HBO’s been trying to sell The Newsroom to audiences on the strength of its opening scene, when Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a bland and personable cable news anchor trapped in his own private hell somewhere between a shout-y liberal and a conservative, snaps and delivers a rant about American greatness—which he immediately blames on vertigo medication. This isn’t the first Sorkin show to have its action kicked off by a rant—Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip began with a sketch show executive producer having a public breakdown—but what most people see as temporary YouTube phenomena, Sorkin sees as an opportunity for a national conversation.
The subject of that conversation, and key to that lost American greatness, we are told in the first episode of The Newsroom, is helping Americans overcome their fear of intellect, and some responsibility for their improvement lies in cable news. I know Aaron Sorkin can write a barn-burner of a monologue, but going into The Newsroom, I was curious to see what comes after McAvoy’s meltdown. If Aaron Sorkin is going to argue that the key to America’s salvation is in fact better, invigorated cable news programming, and a return to commonly accepted facts, it seems like he’d place great value on news reporting.
But in this first hour of the The Newsroom, Sorkin’s view of what it takes to do great reporting is . . . puzzling. The staff of Will’s show figures out earlier than anyone else that Deepwater Horizon will be a major environmental catastrophe because Neal (Dev Patel), whom Will has earlier identified as “the Indian stereotype of an IT guy” proves to have exceedingly useful insights into the workings of offshore drilling rigs. He gained this knowledge, possessed by no one else on any staff of any publication in all the land, because, my hand to God, he “built a volcano in primary school.” Executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), at one extreme on her regular pendulum swings between tough, smart producer and flaky, romance-obsessed girl, declares she didn’t know you were actually supposed to learn anything from mucking about with paper-mache and baking soda.
I wish I were joking, but the rest of the staff’s reporting proceeds with similarly magical ease. Jim, possessed of the world’s most coincidental personal connections, turns out to have a college schoolmate working at BP (who makes time to give Jim a ring in the midst of a massive disaster) and a sister who works at Halliburton. “She’s got a PhD in mechanical engineering and she voted for McCain,” Jim explains, in one of the show’s strained attempts to prove that moderate Republicans are something other than unicorns. Will is disbelieving that Jim’s luck could be so good, not just in knowing these people, but in convincing them to flip on their employers and possibly end their careers.
But instead of validating that suspicion, or showing Jim working to convince his sources to go public, The Newsroom cuts away as soon as anyone on staff has a source on the phone. The show is supremely uninterested in the actual and lengthy processes of source development and research. Maybe it’s a tactic to keep the focus on Sorkin’s fast-talking, fact-spewing sock puppets, or to make sure the show whips through a story from the near-past each week, but it lends an airless quality to the proceedings. Everything we need to know, apparently, is already here in this glass and chrome box. This weirdly antiseptic view of journalism turns reporters into brisk bureaucrats, rather than endlessly curious people reaching outside their own experience. It’s not like this process can’t be made fascinating—the BBC miniseries State of Play made the reporting of a single story a thrilling six hours of television. But it’s not a vision that The Newsroom shares.
If there’s a naivete to The Newsroom in its pilot, it’s not coming from the belief that the news would be better if the staffs of cable news shows cared to make it so. It’s coming from the idea that caring is enough to make people admit their misdeeds and tear down walls of government secrecy. In one of the episode’s most credulous sequences, the Minerals Management Service, which was responsible for inspecting rigs like Deepwater Horizon, immediately agrees to have a representative be interviewed on-air by McAvoy just hours after the disaster, and at the request of Maggie, McAvoy’s newly-promoted assistant.
In 2010, the people who broke the news that MMS had failed to inspect Deepwater Horizon as often and as rigorously as their internal standards required were reporters for the Associated Press. In the story in which they broke that disturbing news, the AP writers noted “In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by AP, the agency has released copies of only three inspection reports, from Feb. 17, March 3 and April 1. According to the documents, inspectors spent two hours or less each time they visited the massive rig. Some information appeared to be ‘whited out,’ without explanation.” The challenge in reporting the truth of Deepwater Horizon wasn’t that no one cared or no one asked how a reckless pursuit of profit and lax oversight caused a disaster. It’s that powerful interests in both the government and the private sector were uninterested in releasing information critical to understanding the disaster and had tools at their disposal to delay providing it to reporters. The Newsroom is plucking the lowest-hanging, juiciest fruit on the vine in sequences like these, oddly unaware that there are bigger targets.
That misdiagnosis of the problem continues when Will gets the Minerals Management Service representative on the phone. Will executes a merciless, snarky pummeling on the guy, full of suggestions for the drastically underfunded agency like, “Would an easy solution be to have oil companies pay for the inspections, like car owners do?” But when it turns out the guy is a trainee four months into his training (something it seems Maggie might have asked about, or at least Googled), Will doesn’t try to draw out what it’s like to be doing inspections you’re unprepared for, or focus attention on a Congressional budget that’s bled dry what turned out to be a critical agency. No, he’s pleased to have delivered a drubbing, no matter that he’s thumped the whipping boy rather the people with actual responsibility and power.
These may sound like quibbles. But Sorkin told New York Magazine recently that having his characters revisit events we’ve already experienced “gives me the chance to have the characters be smarter than we were.” The fact that they face essentially no challenges, that they do by magic and luck what in real life took hard work, sacrifices the potential drama of the episode. It would be much more fun to see this young team of reporters face actual obstacles to getting the information they need, to feel doubt about whether they’ll wrest it from agencies and corporations, and to see them both succeed and fail. Sorkin’s essential uninterest in this process shows how limited his ambition is: he thinks it’s the style in which information is delivered that’s the problem, not the difficulties in tracking it down and the available manpower to do it.
The Newsroom doesn’t have a sense of how journalism works, and its characters aren’t exactly consistent in their approaches, either. The Newsroom tells us that Don (Thomas Sadoski), Will’s old executive producer, previously had a vicious blowout with Will after Don pushed him to be more aggressive in an interview with Gen. Stanley McChrystal. But when Deepwater Horizon starts burning, suddenly Don’s a coward. “You’re going to do an environmental story and you don’t want to at least wait until there’s a picture of an oil-covered pelican?” he asks.
On Will’s first day back, when presumably he’d like to present a respectable night of programming, he and MacKenzie, who apparently love the news, quote Cervantes and speechify at each other while their younger colleagues do the work the bickering senior reporters will later get credit for. Perhaps the most telling thing about the pilot of The Newsroom is how long it takes for Will and MacKenzie’s colleagues take to let them know that a major story is breaking—and the fact that the two journalists are too infatuated with each other to be curious about what’s going on outside Will’s office. Maybe now that MacKenzie and Will have worked out a fragile truce, they’ll start breaking stories themselves.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for ThinkProgress.org. She is a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com and The Loop 21. Alyssa grew up in Massachusetts and holds a BA in humanities from Yale University. Before joining ThinkProgress, she was editor of Washingtonian.com and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in Esquire.com, The Daily, The American Prospect, The New Republic, National Journal, and The Daily Beast.