Sorkin’s ‘Mission to Civilise’

The Newsroom: The complexities of entertainment about entertainment.

Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom is one of the latest controversial television shows to garner a lot of attention, and a lot of column inches devoted to its dissection. But I’m not going to talk about the show’s liberal grandstanding and soap-boxing, its uncomfortably sentimental invocation of Patriotism with a capital P, its utter lack of concern for realism – that people make points not conversation, that everyone (including the 20-something interns who frequently trip over phantom obstacles) is hyper-articulate and says exactly what they mean, or that events which at the time incur furrowed brows and bitten knuckles have absolutely no repercussions, or its ‘nostalgic’ gender politics.

I’m not going to talk about these things because I think that The Newsroom is good. When any one of the above becomes the only thing that you can see when you watch a TV show, it is because that show is not good enough to support the continued suspension of your disbelief, to will you to ignore those irritating niggles and let them wash over you whilst you continue to enjoy its implausible narrative strands. That none of the above are deal-breakers for my continued viewing of The Newsroom therefore says a lot for the show. It is only what we have come to expect from TV; it is what we are fed on a daily basis, and usually without any redeeming features whatsoever.

In case you’ve missed all those feet of analysis floating around, The Newsroom is screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s latest venture. It is set in, surprisingly, a newsroom in America, and in the tradition of broadcast journalism onscreen the action doesn’t stray that far from this premise. We watch stories unfold from germination to live delivery by stalwart anchor Will McAvoy. Sorkin is surely one of the only screenwriters whose name, and whose distinctive written voice, has become a household name. And Sorkin’s words are brought to life by other well-worn names: Emily Mortimer plays the shrill executive producer, Mackenzie McHale, and Sorkin’s leading man, Will McAvoy, is played by Jeff Daniels.

I said that I wasn’t going to talk about the show’s sticking points. However, there is a problem in the show that severely curtailed my unconscious enjoyment, a deep and central thematic contradiction that could not be glossed over with more quips and more explosions. The Newsroom is a TV show about a TV show – its own news program, Newsnight. But again and again we are told that the characters are re-inventing (or perhaps rectifying) the news. In the context of the information explosion wrought by technology that we now face, information is so proliferate that it has become diluted, devalued. We not only choose the outlet of our information, but as Will says, we ‘choose our facts’. The team behind Newsnight want to provide the antidote to this: a news programme that provides information of value, presented in a serious way worthy of its subject matter. They want to educate and inform the masses. But the necessary extension of this position is that they cannot rely on ‘entertainment’ to do so, they want to save the news from becoming yet another reality TV show, concocted specifically for your maximum entertainment.

The issues that Sorkin is attempting to address are fundamentally incompatible with the way that TV works today. And yet, in some sense, their significance is intensified because this is television about the making of television. The line is blurred between Newsnight’s audience and Newsroom’s. The crucial context for the show is that in America the news is an advertiser-supported programme like any other. There is no BBC. Therefore, like Newsnight, The Newsroom is a show that depends on advertisers. It exists (commercially) in order to bring viewers to those adverts. And programmes like The Newsroom, with big-name actors, and big-name screenwriters are expensive, and must therefore appeal to many millions of viewers in order to justify their existence. They do this by entertaining – as much, and in as broadly appealing ways as possible. And unlike Newsnight, The Newsroom doesn’t (and can’t) say Screw Those Accountants and follow its noble ideals. Newsnight sets up a very appealing intellectual premise: that information can, and can only, occur without the debasing influence of entertainment. However it is one that The Newsroom can in no way fulfill, nor one it can acknowledge. And it is this central split that unhinged my enjoyment of watching the programme.

The ‘mission’ of the characters to rehabilitate broadcast news is one that is hammered home to us (the audience) at every turn. In one 60 minute episode the words ‘mission to civilise’ are uttered by Will McAvoy at least three times. This mission is announced in rousing speeches, first by Will, then by Mackenzie, then by Will again. And a Don Quijote analogy is brandished multiple times, partly as a knowing joke (the errant knight who was so enamoured with his own bravado that he fought windmills), but partly as a grounding/reigning metaphor whose final significance only comes to light in the series’ final episode: that idealism, although naïve, is a necessary quality in a brave few. And all this talk presents the grand designs the show has for itself. It will endeavour to broadcast ‘real’ news, to inform and educate an electorate – with whom its real responsibility lies, to encourage vigorous and communal debate, to hold politicians ‘accountable for their own rhetoric, and to ensure better vetting for political candidates through intellectually rigorous interviews. In short, to put TV to ‘some patriotic fucking use’ (as ‘Mack’ puts it). As I said some noble causes.

