Reviews of Aaron Sorkin's new HBO show The Newsroom have so far been mixed. But are journalists the fairest judges for this TV show?
Since before The Newsroom aired on HBO last Sunday night, nearly every critic has found something negative to say about writer Aaron Sorkin's new show. While this is inevitable - Sorkin's wordy, hyper-intellectual, sometimes elitist style is polarizing - The Newsroom has been a lightning rod for nitpicks and skepticism this week, even from critics who are fans of his work. One reason? Its premise trespasses on the reviewers' turf.
Perhaps it could be called the “inside baseball bias” (or maybe there's a real name for it). It’s the criticisms of Sorkin that originate from the fact that the reviewer, usually a magazine or newspaper writer who has years of experience in many real newsrooms, intimately knows (and certainly has long developed personal opinions about) how the news business really works.
Some critics have spoken with a particular bias from within the news world. Jake Tapper, ABC News correspondent, writing for The New Republic, earnestly defends the principled world of TV news, while criticizing the fictional NewsNight’s editorial choices and reminding readers several times that Sorkin “isn’t much of an expert on the subject.” From a different angle, Maureen Ryan, TV critic for the Huffington Post, takes issue among other things in her negative review with the gravity Sorkin gives TV news outlets over newer online media (of which the Huffington Post is, of course, the prime example):
The funniest thing about The Newsroom is that it takes as a given that people care a great deal about what one news anchor says on his show... Sorkin still doesn’t get that people sample the news all day through any number of sources and that news anchors and their shows, frankly, don’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things.
Many critiques are not as completely negative. Some reviewers are clearly fans of Sorkin's previous work, like The West Wing. That show’s progressive idealist, funhouse-mirror premise is similar to Sorkin’s Newsroom, which dramatizes how past news events like the BP Oil disaster “should” have been reported in the way The West Wing (liberally) fantasized about how the White House “should” have been run.
But even fans like Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker (who calls The West Wing “Sorkin’s helpful counterprogramming to the Bush Administration”) can’t suspend their disbelief the way they did before and enter Sorkin's fictive, prescriptive universe:
[The premise] sounds like an innovative concept, but it turns the characters into back-seat drivers, telling us how the news should have been delivered… But [protagonist Will McAvoy] also seizes credit for “breaking stories” — like the political shenanigans of the Koch brothers — that were broken by actual journalists, all of them working in print or online.
...Sorkin isn’t really interested in unspooling how journalism functions, the way he was in how Martin Sheen wielded political power. The bustle of the newsroom is a mere backdrop for self-involved characters to give talky speeches and taunt each other. In fact, the smart-ass speeches go on and on and on, the actors seemingly in love with the sound of their voices.
Never minding the question of how much political power actor Martin Sheen actually yielded, Kurtz voices another common complaint: that The Newsroom is too preachy, too partisan and general in its criticism, with characters too often breaking into "non-sequitur monologues" (as the New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley put it) about what's wrong with journalism. Emily Nussbaum again:
In The Newsroom, clever people take turns admiring one another. They sing arias of facts. They aim to remake television news: “This is a new show, and there are new rules,” a maverick executive producer announces, several times, in several ways. Their outrage is so inflamed that it amounts to a form of moral eczema—only it makes the viewer itch.
Lofty, unrealistically “extemporaneous” monologues in the middle of a work day? Sounds like The West Wing, (and how realistic did that show’s executive office, its rooms noisy with ceaseless soliloquy, seem to insiders in that profession?) But this time, critics can't buy it because they’ve worked in that particular environment and (rightly) can't picture themselves or their colleagues speechifying in such high-minded ways during their coffee breaks.
Many issues people take with Sorkin’s work are valid, especially if you’re not a fan to begin with. His work is usually unapologetically liberal, his writing bombastic, his pacing hyper, and his creations often derivative (sometimes derivative even of Sorkin’s previous work). But he’s writing a show for HBO, intended first for his cult following and second, a general audience many of whom may be journalists or critics, but certainly not all. And ultimately The Newsroom is fictional entertainment, not an actual cable show, subject to the weight of journalistic responsibility.
Perhaps the critics, who are well acquainted with their newsrooms, were bound to be disappointed by Sorkin’s.