The pilot for HBO’s “Newsroom” opens on a panel at Northwestern University featuring Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) sandwiched between two angry, pedantic hacks engaged in the sort of unashamed punditry that would be embarrassing if it weren’t so commonplace. When asked by an undergrad why he thinks America is the greatest country in the world, he breaks. The idea and theme, in short, is that it isn’t, but it could be.

It’s a solid message and theme for which one can structure a show about journalism, politics, culture, and any combination thereof.

Unfortunately, the execution is marred from the outset  by intellectually defensive patter. McAvoy’s message starts out well enough; he destroys the infantile punditry on the stage (a hamfisted but accurate metaphor for the state of op/ed in this country) and bemoans the sports team atmosphere in politics that does such a grave disservice to the issues at hand and the populace. Then, as if completely unaware of everything that had just occurred, he slips into another great lie and waxes nostalgic for a time when the populace was hyper-aware, politicians were hyper-ethical, and reform occurred only because the entire nation rallied around the moral imperative to do so.

If you’re wondering which age he’s referring to, don’t bother. Because it’s never occurred in the history of civilization as we know it, let alone the United States. It was the first, but not the last, time my head nearly hit my desk out of frustration.

Sorkin is at his best when putting characters in high-stress environments and forcing them to live their lives out in the midst and in spite of the demands of their professions. The best example of this was “Sports Night,” where the cultural stakes were the lowest but the characters were the most well defined. This wasn’t a coincidence. It seems that the more importance Sorkin gives to the profession of his protagonists, the more the art suffers and the more the message gets lost in speedtalk, pseudo-intellectualism, and hypocrisy, all of which are delivered on “Newsroom” in a manner akin to self-parody.

Imagine the newspaper folks in season 5 of “The Wire,” except doing television & all masturbating in front of a mirror.

As for the message itself: noble, but flawed, as I’ve already stated. That’s to be expected. We live in a country where grown men and women who deign to portray themselves as intellectuals try to win arguments at all costs, even if it means suddenly changing the topic entirely, and as a result end up shouting into the crowd until they can find a like-minded or sympathetic soul to retweet them. Thing is, though, that’s not necessarily a new development.

In the second act of the pilot, McAvoy waves a print version of a study (a laughably convenient prop) at his new Executive Producer (also an old and future flame of his because this is Sorkin after all) that claims the country is more polarized than it’s ever been since the Civil War. The first problem, of course, is that this wasn’t a definitive study but rather a flippant statement made by Jimmy Carter during an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams. The second problem is that even within that statement and subsequent surveys that have made more restrained claims of heightened polarization, the results are muddied by confirmation bias and a modern interpretation/separation of politics as “red states and blue states,” a relatively recent approach born out of lazy network news.

Which is all to say that some things are bad and people are hysterical, but the idea of anything in terms of tone, rhetoric, or misinformation from the Fourth Estate or beyond being a 21st Century phenomena is laughable to anybody who’s even remotely familiar with American history. The forlorn rumination of the collapse of intelligent discourse is a false construct. Little can be gained from shouting about the 1% during a discussion unrelated to finance, or deferring to and ejaculating all over the Constitution in matters not only absent from the document but unfathomable to its authors, or waving the Torah and the New Testament in the air while speaking on the floor of the Assembly. But it also isn’t helped by pretending that any of these are new tactics. It’s all old hat, and to pretend otherwise is every bit as delusional as the partisan hackery that “Newsroom” rails against.


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