The Problem with "The Newsroom’s" Critics - They're Journalists

Wednesday, June 27, 2012 - 03:40 PM

Reviews of Aaron Sorkin's new HBO show The Newsroom have so far been mixed. But are journalists the fairest judges for this TV show?

Since before The Newsroom aired on HBO last Sunday night, nearly every critic has found something negative to say about writer Aaron Sorkin's new show. While this is inevitable - Sorkin's wordy, hyper-intellectual, sometimes elitist style is polarizing - The Newsroom has been a lightning rod for nitpicks and skepticism this week, even from critics who are fans of his work. One reason? Its premise trespasses on the reviewers' turf.

Perhaps it could be called the “inside baseball bias” (or maybe there's a real name for it). It’s the criticisms of Sorkin that originate from the fact that the reviewer, usually a magazine or newspaper writer who has years of experience in many real newsrooms—, intimately knows (and certainly has long developed personal opinions about) how the news business really works. 

Some critics have spoken with a particular bias from within the news world. Jake Tapper, ABC News correspondent, writing for The New Republic, earnestly defends the principled world of TV news, while criticizing the fictional NewsNight’s editorial choices and reminding readers several times that Sorkin “isn’t much of an expert on the subject.” From a different angle, Maureen Ryan, TV critic for the Huffington Post, takes issue among other things in her negative review with the gravity Sorkin gives TV news outlets over newer online media (of which the Huffington Post is, of course, the prime example):  

The funniest thing about The Newsroom is that it takes as a given that people care a great deal about what one news anchor says on his show... Sorkin still doesn’t get that people sample the news all day through any number of sources and that news anchors and their shows, frankly, don’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things.  

Many critiques are not as completely negative. Some reviewers are clearly fans of Sorkin's previous work, like The West Wing. That show’s progressive idealist, funhouse-mirror premise is similar to Sorkin’s Newsroom, which dramatizes how past news events like the BP Oil disaster “should” have been reported in the way The West Wing (liberally) fantasized about how the White House “should” have been run.  

But even fans like Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker (who calls The West Wing “Sorkin’s helpful counterprogramming to the Bush Administration”) can’t suspend their disbelief the way they did before and enter Sorkin's fictive, prescriptive universe: 

[The premise] sounds like an innovative concept, but it turns the characters into back-seat drivers, telling us how the news should have been delivered… But [protagonist Will McAvoy] also seizes credit for “breaking stories” — like the political shenanigans of the Koch brothers — that were broken by actual journalists, all of them working in print or online.  

Also, Howard Kurtz at the Daily Beast: 

...Sorkin isn’t really interested in unspooling how journalism functions, the way he was in how Martin Sheen wielded political power. The bustle of the newsroom is a mere backdrop for self-involved characters to give talky speeches and taunt each other. In fact, the smart-ass speeches go on and on and on, the actors seemingly in love with the sound of their voices.

Never minding the question of how much political power actor Martin Sheen actually yielded, Kurtz voices another common complaint: that The Newsroom is too preachy, too partisan and general in its criticism, with characters too often breaking into "non-sequitur monologues" (as the New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley put it) about what's wrong with journalism. Emily Nussbaum again:  

In The Newsroom, clever people take turns admiring one another. They sing arias of facts. They aim to remake television news: “This is a new show, and there are new rules,” a maverick executive producer announces, several times, in several ways. Their outrage is so inflamed that it amounts to a form of moral eczema—only it makes the viewer itch.

Lofty, unrealistically “extemporaneous” monologues in the middle of a work day? Sounds like The West Wing, (and how realistic did that show’s executive office, its rooms noisy with ceaseless soliloquy, seem to insiders in that profession?) But this time, critics can't buy it because they’ve worked in that particular environment and (rightly) can't picture themselves or their colleagues speechifying in such high-minded ways during their coffee breaks. 

Many issues people take with Sorkin’s work are valid, especially if you’re not a fan to begin with. His work is usually unapologetically liberal, his writing bombastic, his pacing hyper, and his creations often derivative (sometimes derivative even of Sorkin’s previous work). But he’s writing a show for HBO, intended first for his cult following and second, a general audience  — many of whom may be journalists or critics, but certainly not all. And ultimately The Newsroom is fictional entertainment, not an actual cable show, subject to the weight of journalistic responsibility. 

Perhaps the critics, who are well acquainted with their newsrooms, were bound to be disappointed by Sorkin’s. 

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Comments [9]

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Sep. 22 2012 03:08 AM
Paula from California

Happy to see this summary because I thought the same thing. I am a lawyer. There have been and are numerous programs on TV about lawyers - most of which are not accurate. I loved LA Law (on years ago) but it was often wrong in it's portrayal. It's fiction. Get it. It's the characters and the story that are the most important. I love the characters in newsroom just like I loved LA law. They're not perfect . But they're good entertainment and it does make me think of the problems that do exist in the media.

