Opinion: In Sorkin's 'The Newsroom,' Media Has a Message

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The new HBO drama “The Newsroom” has a great ensemble cast, just like Aaron Sorkin's last mega-hit, “The West Wing.” It's got that same snappy, wit-infused banter (being able to say what it wants because it's on HBO doesn't hurt) and it's got a mission.

Even if the fiction they're creating is more Don Quixote than Edward R Murrow, it's still good television. This is especially true if you still think it could be possible to produce a news program that people want to watch, and advertisers want to support, that's more about reporting what's going on, rather than merely using it to fit their narrow ideological worldview.

The first scene of HBO's new drama fades in from black with our protagonist sitting between two partisan spinsters, futilely trying to stay out of the fray as they childishly trade barbs and pretend what they're saying passes as political debate. If that's not a metaphor for how most of the country sees politics today, I'm not sure what is.

Talking over each other, the crowd of mostly younger people (perhaps representing your average cable news viewer) responds to their zings like middle-schoolers do to a ‘Yo Momma’ joke.

News anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a panelist, is then asked if he has anything to add. He keeps his head down, cracks a joke, and the conversation moves on.

Then a college-aged kid in the audience asks him whether he considers himself a Democrat, Republican or Independent. He quips that he's a New York Jets fan.

A couple questions later, he says something else that applies to most people — that he's voted for candidates from both major parties.

The rubber hits the road after the next question though. You may have seen it in promos, where a bright eyed and bushy tailed college aged young woman asks the three people on the stage why they think "America is the greatest country in the world." The woman on the left says "diversity and opportunity," and the guy on the right says "freedom, and freedom... so lets keep it that way".

McAvoy tries to skate again, answering by, again, saying "the New York Jets," but the moderator presses him for a "personal moment."

In the crowd, a woman (apparently his Jiminy Cricket) holds up a notebook saying what he's really thinking: "It’s Not", and then "But It Can Be.” McAvoy finally gives in.

"It's not the greatest country in the world professor, that's my answer." Now he wants to keep going.

"If liberals are so f---ing' smart, how come they lose so goddamn always?" Then he goes after the guy on the right for the "freedom, and freedom" answer – saying that freedom doesn't make us special, when most countries in the world are free.

"I don't know if we're the greatest country in the world. We've got a lot going for us, a lot to not be at all proud of, and a whole heck of a lot the we were just lucky enough to be born with because the so called Greatest Generation's, and those that came before, accomplishments haven't been totally undermined by the Baby Boomers that have held the reigns of power for the last generation or so yet,” he said.


I didn't notice until the second time watching this that there appeared to be a picture of Edward R. Murrow projected on the wall behind the panel as McAvoy was making said rant. It's appropriate homage to Murrow's pivot from pure reporting to taking a position on something. That crusade (that is mentioned later in the show, along with Cronkite's editorializing on Vietnam) was successful at taking down McCarthy, but also successful at ending Murrow's otherwise illustrious career.

In the (fantastic) movie "Good Night and Good Luck," Murrow's character says something similar, although delivered much less emotionally, to parts of McAvoy's rant in the opening monologue of the movie. All the way back in the 1950's, at an award ceremony, Murrow said:

"Our history will be what we make it. And if there are any historians about 50 or a 100 years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. I invite your attention to the television schedules of all networks between the hours of 8 and 11 p.m., Eastern Time. Here you will find only fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger. There are, it is true, occasional informative programs presented in that intellectual ghetto on Sunday afternoons. But during the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live. If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read: LOOK NOW, PAY LATER.

For surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must be faced if we are to survive."

Television (especially cable) is far more decadent, escapist and insulated than it was over two generations ago, when Murrow spoke those words, as is our culture in general. Elsewhere in Murrow's speech he hits the nail on the head, saying "We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent."

In the negative half of his rant, Jeff Daniels' character listed a bunch of objective measures where our country is very much mediocre, or worse, in comparison to other nations. It is ironic, though, that he laments later in the program that the negative half is all that is getting reported, while the positive side is being ignored while that is precisely how the show was being advertised in the real world.

What the Greatest Generation had going for them wasn't what was given to them. They got a much more raw deal than we have in just about every measurable way. What sets them above the Baby Boomers is that they rose to the occasion and reached much closer to their potential.

The Baby Boomers made leaps and bounds in social progress, but they've also taken what was given to them, found it lacking against their sense of entitlement and have justified stealing from the future so they can have more than they were willing to pay for themselves. Who knows if my generation, or the one coming through school now, will do any better.

It's the second half of his speech, where he talks about what used to make our country great, that had me hooked just a few minutes in.

We've got plenty of people speaking what they see as truth to power now, but the vast majority of them are hard-core partisans with an axe to grind. Later in the show, in the middle of an argument, he's asked what his position is on "crowds of people, screaming about how bad government is," and instead of joining those ideological mouthpieces, he answers "that people should know what they're screaming about".

I've met a few dozen people who said they were inspired to get involved in politics because of The West Wing. If this new show fares as well as I think it will, there will be thousands of young people entering J-school programs around the country and citing it as one of the reasons why within a couple years. Hopefully they'll bring a bit of Will McAvoy with them.