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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Newsroom: “112th Congress”

Illustration for article titled The Newsroom: “112th Congress”
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The third episode of The Newsroom opens with footage of Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism chief under George W. Bush, issuing an apology to the American people for their government—and Clarke—failing to prevent the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. No, the News Night team hasn’t gone back to report eight-year-old news, but Clarke’s remarks stand as the preface for Will’s own failure to provide an adequate service to the viewing public. It’s the great fantasy of The Newsroom that the news media would hold themselves accountable for failure—failures brought about by chasing ratings, bowing to corporate interests, and trying to present a false left/right “balance” on issues like evolution and climate change, where the facts favor one side unambiguously.

Here’s the thing: The show and its creator, Aaron Sorkin, are making completely valid points about how and why the media, specifically broadcast news, has let down the electorate. But the problem with the show is that it can’t help making those statements explicit. The Wire is a great show because it reveals, season by season, the futility of the “War On Drugs” and its corrosive, wide-ranging impact on a city’s social institutions and its people. It would not be a great show if Bubbles came out and said, “Man, the ‘War On Drugs’ has really had a corrosive, wide-ranging impact on the city’s social institutions and people like me.” Granted, Bubbles doesn’t have a camera in front of him so he can voice such an opinion, but Sorkin’s habit of stating his thesis over and over—rather than demonstrating it in the day-to-day reality of putting on a quality news broadcast—is The Newsroom’s biggest problem. And it doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.

“The 112th Congress” doesn’t get worse than Will’s on-air apologia—or, perhaps worse than that, the awed reaction shots of his staffers—but the self-aggrandizement doesn’t end there. Sorkin and his co-writer, Gideon Yago (of MTV News fame), use the Tea Party revolution as an opportunity to expose the movement as a far-right, corporate-backed hijacking of the Republican Party. The episode plays like the dramatization of an editorial by David Frum, the Republican apostate who once served as a George W. Bush speechwriter (he coined the notorious phrase “axis of evil” to describe Iran, Iraq, and North Korea) and has since balked at the extremists holding sway in the GOP. And much like the moderate Republicans who have been marginalized for failing to take hardline conservative positions on every issue, Frum has been labeled a RINO (Republican In Name Only) and banished to the land of wind and ghosts (a.k.a. The Daily Beast). (Money quote: “Some of my Republican friends ask if I’ve gone crazy. I say: Look in the mirror.”)

Positioning Will McAvoy as a dissenter in the Frum/Andrew Sullivan mode is a savvy piece of political cover on Sorkin’s part, shielding him and his lead character (if only a little) from the accusation that the show is a sounding board for liberal opinions. In “The 112th Congress,” this allows Will to prosecute the Tea Party as a GOP-er interested in saving his party’s soul rather than as a hyper-partisan Democrat with an agenda. The bulk of the episode finds Will on a nightly campaign to expose the Tea Party not as a grassroots movement but as a radical, Koch Brothers-financed campaign to purge any Republicans who don’t tick every far-right ideological box. Will makes enemies of Fox News and right-wing radio talkers, makes friends of Media Matters and Think Progress, and loses the ratings bump he enjoyed after his Northwestern speech.

The episode is framed by another Network moment, albeit not of the “mad as hell” variety that The Newsroom has favored to date. As Will and his team spend the back half of 2010 squandering his ratings dominance, we get a glimpse of some corporate star chamber after the mid-term elections, where Charlie hears the grumblings of the higher-ups. In Network, Ned Beatty takes Peter Finch’s Howard Beale into a dark conference room to warn him about meddling with “the primal forces of nature.” Here that duty falls to Jane Fonda, who quietly absorbs all the ratings news before giving Charlie the same message: That the Tea Party and their corporate sponsors may be extreme, but ACN is but a tiny part of a much larger media company that has to do business with the Michele Bachmann, Jim DeMint, and their disciples in the 112th Congress.

Director Greg Mottola lays on the atmosphere a little too thickly: Setting a meeting like this one in a shadowy boardroom works fine enough for a satire like Network, but The Newsroom is ostensibly set in the real world and could stand a subtler staging. And though it’s fun seeing Fonda deliver the Beatty-style fire-and-brimstone monologue, it adds more freight to an episode that’s already painfully explicit. So far, there’s precious little subtext on The Newsroom—it’s all text, which thins out both the complex issues at play and the mucked-up agendas of the professionals trying to make sense of them.


Stray observations:

  • I didn’t give myself an opportunity to comment on the romantic intrigue happening on the sidelines this week, which says something about how minuscule an impact they’ve had on the show so far. Save for Jim’s sweet scene with Maggie after her panic attack, the love triangle between those two and Don is still a bit lifeless. Worse yet, it colors the dispute between Jim and Don by making it seem like a case of romantic rivalry rather than a difference in showrunning philosophies.
  • Will dating a succession of lovely young women—and bringing them to the office in a bid to hurt MacKenzie for cheating on him—similarly feels underwritten and damaging to the show’s fundamental seriousness.
  • With each episode, Sam Waterston’s Charlie appears to be getting drunker. He’s well past the Freddy Rumson line here.
  • Judging by Jim and Neal’s barroom conversation, a WikiLeaks episode appears imminent. If I were more confident in this show’s ability to parse complex political, ethical, and journalistic matters, I’d be excited by the possibilities.