Sep. 10 2012 04:05 AM
William Dowell from Geneva, Switzerland

The show admittedly has more gravitas to it than you are likely to find in a CNN or Fox News room, but having worked for both NBC and ABC in Washington and as a correspondent overseas (Europe, the Middle East, Iran, Africa and Asia), I find the show both interesting and credible, and Sorkin really does hit on the major issues affecting news coverage today. Of course the best journalists take these issues seriously and what they say may sound preachy or opinionated, but that is to a certain extent their job. The crisis in the business is that corporate takeovers have shifted the TV news side into punditry and often uninformed commentary. Despite that, there are good journalists out there who try to get beyond that, and occasionally there are good producers and even some network executives who care about the final product. It seems to me that what Sorkin is really talking about is how to get news reporting back on track after decades in the desert of infotainment. As far as I am concerned, I'd like to see where he takes the show--as for journalism itself, I'd also like to see where the show's critics take that.

Jul. 22 2012 01:29 PM
Alex Klein from San Francisco

Having watched the first three episodes of "The Newsroom" I would suggest that a journalist is the best critic for this show; seeing as a journalist can accurately judge the authenticity of the show, which seems to me to be more self important than informative (seeing as it proposes an argument about American society which is obvious to anyone who's ever bothered to turn on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart). I am not personally a fan of the show which has a fondness for unrealistic dialogue, overacting, and an overdose of smugness. This being said, I enjoy the core principles of the news program behind the show, find the characters charming if not noticeably divorced from reality, and found it amusing to travel two years back in time to hear about stories I now only faintly remember. This all leads to my final point; if someone were to base their viewing of this show on my review, then they may as well watch it and make up their own minds, but why not trust a critic to criticize a show about their industry? Is it too well informed an opinion?

Jul. 17 2012 05:03 PM
Jeff from El Dorado, Arkansas

What are they trying to say with this show? They have an intelligent, passionate character who is presented as a deep-thinking person who is interested in 'truth'. There is a segment in which he says that some people should have warning labels on them because they misrepresent truth - they knowingly spread lies. He makes examples of three conservatives. See any hypocrisy here? Shouldn't he come with a warning label himself? Shouldn't he cite examples from liberals as well? Is the writer trying to show how the "elite" deceive themselves, or is the writer purblind in believing that his main character is indeed unbiased.

Jul. 16 2012 03:19 PM

I'm amused. The Newsroom is entertainment, a fiction, is it not? It may have an agenda, but most fiction does reveal the author's hand one way or another. So what?

Come on, folks, back down. Whether you're old enough to remember or not, TV (and movies, for that matter) have never really resembled reality, and we're fools to expect it. Its purpose is to tell a story - hopefully a good story - and that means drama or comedy, compression and sketching instead of detail. It's a compromise, weighted toward those elements of story foremost, not verisimilitude. Pick an essay or documentary instead.

For me, it begins long ago: whether it was TV shows about law (The Defenders, Perry Mason, et al) or hospitals and doctors (Dr Kildare or Dr Casey, et al), or newsrooms (Lou Grant, Front Page, Network, et al), and everything since, none of them were accurate, and they all had authors grinding their axes. What profession has ever been portrayed authentically in mass entertainment? It's all about myth-making. The difference, these days, lies in the fact that pundits abound - not only are there more of them (albeit mostly online), they get more talked about ... and they're just as superficial in their reaction as ever. These are times when opinion and point of view counts for more than it ought to. That's what The Newsroom reflects most accurately: the public's perception. A funhouse mirror as TV has always been. (Disclaimer: you could say I've worked in newsrooms...)

Jul. 07 2012 08:58 PM

I read many reviews with great disappointment but was hardly disappointed with the show, finding myself totally engaged during the not-quite 75 minutes. I have no idea what a plausible newsroom looks like, but surely "The Newsroom" looks more realistic than Julia Loius-Dreyfus's portrayal of a vice president. Now that "Mad Men" and "The Killing" are over I genuinely look forward to whatever paltry number of episodes "The Newsroom" will offer through the summer.

Jun. 29 2012 09:29 PM
Brian

While there is certainly a good amount of sour grapes on the part of reviewers, the lack of interest and sometimes outright disdain for how journalism works is a major problem with a show that is trying to show how a cable news show can be used to fix America's problems.

Which of course brings us to the idea that the solution the show presents is to basically just "sit down and listen" with seemingly no understanding at all of the vast complexity of wicked problems.

In addition to this, the rose-colored nostalgia that Sorkin's characters have for a former era of America and frankly the still poor treatment of women that the show only seems to have to enable the greatness of Will McAvoy (a view and attitude that Sorkin seems to share himself, see his interview with The Globe and Mail's Sarah Nicole Prickett) perhaps have been present to a significant degree in all of his shows. Since he now is touching on a world with significantly more diversity (when we include the world of blogging) than the worlds of executive branch politics, sportscasting and tech start ups these issues have found a louder voice than before.

Jun. 27 2012 07:26 PM
Cameron

Though I do not, and have never, worked in a newsroom I feel that criticisms you cited were so obvious and frustrating that even as a lay viewer that they also crossed my mind. The Newsroom's newsroom just didn't read as a plausible newsroom.

Furthermore, and maybe this is my personal bias, but it seems to me that nightly cable news shows are about the least relevant forms of news dissemination one can imagine in the current era. I just can't take a set of characters seriously if they collectively believe in the absurd premise that cable news matters on any kind of scale.

Maybe the most infuriating aspect of the show is that it hints at a pervasive and significant role that is played by wire services. Maybe it's another instance of personal bias, but I'd much rather see an examination of quiet ways in which wire services have come to rule the news roost and silently shape news coverage in ways that are unknown to even informed viewers.

Jun. 27 2012 06:02 PM

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