HBO’s “Newsroom” Puts Journalists on Defensive

by Randy Shaw on July 24, 2012

If you have not seen Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series “Newsroom,” you might be inclined to avoid it. New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum concluded that the show “treats the audience as though we were extremely stupid” and “is so naïve it’s cynical.” The Huffington Post observed “TV critics haven’t unanimously bashed a series like this since ABC’s ill-fated cross-dressing comedy “Work It,” and even its own Maureen Ryan described Newsroom as “getting almost everything wrong” and as “a dramatically inert, infuriating mess.” I’ve seen all five episodes of Newsroom, and it is the hostile critics, not Sorkin, who have gotten almost everything wrong. Newsroom is not perfect, but it is an oasis in the television desert. It is far and away the most progressive show on the airwaves, understandably drawing a backlash from professional journalists uncomfortable with Sorkin’s biting critiques of their tepid responses to right-wing lies.

Aaron Sorkin’s new show, Newsroom, creates a replica of CNN and replaces bland Anderson Cooper with Will McAvoy, a Keith Olbermann-like anchor played by Jeff Daniels. The show has the large cast of intersecting characters typical of Sorkin shows, and rotates from conflicts over news issues to underlying romantic subplots among the staff.

Although Newsroom continues to draw 2 million viewers a show, it has undergone a critical shellacking. This is no surprise; the Baltimore political establishment hated David Simon’s The Wire, so a show that pulls no punches in attacking the political cowardice of the mainstream media was not going to see a large welcome banner.

“Sorkin Thinks We Are Stupid”

What’s most illuminating about the critical response is the repeated perception that Newsroom talks down to viewers and thinks they are stupid. As the Huff Post’s Ryan puts it, viewers want more “subtle delights,” while Newsroom is “obvious and self-congratulatory,” and “manipulative and shrieky.”

What are the critics talking about? Perhaps it was the show that exposed Rush Limbaugh, the NRA and the Republican Party for lying about President Obama’s record on gun control—and which had the Newsroom anchor giving Obama a series of “F’ grades for failing to do anything opposed by the NRA (the grades came from the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence)

Or maybe it was Newsroom’s indictment of the media’s repeated turning to Sarah Palin as an authority figure on climate change. We are all so smart to know that she has no such authority, so Sorkin’s highlighting the continued airtime she gets to talk about the subject is “condescending.”

Newsroom also pulled the curtain back from behind the big-money interests that created the Tea Party. The Tea Party’s true origins were so “obvious” that the mainstream media promoted it as a legitimate, non-partisan grassroots movement for months—no wonder journalists are so defensive about Sorkin’s calling them to account for their lack of honest reporting.

The list goes on. Critical comments about Sorkin’s factually accurate challenges to mainstream media timidity recall attacks on feminists for being “shrieky” for demanding equal pay for equal work and an end to sex discrimination.

Media Fears “The Truth”

What also drives critics like Ryan crazy is Newsroom’s insistence that it delivers “truth” while other news divisions run from it. Yet this critique of today’s news industry as promoting pundit spin rather than facts is hardly unique, or even controversial.

For example, Cenk Uygur wrote in May that CNN should “stop doing ‘he said, she said’ crap that doesn’t actually deliver the news to anyone. Democrats said this and Republicans said that — who cares? What is the reality?! Your job is supposed to be to bring us facts, not what official spokespeople told you in their press releases and talking points.”

I find CNN with Anderson Cooper and other hosts absolutely unwatchable. The hosts serve as high-paid mediators, not even attempting to provide viewers with the facts. Considering that CNN’s ratings are the lowest in a decade, with only 400,000 tuning in to Cooper’s prime-time show, Sorkin’s very thinly-veiled critique of CNN’s unwillingness to offer facts appears to be widely shared.

Nearly every mainstream news source seeks out false equivalencies between Democrats and Republicans, or progressives and conservatives. We see it in coverage of Citizens United—which is said to equally help labor unions and corporations—and in preposterously misleading depictions of Republicans as “fiscal conservatives” despite backing deficit-busting tax cuts.

Is Sorkin/McAvoy heavy handed in criticizing mainstream media for not telling the truth about major news events? Yes. Is Newsroom “arrogant” for acting like it has more integrity than other news shows? As Muhammad Ali famously said, “it ain’t braggin if you can do it.”

Newsroom’s Flaws

Newsroom is not without flaws.

Critics are correct in pointing out that Sorkin’s view of a prior “golden age” of television news—Murrow, Huntley & Brinkley, Cronkite—is false. Murrow went after Joe McCarthy years after this posed any political risk, and Cronkite’s announcement in 1968 that we had reached a quagmire in Vietnam neither impacted LBJ’s decision not to run (a widely held but inaccurate myth) nor impacted opposition to the war.

Yet it is true that none of these historic news anchors allowed themselves to become mere referees in debates among pundits. All were committed to providing some version of “news” rather than the dueling opinions that pass for “news” today.

Criticism of the racial composition of the lead actors in Newsroom is also on point. Sorkin has favored whites for all of the leading parts in each of his three series, and the same is true here. He had a chance to critique the lack of African-Americans and Latinos on national news shows, but instead reaffirmed their absence (there are two minor black characters but no Latinos in sight).

Some of the romantic sub-plots are far-fetched, the pace of the talk can be too fast (a typical Sorkin device), and not all the characters ring true. But on his big picture critique of television news, Sorkin has come closer to getting it right than anything else has done.

When you consider that the brilliant David Simon was unable to effectively portray the newspaper business in the fifth season of The Wire, Sorkin’s ability to come close to getting television news right—and to be entertaining in the process– deserves applause.

Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

Filed under: Archive

Translate »