You can understand why we might have gotten our hopes up.
A little over a year ago, the cable channel HBO posted a trailer for The Newsroom, its new Aaron Sorkin drama set in a fictional cable news operation. It was a firecracker of a promo, introducing us to Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a warmly regarded, devoutly apolitical anchor exploding in frustration during a public forum and angrily schooling the audience on the failings of America. The moment goes viral, and as the advertiser boycotts begin and his corporate bosses bear down, Will seems energized by the controversy, on the verge of becoming a fearless, Howard Beale-style truth-teller.
To those toiling in the benighted news industry, the show promised to remind us why we got into the business in the first place. The trailer slapped down the blow-dried anchors and blowhard pundits, the veneration of ratings over quality, the big and little compromises so many make in the course of the job. But once The Newsroom itself hit the air and viewers found themselves force-fed a groaning board of Sorkin’s self-importance, his arrogance toward new media and its practitioners, and his apparent blindness to some of the key dynamics affecting the industry – not to mention his ham-fisted storytelling and the show’s cringeworthy romances – many understandably fled, screaming into the night.
Some noted that Sorkin’s fat targets were already pilloried nightly by The Daily Show. But while Jon Stewart has made sure everyone knows how absurd the news industry is, he’s not interested in fixing it; The Newsroom, a hard-nosed fairy tale, dares to be aspirational. What other cable drama is essentially a long-running Platonic dialogue on the value of truth in a modern democracy?
The beginning of season two, which kicked off Sunday even-ing on HBO Canada, found Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.), the senior producer of Will’s show, News Night, travelling with the press corps covering Mitt Romney’s campaign in the lazy, late summer of 2011. Romney isn’t yet the Republican candidate, and while everyone else on the bus seems happy to parrot the campaign’s talking points, Harper alone asks the tough questions. “You can’t blame me for trying,” he says to another reporter. “I am,” she replies.
Meanwhile, back in New York, network boss Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), citing research showing an engaged audience is more likely to stay tuned in, inserts a stream of viewers’ tweets onto the screen during one of the nightly shows. So what if this means the professionals are ceding a strip of TV real e state to the amateurs? It’s the way the world is going.
And The Newsroom is grounded in reality. During the show’s first season, viewers speculated that Will was based on the tempestuous, left-leaning Keith Olbermann, a friend of Sorkin’s who was believed to have been pushed out of MSNBC after that channel’s parent company was bought by the Washington-friendly Comcast Corp.
But he turns out to be more like CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Near the top of the new season, we learn that Will landed the anchor’s desk after a marathon performance as a fill-in anchor on Sept. 11, 2001. (Cooper, of course, really found his niche – and had his show expanded from one hour to two – after viewers applauded his passionate coverage of Hurricane Katrina; since then, like Will, he has used his perch to preach the importance of seeking the truth.) We see an archival clip of Will from around midnight that evening, already 16 hours on the air. “We don’t know who attacked us, we don’t know what’s coming tomorrow, and I don’t know what I’m doing,” he says, with a touching blend of authority and vulnerability. “But I’ll make you this promise: I’m going to be with you all night. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be right here.”
It’s worth noting that the second season is airing at a time when CNN itself is apparently ditching its (relatively) serious-minded approach in favour of ratings bait. Jeff Zucker, the former wunderkind executive producer of The Today Show and ex-CEO of NBC Universal, took over the presidency of CNN Worldwide in January and quickly began shaking up its domestic programming. Last month, the network announced it would introduce a new version of the shouting pundit show Crossfire, which was euthanized shortly after Jon Stewart appeared on it in October, 2004, and famously told hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson, “What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery,” and then begged them to “Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America.”
But if CNN has discovered the increasing need in this fractured media landscape to troll – to intentionally antagonize viewers in order to incite a response that might get people to tune in, even if only to hate-watch – that tendency is baked into the DNA of The Newsroom. Will McAvoy is a Republican, but mainly in name: The show’s politics are squarely anti-Republican, and therefore guaranteed to render many right-wing viewers apoplectic. Similarly, Sorkin, who has never been a great writer of women, enraged many female critics (and their like-minded male colleagues) with a notorious episode during season one in which Will’s female executive producer and ex-girlfriend Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) was revealed to be useless at math. People may have mocked the show, but at least Sorkin succeeded in getting them to talk about it.
Like his hero, Sorkin believes journalism – or at least entertainment about journalism – can make the world a better place. But first he has to get people to watch.