In effecting these changes, it promises ‘the death of bitchiness, and gossip, and voyeurism’ that goes hand in hand with the pervasive culture of value-less and limitless pure ‘entertainment’. Entertainment is the ‘mortal enemy’ of the grand values of Newsnight. And of course, these values and their discussion are the ‘mortal enemy’ of entertainment. If the answer to all questions within television is ‘keep them watching’, how do you begin to talk about the ignorance of the electorate and the perniciousness of entertainment without your viewer switching channels? How do you make these difficult issues palatable for the audience when they’re fundamentally not? And if rule no. 2 is ‘never imply that the viewer doesn’t already know everything’ (as Sorkin says through a character in Newsroom), how do you discuss these things without condescending and making the viewer feel stupid?

You undercut the sincerity and seriousness of the dialogue point-counterpoint with a thick spreading of good old ‘pure’ entertainment. Sorkin employs some very stock televisual tropes to do so: the inopportune pot brownie, love polygons, cocktails thrown in faces and people running into doors; plot contrivances that have no thematic relevance, but nonetheless serve to undermine the intellectual superiority. Sorkin does this with dramatic irony; for instance when Will attempts to ‘civilise’ his date he concludes his soliloquy with the impossibly pompous words “thank goodness you met me”, and order is restored. The writer here speaks directly to the viewer, who now knows that Will is, in fact self-important and self-delusive. That Will cannot see this about himself means that the viewer is in possession of superior knowledge.

Sorkin undercuts sincerity visually, through the impossibly young and good-looking news team, who wear silky blouses and have inter-tangled romances. He tells us this trick explicitly in the case of Sloan Sabbath (yes, that is her name), the beautiful yet fiercely intelligent economics reporter, who is sought to present a segment on the economy on the strength of her ‘legs’. Whereas dry economic discourse is bound to turn off viewers, presenting it in a shiny package might just keep them watching. He does this through the eternal promise of sex as characters almost get together, and cheerleaders wait for Will in the newsroom as he finishes yet another incisive broadcast.

The discrepancy between what the show tells us, and what it shows us, is therefore all-encomapassing. If the argument that is made again and again by the characters in Newsroom is that presentation is content, that the rhetoric used, dictates the argument, then on its own terms we are forced to take to the presentation of The Newsroom at face value. And its presentation tells us not ‘hear this’ but watch this, and this and this. The argument in fact tells us that what we are watching is the sugary, vapid entertainment that its words decry. What it is really saying to the viewer is that these good and serious points can’t ensure your continued viewing, only rapid spectacle can. And this does not merely suggest condescension implicit in its argument, it further entrenches it as entertainment’s governing mode of discourse. In this way, all Sorkin’s intelligence – the quick-fire dialogue and high concepts – becomes merely fluff, all talk and no substance. His points lack any weight or grounding, and so are impact-less.

So why should we, and how can we, consider Will’s ‘mission’ to be Sorkin’s? Surely all this undercutting of anything of substance merely suggests that we shouldn’t take the points that The Newsroom makes with any seriousness. However, those initial points are, I think, too significant to dismiss. You cannot make them, and make them effectively (which Sorkin does) if you don’t understand their significance.

And Sorkin definitely understands the terms of his debate. The characters in the show tell us at various points why they cannot deploy the traditional modes of entertainment to keep people watching their news, even as a means to an end. Because it’s a distraction, if you want something unpalatable, and uncomfortable to be heard, you can’t couch it in a seductive casing because this attractiveness will effectively drown out whatever the viewer doesn’t want to hear. And if something is presented as entertainment it automatically enters the ‘shouting match’, it has to compete with all the other incredibly entertaining options there are. And the only way to win this match is to shout the loudest, kick the highest. As Will says, ‘information can’t fight the circus’. If you create entertainment, it will be driven by popularity and money, and not ‘morality’ or any of the other values that Newsnight’s team want to preserve.

Therefore it is not the contradiction that is the major problem, for me. The show is hypocritical, but we are all hypocritical. I am annoyed because Sorkin almost made a television show with substance, that tell us something important about the nature of the entertainment that we all consume daily and in increasing doses. How this entertainment intentionally feeds the part of us that is only self-interested, because this is the part that will induce us to keep coming back. But ultimately the show fudges it, and all Sorkin’s mighty intelligence is instead put to counter-intuitive use – against the show’s premise.

This is the really complex issue at the heart of the debate, how do you have a ‘really communal’ debate about things that are hard to talk about, how do you raise consciousness and responsibility, without undermining the very terms of your argument? David Foster Wallace puts it best: if you want to fight entertainment (which Newsroom appears to) either you present the argument in its stark complexity and angle it towards those with the sticking power to decipher it, or ‘you find some way to make the attack on entertainment entertaining, in which case you’ve been captured by the very thing you were fighting against.’ This is exactly what Sorkin has done. The effect is very entertaining, but at the cost of credibility.

At one point Mack says the thing she most values about Will is that he “struggles with things” – nothing is absolute to him, and yet, onscreen, there is absolutely no evidence of this. Whilst understanding (and describing) all sides of his argument, Sorkin doesn’t show any struggle. He simplifies the complex into two idealistic extremes and one agreeable narrative for the sake of entertainment, and this is disappointing. The programme offers no real alternatives; it merely presents the incredible difficulty of doing anything different.

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