Aaron Sorkin’s Millennial Problem in ‘The Newsroom’

The Newsroom begins less like a television drama and more like the thesis statement of a research paper. Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), yet another alpha male in the patrilineage of Aaron Sorkin’s oeuvre, sits disinterestedly between two bickering talking heads at a journalism summit at Northwestern University. One of the talking heads, a man, spouts libertarian clichés about the necessity of freedom (read: “Stay out of my pocket, the government”). The other, a woman, counters his “I built it” rhetoric with the type of weak communitarianism espoused by the likes of late-night talk show hosts like Jon Stewart: “We all pay for roads, schools, and defense.”

This banter goes nowhere, of course. Will knew it would go nowhere before he even set foot in the auditorium. To calm the left-right flux of the non-debate, he tosses out some banal quips about the New York Jets. As a popular primetime news anchor who achieved his popularity by not pushing any buttons or stating any of his personal opinions, he keeps the ratings in mind as he avoids jumping into the arena. But then, something happens.

A young woman, a sophomore at Northwestern, asks the three on the stage, “Can you say in one sentence why America is the greatest country in the world?” After two generic answers from the two equally generic talking heads, Will shrugs off the question. Nothing else would have happened, and the events of The Newsroom would have been a lot less interesting, had the moderator of the discussion not piped in. “I want a human moment,” he demands of Will. Then, as the tension begins to rise in the room, Will explodes.

“It’s not the greatest country, that’s my answer,” Will says.

After shocking the audience with his answer, he launches into a classic Sorkin speech, comprised of equal parts Wikipedia fact-listing and golden age nostalgia. He calls the audience of Millennials “the worst period generation period ever period” and then bemoans the lack of Cronkites and Murrows on the air. His initially fiery oration concludes with a sentimental, almost teary lamentation of the state of American journalism.

It’s a rousing string of sentences, delivered in Sorkin’s typically verbose candor, but it does not at all feel like something anyone, even a newsman with the repute Will has, would be able to recite off-the-cuff. By the time the first season of The Newsroom has reached its conclusion, however, it has become clear that these are not ordinary people, and that this program is not an ordinary TV drama. No, The Newsroom is an argument delivered through the form of a story, and it argues that modern journalism and the Millennials that occupy it have come close to irrevocably maligning public discourse. The media has failed in its moral obligation to nurture a “well-informed electorate,” one of Sorkin’s favorite buzzwords.

In the void left by this supposed swarm of (mis)information, Will steps in. With his ex-flame McKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) as his new executive producer, backed by the boozy cantankerousness of News Division head Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston, easily the show’s ace in the hole) his broadcast, News Night, will no longer bow to ratings; it will seek out the facts of the case, and nothing else. Thus is born News Night 2.0, which season one of The Newsroom documents exhaustively.

Sorkin has tried this type of argument before. With his hyped-then-failed 2006 dramedy Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a “behind the scenes” look at a Saturday Night Live-type comedy revue, he put social and political debates into the mouths of comedians who made their livings off of Nicolas Cage impressions and To Catch a Predator parodies. That the central conceit behind both Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom is one and the same suggests that Sorkin is a little more than unhappy about the former’s one-season tenure. Since one of the main criticisms of the show had to do with the unbelievable quality of the dialogue (e.g., “Why don’t these people stop debating politics and start writing better jokes?”), Sorkin’s switch to the world of cable news is a fitting one to re-orient his nostalgic experiment. Feverish discussions about topics like the debt ceiling are a lot more credible when they come from the mouths of characters like economic reporter Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn), who has not one but two PhDs in economics. Sorkin himself seems to be aware of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’s follies: at one point, when News Night stages a mock Republican National Convention debate, Will assures the RNC staffer, “There are no impressions… this isn’t an Saturday Night Live sketch.” Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is a much better show than it is often given credit for (See “TV Networks Have a Knack for Axing Real Gems”, PopMatters, 1 November 2012) — its pilot is one of the best of the last decade—but for whatever successes it might have had in its short run, the taste its cancellation left in Sorkin’s mouth must have been a little more than bitter.

The ghosts of that late night comedy stage can be seen cavorting around the set of News Night in nearly every episode. These programs are not just coincidentally meta-commentaries about the state of television programming. The pilot episodes of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom, both in plot and in characterization, are nearly identical. A grandiloquent speech opens each episode, followed by a sea change that completely upends how the respective shows in question were done. Ex-lovers are forced to be reunited under that common goal.

