The Awful Pieties of ‘The Newsroom’

Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom has a character, news executive Charlie Skinner, who says nice things about ThinkProgress in the third episode of the show. I wish I could return the complement to my employer, but The Newsroom, which debuts at 10 PM on Sunday on HBO is a show full of deeply unpleasant characters. That might be excusable if the show had something genuinely new to say about how to report and present the news, and about the temperament it takes to do great reporting in the present environment. But it’s a bizarre combination of naive and condescending. I wrote, in a review for The Atlantic that’s was based only on the pilot (HBO got me the other episodes just this morning):

The Newsroom appears to operate on a hierarchy of condescension. At the top is executive Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), who describes MacKenzie as if she’s a fragile flower rather than an experienced war correspondent. He says, “She’s mentally and physically exhausted…and she’s been to way too many funerals for a girl her age. She wants to come home.” Will, a notch below him, is unpleasant to everyone in sight, starting in the opening sequences, when he tells a college girl, “You are, without a doubt, the member of the worst period generation period ever period.” (The show later validates Will’s nastiness to her by making her seem spoiled and entitled: She sues her college for emotional distress.) Don (Thomas Sadoski), Will’s soon-to-be-former executive producer, can’t risk snarking on MacKenzie, his replacement, “She’s like a sophomore poli-sci major at Sarah Lawrence.” Jim, MacKenzie’s deputy, snaps back: “She’s exactly like that. I guess the only difference are her two Peabodies and the scar on her stomach from covering a Shiite protest in Islamabad.”

Sorkin’s characters are often accused of sounding alike. Here, what they have in common is a sense that they’re superior to someone who hasn’t submitted to their needs, wishes, and worldview.

At the bottom of this miserable totem pole is Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), formerly an intern, promoted only recently to be Will’s assistant, who is condescended to by everyone. “He didn’t promote you, honey. He thought you were his assistant,” Don, her negging nebbish of a boyfriend tells her at the beginning of the episode. Will, trying to prove he’s attentive to his staff, insists that her name is Ellen. MacKenzie declares that Maggie is “me, before I grew into myself and got hotter with age!” And when Maggie volunteers for a reporting task, both Don and Jim treat Maggie like an idiot. “Can you do this? You can’t just look it up on Wikipedia,” Don tells her. “It’s true, Maggie,” warns Jim.

The subsequent episodes didn’t improve things. Sorkin’s given us perhaps the worst new female character to debut in 2012 in MacKenzie, who gives tendentious speeches, pretentious lectures on news reporting, and whose behavior is so unprofessional it gave me a physical twitch. When it isn’t condescending to women, The Newsroom makes a fetish of nastiness. Will’s aggression is what’s presented as admirable, his ability to fillet someone dumb, rather than his ability to elicit new information. And that’s a huge problem for the show’s presentation of the news business. There’s not actually anything admirable or interesting about gutting a college student for asking a dumb question at a forum, or lecturing Tea Party adherents about the wealth of the Koch Brothers: instead, it’s an attempt to appeal to the mean, superior, lizard parts of our brains. Sorkin wants Will to be an alternative to the shouty creeps who literally are meant to make Will—and us—feel physically ill in the opening sequence. Will may be an ass of Sorkin’s creation. But that doesn’t mean he’s not an ass.