Last night's "Newsroom" exhibits everything the show does right -- which turns out to be "not much"
"I don’t want to expand the definition of the news, I want to narrow it."
That line is uttered by the legendary Sam Waterston, who plays Charlie Skinner on "The Newsroom," and who I really wish had some better material to work with.
In so many ways, it's such a classic Aaron Sorkin quote -- it has a nice parallel construction that, if you don't think too hard, makes it sound incredibly smart. It's also delivered by Waterston in that big, unmistakably haughty tone designed to tell us that this isn't a character speaking to you, but Aaron Sorkin himself tearing down the fourth wall and grabbing the viewer by the shirt to scream, "This is important! This is what I've been trying to say!"
So, what is Sorkin is trying to say, spurting and fumbling through Charlie's angry tirade against the tech mogul who's about to buy his news network?
He's saying that citizen journalism, social media, or anything that's framed in a manner that fits into the life of a digital native, is not news. The only thing that qualifies as news is information that somebody doesn't want revealed, reported and vetted by professionals.
Sorkin's right -- that is news. But it doesn't have to be broadcast solely in an hourlong block on cable television at the same time every night. In fact, it's essential to the survival of journalism that it not be broadcast in this way. Not that the tech mogul Pruitt (B.J. Novak) offers up any truly innovative ideas himself, beyond throwing out words like "Instagram" and "Vine." But Sorkin wouldn't dare to have Pruitt make the kinds of interesting digital solutions put forth in, say, the New York Times leaked Innovation Report. Because in Sorkin's overly simplistic world, there are only two options. Either you "do the news" as it's always been done, to hell with technology and your audience; or you become a worthless hack whose idea of the news is a six-second kitten GIF.
It makes perfect sense now why Neal (Dev Patel), the only "Newsroom" cast member with any real understanding of how technological can actually improve journalism, was shipped off to Venezuela for the whole season. The only characters Sorkin allows to defend the terrifying bogeyman of "New Media" are the snide tech billionaire who brags about banging another character's girlfriend, and (God help us) the blogger who writes for a site clearly modeled after Gawker.
Last night's episode was called "Contempt," which refers to the contempt Charlie thinks Pruitt has for news readers. But it also refers to the contempt of court Jeff Daniels' Will McAvoy is put into after refusing to divulge to the Department of Justice the name of a source on an embarrassing story ACN is about to run on the US' military and surveillance apparatus. As it happens, the scenes of the former lawyer McAvoy dodging questions before a Grand Jury feature some of Sorkin's best writing since his "West Wing" days. I suspect that's because the writer is genuinely fascinated by the inner-workings of political and legal organizations, and the linguistic gymnastics at work in the arguments that shape our laws and court decisions. (See also: Sorkin's ridiculous but electrifying dialogue in "A Few Good Men.")
It makes me think that Sorkin isn't all that interested in journalism at all, except to attack the players he doesn't particularly like, and to rhapsodize over a lost world that existed before the news -- and everything else for that matter -- was categorically corrupted by the Internet and cellphones. His apparent disinterest in journalism is a shame, considering that's what the entire show is ostensibly about.
I would be willing to give "The Newsroom" the benefit of the doubt; that through some epic debates between Charlie and Pruitt -- of the sort that helped make "West Wing" so memorable -- the show might add something to the discussion over what the future of news will and should look like, as opposed to simply lamenting the loss of its past. But with only a few episodes left in the entire series, there's no time for "The Newsroom" to be remembered as much more than the ramblings of an angry man telling the Instagrammers to get off his lawn.
[illustration by Hallie Bateman]