Last year, while re-reading Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, I was amused by the references to “smart drinks,” a popular ‘90s fad of high-powered, supplement-infused juices said to stimulate brain activity. While I never tried one of those, I have my own variation on a smart drink that I believe works as well as any other concoction on the market. I call it Aaron Sorkin.
And while I don’t have any hard data, I can tell you anecdotally that the times in my life I’ve felt the smartest and most quick-witted have always been those times I was binge-watching one of Sorkin’s shows like Sports Night, The West Wing, and Studio 60. So with the coming of Fall, as the skies turn gray, the days grow shorter, and my eyes tend to glaze over, I’m really looking forward to November 9 when Sorkin’s The Newsroom returns for its final six episodes.
Sorkin first rose to fame as a playwright with A Few Good Men. Since then, he’s written a handful of movies — most notably The Social Network, Moneyball, and The American President — but it’s in television that he has really made his mark. His trademark brand of rapid-fire and allusion-filled dialogue hearkens back to the great screwball comedies of the ‘30s and early ‘40s like His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, and Twentieth Century — the kind of movies where everyone sounds like someone spiked the water cooler with espresso.
I’ll admit I’ve always had a soft spot for people who write really good dialogue, but Sorkin’s scripts are more than simply stylish, funny, or clever. He’s also one of the best writers of dramatic speeches that we’ve seen since the days of Lawrence and Lee’s Inherit the Wind. The dramatic speech is a lost art in many ways and when one is written badly it can be painful to endure. But Sorkin writes masterful speeches, often churning out more than one of these showpieces per episode.
For example, the pilot of The Newsroom famously opens with a scene where Jeff Daniels, playing a popular TV news anchor, is pressured to give his current assessment of the United States. What unfolds is a perfectly constructed, three-minute, ten-second monologue that somehow manages to sound angry, sad, arrogant, and wistful all at the same time. What’s more, the speech also serves a dramatic function by communicating the instability of Daniels’ character while also delivering the essential thesis of the entire series—that a country can only achieve greatness when its people are well informed. The whole scene is like musical theater, only with lyrical prose instead of a song.
But The Newsroom is a great show for more than just the snappy dialogue and a rousing speech or two. The show, which focuses on a popular cable news program that undergoes a journalistic refit, follows a long tradition of great movies that target the inherent flaws of blending news and entertainment in mass media. The granddaddy of the bunch, Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, starred Andy Griffith as a populist talk show host who winds up using his talent for audience manipulation to promote right-wing causes and candidates. Even though it was made in 1957, it’s frightfully on target in many ways with Griffith’s character an early forerunner to the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.
Almost 20 years later, Sidney Lumet directed Network, an over-the-top satire of the news written by Paddy Chayefsky. The premise was essentially, “what would happen if the news division of a major network was put under the control of the entertainment division.” In 1976 it must’ve felt a bit like science fiction. But much of it has gradually come true, beginning with the ‘80s when news divisions were indeed folded into the entertainment divisions. News no longer became a public service but rather an inexpensive form of reality programming owned completely by the network.
James L. Brooks’s Broadcast News (1987) provided a much more nuanced critique of the superficiality of the news business, focusing on the rise of a photogenic but dim-witted anchor, William Hurt, who connects emotionally with viewers even though he doesn’t really understand the details of the stories he’s talking about. The long-range implications of Hurt’s success become clear when a rival reporter, played by Albert Brooks, warns that Hurt could actually be the Devil: “He’ll get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation. He’ll never do an evil thing. He’ll never deliberately hurt a living thing … he will just bit by little bit lower our standards where they are important. Just a tiny little bit. Just coax along flash over substance. Just a tiny little bit. And he’ll talk about all of us really being salesmen.”
Brooks’s description of the slow, gradual erosion of standards is in many ways the most frightening point in all these films because it describes a nearly invisible decline where anyone who tries to complain is easily dismissed as an alarmist. But as Sorkin argues in that opening speech from The Newsroom pilot, the media’s collective failures to properly inform the public are damaging the entire country in profound ways.
But part of what makes The Newsroom different from its three major predecessors is that Sorkin keeps his focus, not on the corruption of the industry, but rather on the positive example of the reformers. The fictional collection of journalists on the show are the kinds of Romantics who actually argue over things like who gets to be “Don Quixote” when they try to use a metaphor.
In the second episode, the newly hired producer, played by Emily Mortimer, lays out the rules for how they will cover the news by listing a series of three questions:
- Is this information we need in the voting booth?
- Is this the best possible form of the argument?
- Is the story in historical context?
And there, in a nutshell, is a model for what television news could be. As rules go, these aren’t particularly esoteric. They simply require a bit of editorial judgment and clear thinking. But they are the things that are sorely lacking in much political journalism.
It reminds me of the current midterm election occurring in the United States right now. Most of the political coverage of our elections focuses on what they call the “horse race.” Who’s up? Who’s down? Which candidates are running really effective campaigns? Which are not? Who made a rhetorical blunder in the last debate? How will it affect their poll numbers?
As a political junkie, I’ll admit that all of these questions are interesting, but if you notice, “interesting” isn’t one of the rules Mortimer lists on her chart in The Newsroom. In fact, none of the questions really passes her first two rules. Does a voter need to know if some pundit thinks a candidate’s new ad campaign is clever? Is that the best possible form of the argument for looking at an issue?
The problem with horse race coverage is that it gives us something that’s easy to talk about and easy to digest, but it doesn’t really inform us about anything that matters. It’s like a newspaper that stops printing movie reviews in favor of reporting on the weekly box-office take instead. It’s essentially a form of laziness. The result is that next month millions of voters will decide the legislative direction of the United States based, not on an understanding of policies like the Affordable Care Act, but rather on which candidates project stronger, more forceful attitudes about it.
Given the poor quality of most of our current news coverage, a big part of what makes The Newsroom compelling is that it often demonstrates how major news stories of the recent past should have been covered. Those journalists who have criticized the show for its holier-than-thou, 20/20 hindsight, are totally missing the point. The show is not supposed to be journalism; it’s supposed to be about journalism. And it often does what television news seems particularly unwilling to do—offering reflective analysis on its own failures. Did you know that some networks pronounced Gabby Giffords dead after the assassination attempt in Arizona? Probably not. I certainly didn’t until I saw the fictional reporters on The Newsroom resisting the pressure to race on the air before they had the full story.
This has been one of the primary strengths of the show. It essentially offers a dramatic version of what comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have done so well on Comedy Central and that John Oliver does on HBO. They have all risen, organically, to provide one of the key, missing elements of television journalism. They are working as the public editor. Most quality newspapers have an ombudsman, a public editor whose job is to analyze and assess, independently, the reporting in the paper. This doesn’t really exist for broadcast news where there is no visible public accountability for poor editorial judgment or bad reporting.
But I fear I’ve turned my enthusiasm for The Newsroom into a plate of raw vegetables. That’s not what the show is all about. It’s funny, it’s inspiring, and it’s very relationship-driven.
And don’t quote me, but I think if you watch it enough to get the characters’ speaking rhythms in your head, it’ll boost your IQ score by a good 15 points.