28 June 2012

The Newsroom

Aaron Sorkin is insufferable. I suspect this is due to how leftist television critics love hearing Sorkin preach to the benighted masses on their behalf via slickly-written, slightly overacted, overly self-serious television shows. At least that’s my theory based on watching the first episode of The Newsroom.
For what it’s worth, the characters are generally compelling, and it’s fun to watch the various leads interact with one another. However, the show is generally hindered by the dialogue’s preachiness and by the general vapidity of the underlying theme.

For whatever reason, Sorkin feels compelled to write preachy scripts, and this leads to several scenes where Will McAvoy (the male lead, played by the excellent Jeff Daniels) basically breaks the fourth wall and preaches directly to the shows presumed audience under the guise of having an exchange with another character. This gets annoying fast, especially if you disagree with the points being made. This appears to be a stylistic habit of Sorkin dramas, and people who like this sort of thing should find that, to quote Abraham Lincoln, they like this sort of thing. Beyond Sorkin’s annoying preaching, though, the more significant flaw of the show, for the time being, is that it is predicated on the utterly asinine assumption that news organizations are actually necessary for improving democratic discourse.

This assumption, of course, is flawed on several levels. As Sorkin implicitly admits during one scene, the news exists solely to sell advertising. In fact, virtually all entertainment is designed to do as such. This is even true, to a limited extent, of most newspapers and magazines. Neil Postman dealt with this matter quite neatly in his book How To Watch T.V. News. To put it briefly, news, like all other television shows, needs to sell ad space, and the easiest way to do this is to appeal to man’s baser instincts and shallow emotionalism, which generally means running certain types of stories—generally those that involve death or gore, and those that allow viewers to feel morally superior.

Also, it should go without saying that the news stories that are run on a daily basis are chosen by completely arbitrary means. Quite simply, there is no consistent metric used to determine which stories are relevant or will have long-term real-world consequences. People can guess, but they will often be wrong.

Furthermore, as Sorkin also implicitly admits during another one of The Newsrooms overwrought scenes, all reporters have bias. The theory, though, is that as long as reporters are upfront about their biases, everything will be okay and everyone and trust them again.

This, then, is the inherent flaw in the show’s premise: the news is not, and hasn’t ever been worthy of trust. Sorkin seems to think that if he presents an admittedly idealistic model of what television news can be, news media organizations will sit up and take note and follow this ideal to its natural end, whereupon all of America will be able to come together and discuss “national problems” (whatever they are) in a rational and reasonable manner and all will be peace and happiness. This summary of Sorkin’s idealism may be a bit of a stretch, but not by much.

Sorkin ultimately fails to understand that the problem is not that there are a few bad eggs that ruined the media’s reputation. The problem was that the modern news show was flawed from the get-go. It just was not until the rise of talk radio and the internet that people began to realize just how terrible TV news shows were. The idea that people need to know certain things (or, conversely, don’t need to know certain things) is simply arrogant. Furthermore, the idea that people can learn about all the important things that happened the world over in just an hour every day is absurd on its face. Between the biases and occasional dishonesty of reporters and the simple fact that humans simply cannot know every last detail of every last thing that will impact their lives on a daily basis, it should not be surprising that people sought alternative means of knowledge and, having found them, dismissed television news shows as worthless. To put it another way, the problem that the modern news organization faces is not that negative effects of a couple bad eggs; rather, the problem is systemic.

In the final analysis, The Newsroom fails thematically because it appeals to an ideal that has never existed, and cannot exist because the medium in which it based is simply too limited. Also, the dialogue is rather preachy at times, which tends to feel condescending. Still, it is nice to escape into a fantasy world, particularly one that feels a little utopic, especially since the characters are compelling. For the time being, The Newsroom seems worth watching, but not for it politics. Its politics are suited for four-year-olds who still naively believe that fairness can be attained in this life.

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