From this, it’s quite plain to see that The Newsroom isn’t just Sorkin’s follow-up to Studio 60 on Sunset Strip; it’s his attempt to make up for lost time. With the resources of a top-notch cast and a big-ticket network (that renewed the program before it even rounded out its first season), he was given all the means necessary to succeed where Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip slumped. Now, with the complete first season out on an expansive, lavishly packaged Blu-Ray box set, one can take in The Newsroom’s argument as a cohesive whole. The result is exactly what one would expect from Sorkin—though it’s definitely the case that he’s a lot more vocal this time around. To use the words of one of Sorkin’s writing heroes, Paddy Chayefsky, he’s “mad as hell”, and he isn’t taking anything anymore.

To get the obvious out of the way first: all the things about Sorkin that annoy people, now famously compiled into the above YouTube supercut, are still present. The dialogue is inordinately articulate and fast-paced. Characters quote musicals and works of literatures at length, as if they had just gotten out of a graduate literary seminar and everything is fresh in their minds. (“Do you have a life philosophy that isn’t based off a musical?” McKenzie asks Will in the season finalé.) Everyone gets a monologue, or “sermon”, as Sorkin cynics would put it, at some point. And, perhaps most problematically, the world of News Night and its parent company Atlantis World Media (AWN) is a deeply male one. “We reached for the stars, acted like men,” Will opines in his opening salvo at Northwestern, “We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed… by great men, men who were revered.”

The core women of News Night—McKenzie, Sloan, and associate producer Maggie (Allison Pill)—aren’t left completely out to dry; they’re given their own impassioned speeches, and at times they even stand up to workplace sexism. (In one memorable exchange, after Charlie calls Sloan “girl” she retorts: “Don’t call me girl, sir!”) However, there’s a consistent undercurrent of complementarian notions of gender running throughout the program. Put mildly, it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test with flying colors.

What’s worse, however, is that the sexism here is given support by the other players in the show, the women included. Even when Will is at his most dickish, everyone around him defends him as having the best intentions, as in the case when he stops some innocuous small talk with a woman to paternalistically chastise her work a gossip columnist in the middle of a New Year’s Eve party. “I’m on a mission to civilize,” he says immediately following his uncivil actions. All eventually bows to the whims of Will’s moralistic crusade; in one particularly cheesy-inspirational episode (“Amen”), a Rudy homage morphs into a near-idolatrous take on Will’s quest to “civilize the news.”

And what a quest it is. Those put off by Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip‘s preachy moments will be unlikely to find comfort in the confines of The Newsroom, which is undoubtedly the most polemical of Sorkin’s works. Rather than going for the moral ambiguity that made the brilliant script for The Social Network so compelling, Sorkin goes straight for the gut-punches, not caring about balance for balance’s sake—never minding the fact that one of the cornerstones of News Night 2.0 involves “exposing viewers to informed viewpoints” that differ from Will’s.

One of the crucial facets of The Newsroom is its setting in the recent past; though the show premiered in 2012, the stories dealt with in the first season range from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the Koch brothers’ leveraging over the Tea Party. “I realized I could set the show in the recent past. My big worry,” Sorkin confessed to NPR, “was making up the news—writing fictional news—because it was just going to take us too far away from reality.” Legitimate though that justification may be, going back and combing through news stories also gives Sorkin the benefit of editorializing American politics in a very specific way. This timeframe allowed Sorkin to develop the distinct argumentative voice of The Newsroom. It’s a voice those familiar with the opinionated writer’s body of work are well acquainted with by now.

All of News Night’s stories are handled with the earnestness of a liberal activist, which remains consistent throughout the series, despite Will’s attempts to ensure the audience he is Republican—or, at least, a registered one. If RINO (“Republican in Name Only”) doesn’t serve as a good tag, then “Condescending Moderate” certainly does. The program’s political orientation is perhaps best captured in Will’s backhanded declaration of allegiance to the Republican party: “I only seem liberal because I believe that hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage.” (Will’s pro-science sentiments notwithstanding, hurricanes are caused primarily by low, not high, pressure zones.)

The hand is tipped straight from Will’s speech at Northwestern, where his main complaint about liberals has little to do with their ideology: “You know why people don’t like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so fuckin’ smart, how come they lose so god-damn always?” Far from a defense of conservatism, his words instead sound like a defeated fan watching his favorite prizefighter getting bludgeoned in the corner of the ring. He’s afraid to root for what he truly supports. (In an interesting recent development, Sorkin has hired a group of “conservative consultants” to increase the amount of views in the writer’s room, though it’s unclear that will do much to make Will seem more conservative.)

