I wanted to add some thoughts to inuyesta’s post about The Newsroom the other day. I’ve now watched two episodes and I am pretty much all-in. Like inuyesta I can’t claim to be a completely impartial observer as I also am a huge fan of The West Wing.
In his post, inuyesta was puzzled at the intense negative reaction that the show garnered from many in the news industry. I agree with him that there are legitimate criticisms about the show. We’ve already seen some of the Sorkinisms that some people find tiresome, but for people like me, it’s like catching up with an old friend. (Or meeting a new friend who reminds you of an old friend who died a horrible tragic death. Maybe this isn’t the best analogy.)
inuyesta suggested that perhaps this negative reaction was due to a certain jaded reaction to the earnestness of Sorkin’s writing. Or that Sorkin is seen as being smug and sanctimonious. Sorkin himself is quick to point out that he has never worked in the cable news business. He also says that he considers The Newsroom as a “valentine” to the news business. He is deliberately romanticizing and lionizing what he sees as the best parts of telejournalism.
I think the reason that the show has inspired such a negative reaction from Washington journalists is because by celebrating the best parts of journalism, Sorkin is shining a light on the widespread hackery that has come to dominate cable news. You could see this being played out in the second episode of the show when the new executive producer pitches her new idea of how to cover the news to the show’s staff. Mackenzie posts three questions on a whiteboard that the staff should ask themselves as they prepare stories for the show. But the fourth question is, “Are there really two sides to this story?” As an example of how this question might be asked, Will suggested that if House Republicans voted that the Earth was flat, the news media would report that Republicans and Democrats disagree on shape of earth. Some Disagree!
It’s really no huge Freudian mystery why cable news talking heads and newspaper reporters would find this kind of an attitude sanctimonious and preachy. Apparently, they may have just enough awareness to be a little embarrassed about their own hackery and the self preservation skills to attempt to kill the messenger.
There was a rumor about The Newsroom that Sorkin had based his character of Will McAvoy on Keith Olbermann. Sorkin denies it. I think it is much more likely that he based McAvoy and McHale (note to Sorkin: way too many Mc’s and Mac’s) on Rachel Maddow and her producer Bill Wolff, with the exception being that the idealistic woman is on camera instead of the veteran executive producer. Rolling Stone has a great profile of Maddow in their latest issue that you should read. In it, Maddow recounts her first speech she gave to her new staff.
The Sunday night before her first show, her executive producer, Bill Wolff, threw a launch party at his apartment and invited the entire Verdict staff. When everyone was sufficiently liquored up, Maddow gave a speech. “The point was to get everyone excited,” Wolff recalls. “‘OK, go get ’em, let’s go do this.'” What Maddow told them, instead, was that they needed to forget everything they had ever learned – that this show would be completely different from the one they’d been working on, that they must forget all of the skills they’d spent their careers building.
“That is crystallized in my memory,” says Susan Mikula, Maddow’s partner of 13 years, who attended the party. “Everyone was pale. It could not have been more of a bummer. Or more quiet.”
Does that sound familiar? The piece details how Maddow set out to do things completely differently than what cable news had been to that point. Her show is very much a rejection of the “false balance” that pervades so much of cable news, and is exactly what Mackenzie McHale attempted to outline in her first staff meeting on The Newsroom.
I tend to avoid rules of thumb, because they often oversimplify complex issues, but a good one might be that if the likes of Mark Halperin and Jake Tapper and Cokie Roberts and other cable news talking heads think something is too preachy or earnest, then it’s probably something worthwhile.