“The idea that fairness is important to the news, I think is anathema to good news and to democracy,” said Aaron Sorkin during a Q & A at the LA Film Festival. With his new HBO series The Newsroom, Sorkin throws down the gauntlet to a news industry which he feels has lost the trust of the American people.
The Newsroom is Aaron Sorkin’s newest exercise in taking us the behind the scenes of a complicated, rich, and fast-moving world; this time into the heart of the 24-hour news cycle. Jeff Daniels plays Will McAvoy, a formerly passionate news anchor who has become complacent, parlaying neutrality into a ratings-friendly style that earns him the moniker “the Jay Leno of cable news.”
At the opening of the pilot, Will finds himself stuck between a liberal and a conservative pundit trading jabs at a forum. Eventually the strain of this prompts Will into a dramatic response that becomes the inciting incident of the series. He is sent on an obligatory vacation and returns to find that his boss Charlie Skinner, played by Sam Waterson, has rebuilt his news team, cutting almost all his staff and replacing them with a new executive producer who just so happens to be Will’s former love, Mackenzie MacHale, (Emily Mortimer), a freshly promoted intern, Maggie (Allison Pill), a blog writer, Neal (Dev Patel), and an assistant producer, Jim Harper (John Gallagher).
Throughout the Q & A, moderated by Madeleine Brand, Sorkin denied that The Newsroom has a political agenda, claiming instead that he wants the show to be a “swashbuckling story set against a real backdrop.” Using the metaphor of Don Quixote, a story he treasures, Sorkin said he is attempting to examine the complacency of the cable news industry, not with the cynical view of 1976’s Network, but with a romantic lens.
Ms. Brand pressed Sorkin (perhaps inspired by the reporters in the pilot?), and under this pressure, he gave an insight into his deeper feelings about his subject matter, admitting “there is an empirical right and wrong, and it’s okay to say so on the news.” Sorkin derided the “balance” of modern news programs, pining for the days when Walter Cronkite and Edward J. Murrow spoke with passion and conviction about the rights and wrongs of their eras: “I wish we could go back to a time when, year after year the most trusted person in America was a news anchorman.” Sorkin lamented the loss of separation between the entertainment and news divisions of a network. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence this current endeavor is on HBO, a network without advertisers.
What makes The Newsroom stand apart from previous Sorkin endeavors like Sports Night and The West Wing is the fact that the news stories are real and recent. The story takes place in 2010, giving us, perhaps, a chance to see how the stories of our recent past should have been covered, but never were. To call Sorkin an idealist, a romantic, and a dreamer would not be out of place, but for those of us who think art should ask questions, this retreading of history is welcome.
The Newsroom is above all a quick witted, exceptionally entertaining, and excellently acted look at a world many of us tap into every day. However, it is something much more exciting than that: a statement against false equivalency, false impartiality, and false balance of corporate sponsorship that has taken the teeth from out the mouths of the news media. Don Quixote’s quest is all at once inspiring, adventurous, deluded, and ultimately sad, and The Newsroom is Sorkin’s tilt at the windmills of our time. Watch the premiere of The Newsroom Sunday at 10pm on HBO.