The cast and crew of News Night, of course, have an answer to this. Nuance is one of The Newsroom’s many obsessions, and it’s the primary way the characters defend themselves from being pigeonholed as Olbermann-lite. Will’s lambasting of the Tea Party—the main target of News Night in this first season—isn’t a liberal frontal assault, it’s merely a “moderate” conservative trying to reclaim his party back. In the episode “The Blackout, Part 1”, Maggie defends a gag question aimed at Michelle Bachmann, who claimed that God told her to run for president, by arguing that she is standing up for Christians that are being co-opted by fundamentalist politicians. Yet by making the show’s primary criticisms acts of supposed party insiders, there’s little ground for these characters to stand on.

This isn’t to say anyone has to come right out and declare a party affiliation; there are plenty of good points made by Will and his cohorts, points that anyone on the left-right spectrum could come to agreement on. Issues of racism in voter fraud laws, hyperbolic claims about President Obama’s stance on gun control, and the increasing role of money in politics are issues where left and right can and should come together. However, the way these characters both hint at and simultaneously dance around party labels makes it unclear exactly what type of change they want to mobilize. Will’s repeated insistences that he is a registered Republican, which by season’s end remains nothing other than nominalistic, is really just a means to pre-empt political criticisms of The Newsroom. Political views shouldn’t immediately require a character be stereotyped, but Sorkin writes his characters as if they’re living their lives always on the ready to defend their affiliations and dispel misconceptions thereof. At least the two talking heads at Northwestern, moronic though their dialogue was, weren’t afraid to call themselves what they were.

The only clear first philosophy that News Night commits to is a vague notion of “the facts”. “I don’t believe the truth always lies in the middle,” Sorkin told New York magazine. “I don’t believe there are two sides to every argument. I think the facts are the center. And watching the news abandon the facts in favor of ‘fairness’ is what’s troubling to me.” This is at first a strange premise for him to pursue, considering that the impetus for Will’s speech at Northwestern was the left-right biases of the media, not some adherence to fairness as a journalistic standard. And, as Will rightly points out in one episode, people don’t just choose the channels they watch; they choose the facts they want to hear. Genuine and emphatic though Will may be in his goals, he chooses the facts he wants to chase all the same. Save for one sobering moment in the season highlight “Bullies”, there aren’t a whole lot of moments where Will’s political arguments are critiqued. Yet even pushing all of that that aside, this moralizing gets at the irony of News Night 2.0’s “mission to civilize”.

Despite the left-leaning quality of Will’s civility crusade, at its core The Newsroom is a deeply conservative program. For all of the liberal views the program espouses, its “reclaiming the fourth estate” premise is rooted in a moral dogmatism that is not dissimilar in rhetoric and in practice to the Tea Party it so rails against. In the roundtable interview included in the first season Blu-Ray’s bonus features, Sorkin describes the show’s mood as “idealistic”, “romantic”, and rather bizarrely, “swashbuckling”. These labels aren’t inaccurate, though they euphemise the staunch ideological thrust that drives Will, McKenzie, and Charlie to make News Night 2.0. Based on the names that are dropped and the legacies that are celebrated, Will and his league of devotees want something like a return to the ’60s, when the news was dominated by monopolistic voices.

Walter Cronkite on The Newsroom opening credits

As Garrett Graff, the editor of The Washingtonian points out in the panel, “Millennials, Technology & Democracy: A Conversation with Garret M. Graff”, when Walter Cronkite would cap off his broadcasts with the line, “And that’s the way it was,” he wasn’t just being pithy. Because of his dominance of the broadcast airwaves, when Cronkite said something was a particular way, it in effect was that way.

All it takes is one viewing of The Newsroom’s self-indulgent title sequence, which opens with old footage of Cronkite and Murrow and then segues to the cast of News Night, to see that Sorkin is honestly convinced that Will McAvoy is reclaiming the lost moral prerogative of those storied newsmen. Never mind all the advances journalism has made, spanning the ability to market and report across multiple platforms, the increasing role of women and minority journalists, and the creation of incredible technological resources like the BBC World Service; in Sorkin’s (and thereby Will’s) mind, all it takes is one man. There are people behind the scenes who have to help this mythic male deliver the news, but when it comes to relaying that information, what the public really needs is a Don Quixote, a larger-than-life figure that tells it “the way it is”.

This patriarchal standard is troubling for a numerous reasons, but the most problematic of its implications is the anti-Millennial streak that runs throughout the entirety of The Newsroom’s first season. No one takes the brunt of Sorkin’s fiery criticisms more than Neal Sampat (Dev Patel, sorely underutilized here), a character where Will’s lambasting of the “worst period generation period ever period” finds its most obvious manifestation.

