The hosts of the Fox News show The Five went all Big Hollywood on Aaron Sorkin and his HBO show The Newsroom last week, lambasting the series and its creator in a tour de force segment that said many of the things that needed to be said.
A little research reveals The Five may not have gone far enough, underestimating both Sorkin’s planned focus on Occupy Wall Street in an upcoming episode and the genius of the inverted universe that the show exists in.
The Newsroom is set in the fast-paced world of a national broadcast, and it follows the events and romantic lives of the show’s producers as well as its lead anchor (Jeff Daniels). It’s a mashup of two previous Sorkin TV shows, the critical darling Sports Center and 28 time Emmy winner The West Wing.
Make no mistake–Sorkin is an effective dramatist, which helps him greatly in his role as propagandist. The personal dramas and infidelities are the candy that lures viewers in to its wonky, liberal rants.
One of The Five’s criticisms of Sorkin was his plan to focus on OWS in Season Two of the show, which begins in July. To be fair, criticizing The Newsroom because OWS is old news isn’t fair because the show itself is not set in the present day but has a two year time lag. As Sorkin explained in an HBO Q&A:
I was at MSNBC, standing by a wall off to the side of their newsroom when I decided there was no way to do the show. I couldn’t beat the problem of fake news. I was going to call my agent that night and tell him that the idea I thought I had for a new series wasn’t going to work. And while I was thinking all this I was staring at the “spill cam” (remember that?–It was an underwater camera that showed the oil spilling out of Deepwater Horizon 24 hours a day.) And that’s when I realized that the show didn’t have to take place in the present. That we’d be going along in the first episode (I still didn’t know what it was going to be about) thinking this is a normal show that’s taking place today when all of a sudden we’d hear the “Beep Beep” of a news alert and we’d learn that an oil rig exploded in the Gulf and a legend would come on the screen saying, “April 20, 2010” and we’d realize that everything we’d been watching happened two years ago.
However, even though Sorkin is working on a two year time lag, the choice of OWS is certainly not accidental. Sorkin isn’t remotely dumb or naive to liberal political calculation. As I discussed in the Stephen K. Bannon film Occupy Unmasked , OWS isn’t about what happened in a specific park in New York for a few weeks in 2011; it’s both an enduring meme and a tactic. One way to keep it alive is through media like The Newsroom, and I’m curious to see Sorkin’s take.
The Season Two preview was also taken to task by The Five for apparently making the Tea Party out to be an evil bogeyman, but this is nothing new. The Tea Party was also a target of Sorkin’s in Season One and specific targets include Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and the constant uber-villians of the liberal world view, the Koch Brothers.
The stereotyping of conservatives couldn’t be more ham-handed, which brings us to why culture is so important and Sorkin matters so much. Drama like Sorkin’s The Newsroom is able to have a deep and profound impact on viewers, much more than long position papers or logical arguments.
Here’s the trick; by giving viewers a front row seat into the complicated personal lives of the characters on The Newsroom, Sorkin is creating an emotional bond. Once you get the audience caring about what happens to the characters, you have a unique hold on viewers that goes beyond normal political agreement. The audience identifies and feels like they are struggling alongside the characters.
This sort of ingrained stereotyping made it easy for Barack Obama to portray Mitt Romney as “Mean Rich Guy,” a dramatic persona we’ve all seen countless times. Never mind that it doesn’t actually apply to the real Romney; this is the power of artistic shorthand.
The Newsroom’s audience is struggling right alongside journalists who are trying to tell the truth that needs to be told, despite the resistance they receive from corporate interests. The truth isn’t buried because of ideology or laziness and stories like Benghazi or Fast and Furious aren’t likely to come up as examples.
To really understand The Newsroom universe, the key episode is the third one from the show’s first season entitled The 112th Congress. In the episode, Daniels’ character decides to take a bold, unprecedented stand in TV news history; they are going to attack conservatives and really expose them for the extremists that they are. This earns the show the wrath of network’s CEO, played by Jane Fonda–not just Hanoi Jane but Ted Turner’s ex-wife, remember.
Sam Waterston’s executive producer character is called on the carpet by Fonda, who is friends with (of course) The Koch Brothers. But Waterston takes a principled stand and says of the 2010 midterms that swept Tea Party candidates into the office, “America just elected the most dangerous and addle-minded Congress in my lifetime.” Then they go on to compare Michele Bachmann to Joe McCarthy.
The eerie twist of The Newsroom is that the show presents liberal media bias as something unusual. In Sorkin’s bizarro world, journalists taking an explicit stand for liberal causes and viciously attacking conservatives is somehow a rare thing. It’s like Keith Olbermann never existed; an alternate universe where Maddow or Matthews or Morgan or Crowley or O’Donnell or Sharpton or Schultz or MSNBC or CNN or CBS or ABC or NBC or PBS don’t go after conservatives with broad, hysterical and false attacks.
Oh, how wonderful it would be to live in that universe.