Sorkin's "Newsroom": Deep thoughts, shallow drama

Posted: July 14, 2012

What a shame that Nora Ephron is not around to critique The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin's new riff on media and politics in America. As a role model for working women, she would have surely assailed its depiction of female professionals as neurotics with the emotional intelligence of seventh graders.

In Nora's absence, allow me.

Back in the '90s and 2000s, Sorkin gave us The West Wing, a liberal fantasy about how America should be governed. His new series, on HBO, is a liberal fantasy about how the news should be covered.

Sorkin's world is populated by over-caffeinated brainiacs who packlotsofwonkyfactsintospeedyendlesssentencesthatsoundlikethis. I think it would be fun to speak Sorkinese. I could look out the window and note spontaneously, "That tree over there produces 260 pounds of oxygen per year which means that two mature trees supply enough annual oxygen to support a family of four!"

Those facts are true; I looked them up. But Sorkin's characters know that kind of stuff off the cuff. Wait, I should amend that: Sorkin's men know that stuff off the cuff. The women just freak out — mostly about their relationships with men.

MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), the female executive producer of the fictional cable show within the show, News Night, is supposed to be a former war correspondent who earned her spurs in the world's hot zones; in the words of anchorman Will (Jeff Daniels), she "has reported more real news in one day than I have in my career." But every time Will — who is also MacKenzie's ex-flame, natch — goes out on a date with a new woman, MacKenzie devolves into a jealous ditz. She wouldn't last a day with the girls in Clueless.

Then there's Maggie (Alison Pill), a former intern promoted to associate producer, who's good at looking up wonky facts when she's not having panic attacks or botching phone interviews, like the time — ohmyGod — she called the spokesman for the governor of Arizona? And it turned out she'd, like, gone out with him in college four times? And she didn't tell her supervisors about this conflict of interest? And she finally confessed the sordid tale at roughly 10 times the speed you're reading this sentence?

The sexism on the show is unfortunate, because it distracts us from the heavy stuff. Sorkin is clearly trying to Say Something here. He's trying to conjure a courageous cable news network that cares more about telling truths than racking up ratings.

He's also contending (correctly) that traditional journalistic objectivity — giving "both sides" equal time and weight — is often a cop out. One character quips that "if the Republicans introduced a bill saying the Earth was flat, the New York Times would lead the paper saying that Democrats and Republicans were ‘debating' the shape of the planet." The Newsroom gang doesn't believe in false balance. Charlie, who heads the news division, declares that he wants "news for the center. ... We don't pretend that certain facts are in dispute [just] to give the appearance of ‘fairness' to people who don't believe them. ‘Balance' is irrelevant to me. It doesn't have anything to do with truth, logic, or reality."

But there's a hitch. Sorkin, a Hollywood liberal, naturally believes that liberals have the facts on their side. In his view, false "balance" means giving equal weight to people who don't deserve it (tea-party activists, gun nuts, brainless beauty queens). For him, a newsman is channeling Truth when he treats conservatives as morons — which is what Will does when he condescendingly informs his tea-party guests that they are unwitting pawns of the billionaire Koch brothers.

This stuff is worth arguing about. But wait, here comes MacKenzie, who's so distracted by the office rumors about how her breakup with Will happened (he didn't cheat on her; she cheated on him) that she mistakenly e-mails the entire newsroom a message intended for only Will. (She dodged bullets in Iraq, but she's too ditzy to master e-mail.) This happened right after her meeting with a female economics reporter naturally devolved into verbal patty-cake about who cheated on whom. Isn't that what girls on the job really want to talk about?

Meanwhile, Maggie, the associate producer, keeps getting rescued by Jim (John Gallagher Jr.), the hunky new hire. When she has a panic attack, he takes her pulse and talks her down (per the manly procedure in "Army Field Manual FM2251," a tip he picked up in Iraq). When she confesses that she blew her shot at booking the Arizona governor because of her college relationship with the press aide, Jim covers for her.

The grand irony is that while Sorkin dreams of a courageous cable network that doesn't care about ratings, he's diluting his dramatic mission by serving up a middle-school soap opera — in his own bid for ratings.

"Why do you think I need protecting?" Maggie asks a guy. "You believe in the fantasy of a girl in distress?" Sorkin certainly does. That's why he wrote her that way.

Dick Polman can be reached at dickpolman7@gmail.com and found on Twitter at @dickpolman1.

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