Dev Patel as Neal

In the pilot, Will barely remembers who Neal is; he dismissively calls him “Punjab” and mistakes him for his IT guy—casual racism that’s passed off as forgetfulness or negligence by everyone else. Neal writes Will’s blog, which befuddles the barely-aged newscaster: “Seriously, I have a blog?” he interjects in a later moment of the episode. Whenever there is a problem relating to either technology or the younger generation, Neal is the go-to guy. But even though he gets to be a hero in one episode, “Amen”, where he helps set up a link with an on-the-ground reporter in Egypt following the protests in Tahrir Square, Sorkin primarily uses him to create a straw man of the Millennial generation.

Aside from Neal’s help in the reporting of the Arab Spring, he is seen trying to push for two other stories: the reality of Bigfoot (yes, for real) and the role of internet “trolls”, a name given to people who start flame wars on message boards to provoke heated reactions. The former is nothing more than a very unfunny comic trifle that Will eventually agrees to look into, albeit patronizingly: “I think I need some consulting on what’s real and what’s not,” he tells Neal, whose passion for the story is never explained.

The latter, however, finds Sorkin’s vision at its most out-of-touch; if the audience is to believe what is depicted onscreen, there are secret “troll networks” and chatrooms where trolls get together and compare each other’s trolls like people ranking baseball statistics. The construction of trolling presented by Neal is that there is some insidious “troll conspiracy” threatening to upend the internet, one that expands beyond the endless threads of 4chan and Reddit.

Even if this ridiculous characterization was correct on some level, it’s incredibly unclear how the story meets the standards set by Will and McKenzie for News Night 2.0. All Neal does to “research” how these trolls supposedly operate is make some incendiary comments about Sloan on an economics website. In Sorkin’s mind, the younger generation—the same type of people who make up a considerable bloc of News Night’s staff—aren’t able to get a full grasp on “the way it is”. They are perpetually caught up in the non-stories of the internet and the celebrity gossip therein. McKenzie does give a green light to Neal’s troll story, but as the season wraps up it, unsurprisingly, goes nowhere—that it is even called a “story” is evidence of Sorkin’s disdain for the up-and-coming youth.

Will certainly does try his hand at making the tools of the 21st century better. Following a series of comments on News Night’s website, with names like “Lollypop Lollypop” at their helm, he has a revelation. “Can you imagine Walter Cronkite saying ‘Lollypop Lollypop’ as many times as I have in the last ten minutes?” Will asks Neal; in his mind, Neal “speaks their language”. His “genius” fix-up idea involves requiring all commenters to leave their name, location, occupation, and educational history. “I’m going to single-handedly fix the internet!” Will declares to the office.

This is a comic moment. There are, in fact, a great many comic moments in The Newsroom’s first season. Preachy and moralistic though Sorkin may be, his grasp on screwball comedy and physical humor is still present, and despite this program’s many weaknesses, getting through the first season isn’t difficult to do. The performances are all perfectly attuned to the rhythms of Sorkin’s language.

The main story arc of the first season, which involves AWN CEO Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda) using AWN’s own tabloid to oust Will following his new confrontational attitude, is staged with the theatrical precision that Sorkin is renowned for. That storyline is also the key instance where a perfect balance is struck between the personal and the political, a balance that typically teeters to the latter for the duration of the season. But even in these compelling moments, an anti-generational bitterness lurks not far behind. Being young in the world of The Newsroom means being subjected to lessons from the old school on a daily basis.

Undoubtedly, great art should confront cultural problems and present corresponding solutions. There does not exist a work of art that does not come out of a political context. This does not mean, however, that weaponized storytelling, the decided method of Sorkin in constructing The Newsroom, is the necessary means of doing so. The best television programs of the past decade—The Wire, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos, just to give the big names—said and continue to say myriad things about capitalism, poverty, and the state of America in the present day. The key to their success comes in not bludgeoning viewer over the head, telling her she is wrong and part of the “worst period generation period ever period”, and then “correcting” her with the words of a wizened Baby Boomer. The world Will McAvoy reigns in is one where inter-generational communication is but for naught.

The best course of action is to use the tools of modern innovation—forged in large part by Millennials, but let’s not think about that—to enhance the resurrected ghosts of 60s-era newsmen. Because for all that technology can provide, it all comes down to the guy sitting in the chair. For a show as “idealistic” as The Newsroom, it’s in its brand of generational cynicism where its true colors are revealed.