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Sorkin's Newsroom: Who, What, When, Where, Why

To best appreciate Aaron Sorkin's writing, you should probably know as little as possible about whatever it is he's writing about. Imagine that pithy, rather snarky statement delivered at a rapid clip from the mouth of one of Sorkin's characters. It's a generalization, an oversimplification, but it contains a kernel of truth. I'm gonna be rough on Sorkin's HBO show "The Newsroom" because, dang it, I think it can get better. (According to one character, getting better-ness is in our nation's DNA.)

The press has not been kind to the first couple episodes of "The Newsroom," in part because it displays so little affinity for how news is reported, written and presented. Anybody who's worked in a newsroom would have to cringe at the idea that these characters are being portrayed as professional newsgatherers, even if they are on cable TV, the lowest rung of the journalistic ladder -- just slightly below Murdoch tabloids which, at least, have reporters who gather news illegally rather than just making it up as they go along like they do on cable.

Having some familiarity with how "Saturday Night Live" is put together, I found Sorkin's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" unwatchable, bypassing so many promising reality-based opportunities for comedy and drama while manufacturing absolutely bogus, nonsensical, unbelievable and impossible ones. Doesn't the guy do research? "The Newsroom" feels like it was written in Sorkin's spare time, perhaps between projects he actually cared about.

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Don't get me started on his lack of technological savvy. When someone in a Sorkin script says something as common as "blog" or "Twitter" they sound like they're speaking Estonian. Because they may as well be. Even "The Social Network" was weak on showing how technology made Facebook into a popular and compelling user experience. As Bobby Finger at BlackBook wrote, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) calls the rebooted show they're doing "NewsNight 2.0" because "in this parallel-universe-alternate-history-2010, people still speak like it's 2006. They also use email like it's 2001..." (More about that in a moment.)

Having spent much of my life working for newspapers, and with other human beings, I have some problems suspending my disbelief in "The Newsroom," too. But, OK, it's a fictional(-ized) show and, as with its predecessors, verisimilitude is just one aspect of its appeal. One reason "The West Wing" worked so well, I believe, is because it was pitched at just the right space between reality and fairy tale; we all knew the idealized President Bartlet was too good to be true, but he was the president we wished we had. I don't think "The Newsroom"'s newsroom ignorance completely undermines its strengths, either. After the first episode, I tweeted a quick response that still represents what I feel upon seeing the second:

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In other words, as I later twatted, I thought it could use less Paddy Chayefsky (preachy, sanctimonious rants about the state of the news business) and more Ben Hecht (witty, rapid-fire banter -- whether cynical or idealistic). Incidentally, according to an early version of the script that leaked online (I only just looked at it today), the whole "vertigo medicine" rant Will gives in the opening sequence was originally also shoehorned into the interminable conversation between Will and Mac in his office. Perhaps this show doesn't yet know what it's about. It certainly hasn't found its focus yet.

Some TV critics have said that "The Newsroom" gets worse in the third and fourth episodes, and there are 10 planned for the season, but HBO just ordered season two, even though ratings for the second installment were down 20 percent.

I don't know how much time passed between the writing and filming of the pilot and the second episode, or how much deliberate tweaking and reworking was done, but some of the characters have changed dramatically. On April 20, 2010, the date on which the first episode is set, Maggie (Alison Pill) was an intern who had been "accidentally promoted" to being Will McAvoy's (Jeff Daniels) assistant four months previously. Mac impulsively promoted her again, to "assistant producer" that day, within a few minutes of meeting her. Now, in the second episode, it's three days later and Maggie is aggressive and independent and claims she doesn't need any guidance from Jim (John Gallagher, Jr. -- Lisa's lovesick friend Darren in Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret"), her "immediate superior" and the guy who was put in charge of showing her how to do her new job.

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Eventually, it turns out Maggie has dubious personal reasons for behaving this way (though she didn't know that when she began behaving this way), which she hides from Jim. I'm surprised this seemingly upright, ambitious character would put her personal lust for revenge (against a guy she casually dated a few times in college) ahead of her professional responsibilities. She doesn't just make a mistake, she deliberately lies and misleads her direct supervisor about it, before and after she screws up. She really should be fired, but she's a regular so she won't be.

