smug” or “self-serving.”

Why do television critics loathe this show so much yet tune in so religiously? Why do they hate-watch it? First, because it takes place in their sphere and thus they are more attuned to, and hypersensitive about, how these roles are portrayed. This is solely anecdotal testimony from someone who has spent a quarter-century in journalism, but journalists are some of the more thin-skinned folks you will ever meet. (“Don’t make us look bad,” a well-known sports anchor once admonished as I prepped a profile on him and his crew.)

Second, and related to the above factor, they are far more attuned to fanciful leaps in a plot at the expense of realism. Before playing Skinner, ACN’s news director, Waterston portrayed a Manhattan assistant district attorney whose closing arguments were to criminal trials what Interstellar is to NASA.

And yet nobody hate-watched Law & Order.

Just as nobody hate-watched House despite the liberties it took with the practice of medicine. The difference is that most physicians have neither the time nor the inclination to write 2,000 words on the bad medicine being practiced at Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital.

As critics, we are far more attuned to a drama erring in our own field of expertise. It may be why, as a sportswriter, I railed when earlier this season the deputy attorney general confided to McAvoy that he’d attended Texas A&M on a football scholarship and “lost to Nebraska four years in a row.” Texas A&M and Nebraska have never played each other four years in a row (and I’d love to see The Newsroom wrestle with the splintering of the Big 12 in a meaningful way).

This year’s Emmy Award winner for Best Drama Series was Breaking Bad, a series whose protagonist was far more callous to the deleterious effects of crystal meth abuse than Don Keefer was to rape last Sunday. But, perhaps because more TV critics have direct familiarity with the horrors of sexual assault than they do with the epidemic of drug abuse in a flyover state, Vince Gilligan was never excoriated for this.

Through six seasons of Breaking Bad, which I also loved, we the audience are asked to suspend disbelief that Mr. White’s brother-in-law, one of the top-ranking DEA agents in New Mexico, is too thick to discern that Walter is Heisenberg, the mythic meth kingpin of I-25. It’s almost more believable that Wilbur was the only one who ever heard Mr. Ed speak.

And yet, if Sorkin imagines a scenario in which, as happened last Sunday, a male news producer balks at the prospect of putting a possible rape victim on camera, both Sorkin and the character are flayed far worse than anyone on Game of Thrones.

“You’re not legally obliged to presume innocence,” a Princeton student, Mary, tells the producer, Don Keefer, after disclosing that she has been raped (Sorkin’s script leaves just enough ambiguity to make her allegations, at the very least, legally difficult to prove). And the fact that this episode happened to air following the week of the Rolling Stone campus rape story fiasco, as well as Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston’s statement about what transpired between him and his rape accuser, only made it more emotionally charged. 

“I believe I’m morally obligated,” Keefer says.

And with that the Internet exploded. Why? Because Keefer was one of the few characters on The Newsroom whom members of the Fourth Estate both liked and respected, whom they were rooting for and imagined themselves to be. And so never mind whether Keefer was or was not being authentic; let’s grab the pitchforks because in that moment, he did not say or do what we as responsible journalists would have.

In its third and final season The Newsroom has become far more self-aware, with Sorkin indirectly addressing criticisms of both context and content. Maggie Jordan, apprised that she just contradicted herself by giving a monologue about the superfluousness of monologues, retorts, “Everyone does where I work.” In Sunday’s series finale, Sorkin, who has often been criticized for being chauvinistic in his treatment of female characters, devotes a scene or two to gender equality in the workplace.

The olive branch has been extended somewhat, but few on the other side of the chasm are reaching for it. An artist has an obligation to create characters who are authentic (i.e., true to themselves). Not true to whom we believe they should be. With The Newsroom, Sorkin created a slew of such characters, even if a few of them may occasionally come across as self-righteous or obsolescent.

Me, I’m going to miss The Newsroom intensely when it signs off (and I’m truly hoping that Sampat returns from Venezuela with footage of Bigfoot roaming the Amazon jungle). For this member of “the East Coast elite,” The Newsroom is far from a hate-watch. It is a love-watch, as in “I love watching it.”

There is no entry on Urban Dictionary for “lovewatch.” This does not surprise me. Nor, I imagine, would it surprise Will McAvoy.

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