People don’t like being talked down to. Case in point: when Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom debuted a few weeks ago on HBO, viewers and critics alike criticized it for its condescending tone and dismissive attitude towards alternative viewpoints. Some went as far as to suggest that it was actually a deeply cynical show, one that thought little of the American public’s intelligence. I admit to being taken in by that line of thought initially, but over the past couple of weeks I reconsidered my assessment of the show. Consequently, I’ve come to the conclusion that The Newsroom can be condescending, albeit intentionally so, and that’s the key to understanding what the series is trying to accomplish.
Much has been made of The Newsroom’s recent-past setting, which the show uses to provide commentary on events that happened not more than a couple of years ago. Detractors say that the show uses this setting for a kind of patronizing historical revisionism, where, with the benefit of hindsight, Sorkin demonstrates how the news “should” have been delivered. I’m not going to argue that point, because, to be frank, I agree with it. But I don’t think detractors are looking beyond the messages’ condescending tone to figure out why Sorkin chose to deliver those messages condescendingly.
See, The Newsroom was never really supposed to be about the “message.” Sure, it has been a platform for Sorkin to broadcast his liberal views to HBO’s viewership, but that’s a secondary concern of the show; the past couple of episodes have barely focused on Sorkin’s political agenda. If The Newsroom were really about tackling a different sociopolitical issue each week, it would better off as a procedural, or heck, even a news magazine or a weekly column. What The Newsroom was always about was the making of broadcast/cable news and the difficulties it involves. Indeed, much of the show concentrates on the perils of chasing ratings in an era of corporatism and how that can influence the content of a news show (an area where the show shines). One of the other difficulties, however, is the tone of the broadcast.
In the fourth episode of the series, “I’ll Try to Fix You,” Will McAvoy continually tries to convince women that gossip columns are repugnant, and he inevitably gets drinks thrown in his face as a result. Of course, Will’s message is “correct,” at least in Sorkin’s version of the universe, but his tone is wrong, hence the drinks in the face. Blinded by his hubris, Will believes that he can deliver sermons to potential romantic partners in order to change their points of view. The show makes a point of demonstrating that Will’s approach to the situation his wrong, even if his attitude towards gossip columns is “right.” Episode six, “Bullies,” takes this idea further by showing how Will’s condescending interview techniques can actually dehumanize the very people he’s trying to defend.
These moments would have no potency if the show-within-a-show’s prior broadcasts hadn’t been marked by arrogance. In that case, the show would be shifting Will’s personality on an episode-by-episode basis to fit each installment’s plot. He wasn’t introduced with much humility; it’s something he needs to learn. Moreover, if we never see Will using the lessons he learns in real life to improve his way of delivering the news, then we have to accept that News Night was created in its most ideal form, which would undermine the series’ exploration of the difficulties of making the news. Will – and by extension, the rest of the News Night team – is learning that “speaking truth to stupid” is not the best approach for delivering information to the show-within-a-show’s viewers.
I think the difficulty in interpreting The Newsroom this way comes from the belief that its characters are merely Sorkin mouthpieces, and to be fair, they’re thinly drawn. But they’re still characters that behave in a relatively consistent manner from episode to episode, and writers can create characters that hold a different set of ideals and values from themselves. As such, these characters can be viewed as people with a separate set of beliefs from Aaron Sorkin’s. Just because Neal believes Bigfoot exists doesn’t mean Sorkin does as well, and when Will McAvoy delivers the news, he’s doing it as Will McAvoy, not as Aaron Sorkin. Thus, Sorkin is capable of agreeing with Will’s message but disagreeing with the manner in which it is delivered.
Viewed in this light, the show’s flaws can be seen differently. Until the sixth episode, The Newsroom’s fictional news shows never really make any mistakes in the way they report the news. In the second episode, Maggie does lose an important interviewee for the show, but that’s due more to a heat-of-the-moment mistake than an incorrect belief about how to make and/or deliver the news. This undermines the notion that the show is about its characters learning how to make a great news show and the struggles they’ll encounter along the way. It’s true that in earlier episodes, News Night relies on luck and conveniently-placed sources to get the news “right,” which would seem to imply that the characters didn’t really earn their early victories. But these victories are played straight, with no undercurrent of irony to indicate that they were won not through honest efforts or the correct approach to doing the news, but by chance. The first three episodes contain no foreshadowing of the fact that Will’s hubris will cause problems for News Night and that The Newsroom views such hubris as the wrong approach to the news.
The Newsroom tried to play the long game, and it failed. It tried to demonstrate that condescension is not a good approach to delivering the news by showing that condescension in action, and in so doing, it allowed itself to become overwhelmed in its first few episodes by the very things it intended to criticize down the road. The failure was not the patronizing tone, but the inability to communicate to the audience that this tone was intentionally used to make a point. That doesn’t make The Newsroom more palatable, nor does it make it a better show. It doesn’t excuse the show’s boring romantic subplots, its idiotic plot lines about mass e-mails and Bigfoot, or its treatment of Maggie and Mackenzie. (I hesitate, though, to call this treatment “sexist,” because I’m not confident that the show’s treatment of two of its female characters is necessarily reflective of its attitude towards women as a whole.) However, it does mean that whatever value The Newsroom has lies not in the information it delivers about past events, but in its examination of how that information is delivered. As Marshall McLuhan once put it, “The medium is the message.” Or, in the case of The Newsroom, it might be more appropriate to flip that around: “The message is the medium.”