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If this were more of a screwball comedy (and, as I say, I think it would be a better show if it were), that kind of thing wouldn't be so serious. But "The Newsroom" wants us to take TV news, or its idealized version of cable TV news, very seriously indeed -- hence all the pious speechifying about "reclaiming the Fourth Estate" and quoting lyrics from "Man of La Mancha" (not "Don Quixote" -- but at least Sorkin didn't have a character drop lyricist Joe Darion's name) in Will's office during the first episode. Just because the actors say it all fast and angry doesn't make it any easier to swallow.

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Mac unveils her vision for "NewsNight 2.0" in a staff meeting, where she displays a flimsy easel holding a white board on which she's written some maxims in magic marker. Why isn't the white board on the wall? So Mac can engage in some lovably klutzy slapstick humor (the people we're supposed to like are always tripping and falling down and things, to show how human and vulnerable and earnest and funny they are!)

Mac's "new rules" are:

1) Is this information we need in the voting booth?

2) Is this the best possible form of the argument?

3) Is the story in historical context?

The joke is that she's underlined each of the I's in red, suggesting that the staff use a mnemonic device ("The Three I's") to remember the rules. At which point we have to ask: Is she now supposed to be not just an ineffectual manager and producer but a moron? Of course, the rules are really Sorkin's, aimed directly at us and not just the employees of Atlantis Cable News, so let's take a look at them.

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The first one is a little too reductively "news-you-can-use" for me. Are the only things worth covering things we can actually vote on? Is that why she's so determined to bump the Deepwater Horizon oil spill down to the "D Block" of the show -- because it's a catastrophe that nobody, exactly, voted for? (Who voted for Halliburton? Who voted for Hurricane Katrina and the shoddy way the Army Corps. of Engineers built the levees?)

The second of Mac's rules, I would say, is the most important. We so rarely have meaningful public debate anymore because, as Will says (paraphrasing Paul Krugman, if I remember correctly -- or Jon Stewart), if the entire Republican caucus were to introduce a measure proclaiming that the world was flat, the media would report that Republicans and Democrats disagreed on the shape of the world. It's easy to find some crackpot who will take a ludicrous position on something (whether it's Joe the Plumber or Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin), but is it based on anything more than their assertion that they believe it? (That's the question this episode focuses on -- though it has to perform some absurd contortions to get there.)

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The third "rule" is also vital if someone is to report actual news and not "he said/she said." When Michele Bachmann stood on the steps of the Supreme Court Building immediately after the Affordable Care Act decision, claiming it "represents the largest expansion of entitlement spending and a playground of left-wing social engineering in our country's history," there was no "news" in what she said, because she was just expressing her disjointed feelings -- the same ones she'd expressed many times before to anyone who would listen on Fox. She hadn't had time to go over Justice Roberts' majority decision before she spoke about it, and that was clear as soon as she opened her mouth. Yet the news media didn't report whether what she said had any basis in historical fact, just the fact that she said it. (Bachmann did suggest voting-booth action as a response, though. See Rule #1.)

Which brings us to Mac's last-minute addendum:

4) Are there really two sides to this story?

This is kind of a corollary to Rule #2, added in response to Don's (Thomas Sadoski) question: "What's the best possible version of the birther argument?" Mac says: "There isn't one.... The media's biased towards success and the media's biased towards 'fairness.'... There aren't two sides to every story. Some stories have five sides, some only have one." (This is actually where Will interjects the "flat world" hypothetical.) Rigidly maintaining the appearance of "fairness" results in a gross distortion of reality. Again, just because somebody -- even a prominent somebody -- says something doesn't mean it's worth reporting, unless journalists can show how it corelates with the known facts.

OK, but "The Newsroom" is a TV series, and all this leads up to the live newscast (is this going to be the show's formula?). We'll leave aside questions about the wisdom of Mac's decision to put the Arizona anti-illegal immigration law (Arizona SB 1070) at the top of the newscast because Governor Jan Brewer had agreed to an exclusive nine-minute live interview with Will, who supports the law (on the grounds that illegal immigration takes away low-wage jobs from Americans) and who, incidentally, claims to be kind of a curmudgeonly, common-sense conservative in general. Isn't putting the governor of a small state with a hot-button piece of legislation at the top of the show a kind of exploitation? That's an argument worth having -- but they don't have it on "The Newsroom." All we learn is that Will thinks they should lead with the BP oil spill in the Gulf, Mac doesn't, and they've been arguing about it off-camera overnight.

