This episode of The Newsroom was the closest the show’s ever come for me to doing what I think it wants to be doing: effectively interweaving accounts of principled reporting and the ethical dilemmas of journalism with snappy explorations of its characters’ personal lives. Unfortunately, it founders on the same shoals it always does: MacKenzie’s and idiot, and Will thinks it’s all about him. This week, the reasons we know that Atlantis, the company that owns News Night, is a Fictional News Paradise of Legend are that its gossipy morning show makes a real effort to teach its viewers about a substantive media conflict of interest, and that it took almost a year for one of more than 100,000 people who received a hugely embarrassing email about major figures in the organization to figure out that it might be of interest to media reporters. Not to mention that it’s truly hilarious to think that anyone wouldn’t have known Will and MacKenzie dated when they were together because journalists are notorious gossips, a quality you’d think would be catnip to Sorkin.
But no, the real problem here is the rift between the rest of the episode and Will’s defense of MacKenzie to Nina, a reporter, when he has been tipped off by Gary, the Smart Black Guy Who Isn’t Afraid to Criticize Obama, Validates Jim’s Seduction Techniques, and Also Has a Sideline in Bribery, that TMI takes payoff money from celebrities. “I hired the best EP in broadcasting in spite of her being my ex-girlfriend,” Will tells Nina, who he believes is going after him for sexually slighting her at New Year’s (never mind insulting her job), in angrily warning her to step away from his staff. But nothing in the show indicates that. In fact, everything we see indicates that MacKenzie is a disastrously ill-informed and naive woman.
She misses that her boyfriend Wade is using her to prep for a Congressional run, which would be a heartbreaking tale about a skeptical journalist letting down her guard and being disappointed if she didn’t know so little about everything else. She confesses to Sloan that her economics knowledge only extends as far as thinking “a lot of what’s going on in the world has to do with the economy,” and that her oversight of the economics statements she’s producing consists of the following: “I pretend to read what you give me, then I nod.” Her response to the news that the Army is filling the power void in Egypt? “The army’s not the good guys?” All of this might have been cute for Mary Richards back in the days when she was still ordering Brandy Alexanders during job interviews, but there’s something distasteful about Sorkin’s asking us to buy incompetence in the guise of dizzy adorability. Nina would be justified in investigating MacKenzie’s utter lack of qualifications even if there weren’t ethical lapses in her current performance or errors of judgment in her past.
This glaring contradiction is doubly unpleasant because it sullies the best job The Newsroom’s done so far at actually showing the challenges and pains of directing correspondents on the ground from a cable control room. The reason the coverage of Tahrir Square works is that Will and his team don’t magically discover a major scoop simply because they care about it more than anyone else, or avoid a major error because they’re so much more ethical than their competitors. The episode is, instead, largely about process and the dangers of reporting in a war zone.
First, Elliot and Don’s frustrations, which have been boiling since election night when Don urged Elliot to jump into the scrum of commentary, end up having real consequences. Elliot, who’s been confined to his hotel room giving useless broadcasts that add nothing to the network’s coverage of Egypt, hits the streets after Don’s pestering, and is badly beaten by the crowd. On his return, Don wants to put him on the air for reasons related both to public interest and his own interest. “We show what’s going on. Journalists are getting beaten up,” he urges Charlie, Will, and MacKenzie. “I know that we’re not the story. But Jesus, goddamnit, nobody else is going to know . . . In the media, we’re all effete, elitist assholes.” In a show that’s all about trying to paint a journalist as hero, this is the first moment that’s effectively captured the anxieties of reporters about their standing in the wider world, and the risk and guilt that accompany those times when journalists are recognized by the broader public for their personal accomplishments.
And the show navigates a more difficult set of emotions skillfully, too. “I sent him down there. I bullied him into going out into the street and they beat him up with a rock,” Don confesses to Will. “I know. Everybody knows,” Will tells him, before getting at the petty kind of thinking that can plague journalistic accomplishment. “We’re all jealous it isn’t us with the bruises on our face. You didn’t give him an order. You gave him permission.” That kind of emotion, or the self-congratulatory sequence after the show when the News Night team managed not to disastrously screw up their reporting on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting, are interesting, ambiguous places to be, the actual baseline people like Will and his staff are trying to rise above. It’s not really gossip columnists and media reporters who make up the Pit from which decent newsmen must rise. Instead, it’s their own venality.
But The Newsroom, sadly, can’t linger there, in that rich and ambiguous place. No, it has to end with a recreation of Rudy. After an Egyptian stringer is taken prisoner, so upsetting the News Night staff that they repeatedly injure themselves and corporate refuses to ransom the young man, Will insists on paying for his rescue. Because the self-injuries have to be seen to be believed, watch below:
This all might have been more effective had Will not already tried to bribe Evil Nina, and in a prior episode, privately paid for the cab rides of an undocumented immigrant so the man could get to his job. And it might have worked even better if it was a subsequent attempt to create a complicity between Neal and Will, who ridicules Neal’s internet abilities and obsessions much of the time, but who does seem to respect the younger man’s skills and passion. But no, it has to be about how the whole staff does their bit to pay Will, who makes $3 million a year, for his act of generosity, and then celebrates him publicly.
It’s amazing that a man, and the show that celebrates him, can recognize any news when they spot it, given how much time Will and The Newsroom spend in a self-regarding set of funhouse mirrors that seem to reflect only the most flattering version of Will back to him.
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.