As much as I believe Aaron Sorkin is, to some extent, correct about the brokenness of our news system, as I’ve watched The Newsroom, I’m finding myself increasingly sympathetic with the people he’s angry at, the ones who knuckle under to commercial pressure and the terms of their contracts as Will McAvoy and the News Night team rise above them. I absolutely agree that established stars like McAvoy should use their power and influence to emphasize facts and to elevate worthy stories. But it turns out to have been pretty easy for MacKenzie and Jim to convince Will that he should be a different kind of newsman and to give him the words to help him do it. The person who’s going through an internal struggle that turns out to be compelling here, the one who doesn’t have Charlie standing as a barrier between him and pressure from Leona and Reese, and the one Sorkin wants me to hate, is Don, my new favorite character.
After Will’s epic on-air apology for falling down on the job, Don sits down to have a heart-to-heart with Jim, who has effectively replaced him. “I would have loved to be part of that. I could have done the show you guys want to do. I’m equipped for that,” he confesses. “You’ve got a mandate. Bring viewers to ten o’clock. I don’t . . . I have to cover Natalee Holloway. And you guys set me up to look like an asshole before I even got started.” Don is like Will, to a certain extent, a talented man who succumbed to the pressure to put on a show that was likable rather than substantive. But unlike Will, he’s relatively anonymous. He could be fired and Elliot’s show would keep ticking on without him. If Don is going to live in hopes of being able to make the kind of show that Jim and MacKenzie are making for Will, he has to keep his job. And that means kowtowing to a lot of unattractive people’s unattractive senses of what counts as news.
Jim doesn’t seem to understand that his mandate to do good news is a luxury, rather than something he just woke up and decided to do. He begins telling Don that he can just do a good show if he wants before they’re interrupted. Then, he mocks Don later, telling him “You guys did a good show tonight. I wasn’t aware of what was going on with the McRib sandwich.” I kind of don’t blame Don for telling Jim, “Yeah, go fuck yourself.”
And I’m not even sure Jim gets the message later when Maggie, in one of the few moments in The Newsroom where a woman gets to explain something to a man, tells Jim that Don’s failure has more complex roots than Jim acknowledges. “Don’s hands are tied,” Maggie says. “He got marching orders to get the ratings up at ten. And he’s driving a different car than McAvoy. Elliot’s smart, but he can’t do what McAvoy does. Plus, his salary’s tied to ratings.” That, not a studied, cowardly commitment to blandness for its own sake, is the reality of cable news—and the actual source of journalism’s problems.
Will can pontificate all he wants about the fact that the federal government didn’t insist that the networks provide several hours of ad-free news programming every night. But the reality is that it “failed to include in its deal the one requirement that would have changed our national discourse for the better.” And as gratifying as it would be to watch anchors and their producers get mad as hell and refuse to take it anymore, The Newsroom is a more interesting show when it actually explores what happens to people who buck their mandates and see what they can do within the limits of their contracts than it is when it focuses on Will’s ridicule of Tea Party activists and beauty queens.
We almost see an example of that kind of struggle during election night coverage, when Don tries to fire up Elliot, who’s doing his best not to influence the network’s analysis. “I am in there doing everything I can to get Mac to get him to go to you, and he is doing it,” Don grumbles to his boss. “He is inviting you to become a star. Would you stop being so fucking enthralled with the act of punching a ballot?” Instead of acknowledging that Don has a point, though, Elliot pulls rank on him. And instead of having the two men talk about Elliot’s brand, or Elliot’s desire to occupy the space Will left open with his conversion, the closest the writers give us is Elliot’s telling Don “Let me also say, I’m not the one who wants to be a star, Mama Rose.”— Sorkin has Elliot blame Don’s frustrations not on the quality of the news they’re putting out, but on Don’s romantic troubles. It’s a weird punt of what could have been a fascinating journalistic moment.
We do get some sense later that Will’s new approach may be in trouble, in the form of Atlantis CEO Leona (the allusion to Leona Helmsley cannot possibly be unintentional). “What happened to human interest stories?” she grouses at a meeting with Charlie, who thus far has protected Will from her wrath, and Reese, who we learn is her son. “Obesity, breast cancer, hurricanes, older women having babies, iPhones. He was great at that shit.” I don’t think Sorkin intended it this way, but her reminder to Charlie that “You don’t make money for stockholders, which I have a fiduciary responsibility to do” is a sharp puncturing of MacKenzie’s disdain for ratings, something Will warned Charlie about and that Charlie embraced.
Sorkin, and by extension MacKenzie, Charlie, and Will, may not like that news is a business, particularly not part of a large international conglomorate with interests that require Congressional approval and working relationships with major industrialists. But in the absence of an alternative model to pay Will’s staff and get him access to the airwaves, this is the environment he has to work in. Being obsessed with ratings, as Will was before MacKenzie got to him, may have been unattractive. But pretending that they don’t exist, or that Atlantis is a business rather than a non-profit, is to ignore that Leona’s interests and the show’s overlap. Leona has a duty to the shareholders to keep bringing in revenue, but she also needs her business to make money so she can keep paying out Will’s fat contract and the decidedly more meager salaries of his employees. And as we see in this clip, she’s thought through the business end of this proposition more thoroughly than Will, Charlie, and MacKenzie have:
In pursuing a new approach to news, Will’s been pretending the rules of the business don’t really apply to him. Neither he nor the show acknowledges that their revolution can’t possibly last if they don’t find a way for it to be financially sustainable. Now, in Leona’s parlance, he’s going to have to start playing golf, and find a way to make the machinery of the system work for him, and for the people who depend on him for their jobs.
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.