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So, what happens? They go on the air with three brain-dead extras from "Idiocracy" (no pre-interviews?) as the pro-SB 1070 sources for their lead story: a creepy blogger who thinks it's the height of sarcasm to repeat the words "Mexicans," "Latinos" and "Latinas" with a vaguely Spanish pronunciation; a redneck who sits in his chair holding a rifle but can barely speak; and a beauty contest runner-up who believes she was docked points because of her answer to an immigration question. None of these, you may notice, represents the best form of the argument in favor of SB 1070. If you haven't actually seen cable TV news in the last 20 years or so, you might think this is just broad, overdone satire. And, in the context of this particular show, it is. But... well I've already mentioned Joe the Plumber, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin above. Need more be said?

An aside: Have you noticed that people, on the left and the right, have been getting more and more reactionary in their views? I don't mean that as in "anti-progressive" (though our political "center" is now something that flaming pinko Ronald Reagan wouldn't even recognize), but as in exhibiting knee-jerk reactions against something rather than thinking for themselves: "I'm just so sick and tired of hearing X so I'm going to say Y!" It's childish, more evidence of the dumbing-down of meaningful argument and disagreement.

In "News Night 2.0," Will succumbs to this impulse pathetically, influenced by the Evil Ratings Guy Reese, who, if Will had any journalistic integrity, he wouldn't be sneaking around with anyway. Editorial and business/advertising need to remain separate, and both of them know this. If they were better at their jobs, they'd honor the division between them as something that protects editorial integrity. But Reese is apparently correct when he says to Charlie (Sam Waterston) that Will is the biggest "ratings whore" in the business. So, I guess we're meant to see that Will is fundamentally weak on principles, which doesn't quite fit with all the glowing things Mac has been saying about his intelligence, integrity and independence.

In a bid for ratings, Will sneaks a segment onto the air that allows him to make speculative excuses for something silly that the perpetually mis- and under-informed Palin said on Fox News -- just because he's fed-up with everybody always picking on her for all the dumb things she keeps saying that people keep (rightly) pointing out are stupid. And he never asks the real follow-up question: How does Palin claim to know what calls the White House is returning and what is being discussed with other entrepreneurs and other countries? Is she tapping all communications from within the Obama administration? Of course, the good journalist's response would be not to try to guess what she was or wasn't thinking, but to simply ignore her remarks as being insubstantial and not at all newsworthy. Oh, the one-time governor of Alaska is talking out of her ass again. That's hardly news, and it's not even worth making fun of. Leave it for the snarky political bloggers.

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So, all of the above is the set-up for the broadcast in which Will feels he is called upon to argue the defense of Arizona SB 1070 himself because his guests are so woefully under-equipped to do so. Mac has claimed that Will is knowledgeable and articulate enough to argue both sides of any question, so he sets out to prove it. By the end of the show, Will himself has apparently come to pity the poor (illegal) immigrants and offers to help out a guy in Spokane whose driver's license has been taken away because of his immigration status. He says he'll pay (anonymously) for a cab to take the guy to work and get his kid(s) to school. Will stands on the balcony of his apartment, which is apparently in lower Manhattan, somewhere between the Empire State Building and Battery Park. Will gazes into the distance. Cut to a view of the Statue of Liberty and back to Will, surrounded by city lights. It's kinda patriotic (the characters often use that word to describe themselves, even when nobody asks) and kinda... nebulous. In a line that has come back to haunt the show, Mac says, "We don't do good television, we do the news." "The Newsroom" isn't quite either -- but I'm not giving up on it quite yet.

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Which brings me to a few suggestions -- I'm not going to present them as hard-and-fast Mac "rules" -- for the future:

1) Please refrain from using character and story gimmicks that involve withholding key pieces of information from other characters and/or the audience. This was all over the place from the first episode: Nobody would tell Will why Charlie wanted to see him; Will didn't know that Charlie had hired Mac; Mac didn't know that Will didn't know that Charlie had hired her; Will didn't know that his staff thought he was not a good guy; Don wouldn't let Jim tell Will or Mac about the oil rig explosion in the Gulf; Jim didn't want to tell his own producer(s) who his sources were... At first I thought maybe this could be justified as a thematic device: after all, the series is about the sharing of information, what gets reported and what doesn't. But, no. That's not really a theme the show has begun to develop.

Roger Ebert recently wrote about a movie ("People Like Us") which, he said, was based on a principle that forced the audience to wait "through most of a movie for one simple line to be spoken that would clear up all of the confusion. [...] A truth untold can interest me up to a certain point, and then it grows tiresome." Yes, it does. That's a problem here.

The second episode of "The Newsroom" is predicated on Will not wanting anyone to know why he and Mac broke up years ago. And Charlie doesn't want Reese to secretly break down the ratings numbers for Will anymore. And Maggie doesn't tell Jim that the governor's aide she's supposed to pre-interview is a former date she's still mad at. Everything seems to revolve around somebody telling someone that they don't want them to tell somebody else the truth, which requires arbitrary and artificial contrivances that aren't weighted with satisfying dramatic justifications or payoffs. The cliché about Sorkin is that his characters always say exactly what they're thinking in the moment, but that's not necessarily true. They sometimes only say what they're thinking after they've tried not saying it, and you're left feeling that all the show really got out of the delay was another half-page of dialog.

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2) Please don't assume that your audience, or the characters, are technological morons. Most of us (Sorkin aside, evidently) use computers and smartphones every day: e-mail, text messaging, basic software (word processing, presentation, spreadsheet), Google, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, online poker, etc. We are familiar with how they work... and how they don't. There's an elaborately preposterous set-up for Mac to repeatedly send e-mails to the wrong people (whole aliases instead of individuals) due to new IT procedures at ACN. These are explained by Neal (Dev Patel), whom you may recall is the Indian fellow (Will calls him "Punjab" -- ho ho!) with the British accent who is not the stereotypical IT guy at all, but has actually been hired to write Will's blog for him! (I know, it was almost enough to stop me from watching the rest of the show, too.)

Neal is called upon to translate an IT memo to the staff (apparently ACN doesn't believe in actually alerting their employees of new e-mail policies in actual e-mail): "New aliases have been set up for in-house e-mails. Autocomplete has been enabled on your Outlook." What this means, you see, is that if you send a mail to *s it will go to the whole staff and *i will go to all interns. (Odd that this, apparently, doesn't just apply to the staff and interns working on "NewsNight," but to the staffs of all ACN's shows and operations.) Next, she sends a test text to Will, but starts with an asterisk AND hits "s" instead of "w." (There's only one person in her contacts with a first or last name beginning with a "w" -- so autocomplete would, theoretically, recognize this as Will McAvoy?) Oh, gosh -- the e-mail goes to the whole staff, and she wrote an embarrassing one.

The show keeps returning to that dried-up old well. The Big Secret of Will and Mac's break-up three years earlier (see #1 above) is revealed when she inexplicably sends it to everybody in the company. Yes, any old employee can send an e-mail to Everybody. Charlie says all 178,000 employees of the parent company received it: "Guys who sell jet engines got that e-mail." Please. Does this show take place anywhere near the planet Earth? (Next week: A Twitter hashtag that empties your neighbors' dishwasher!)

3) Please either make the show about reporting or don't. Although we're told that Mac used to be an embedded correspondent in Afghanistan and Pakistan (and yet she's still such a flustered, passive-aggressive ditz in the newsroom?), none of the other characters ever seems to leave the office, except for Will when he goes for his secret rendezvous with Reese the advertising/ratings guy. Where does this network's news come from? We've heard several references to the "assignment desk" -- but who is assigning what to whom, and why? "The Newsroom" could benefit from better dramatization of the old "inverted pyramid" style of reporting/storytelling -- and remembering that real-world journalistic mnemonic device, the old Five Ws: Who, What, When, Where, Why.

They don't really have to all be packed into the lede paragraph. But they should make it into the story eventually. Here's hoping...

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