Trying to Tolerate The Newsroom, Week Three

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 29 2013 9:43 AM

Trying to Tolerate The Newsroom, Week Three

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Emily Mortimer, not Blunt

Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Congratulations, viewers! We're one-third of the way through The Newsroom's second season, and something resembling a plot has started to congeal. Last night I discussed that development with Hunter Walker, currently covering the NYC mayor's race for TalkingPointsMemo, formerly of the New York Observer and Gridskipper. Earlier installments of my journos-watch-Sorkin feature live here and here.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

HW: I don't think we should do this on Gchat. I would like to fax you each of my thoughts one sentence at a time in honor of this episode.

DW: Good idea. Normally I don't keep copies of anything, like source contacts or audio files.

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HW: I loved that lost blackmail file plot twist. The idea that an ex-DA and a journalist—even an Old School Newsman like Charlie—wouldn't know how to use a digital recorder was great. That whole blackmail/stoned voicemail storyline reminded me just how little I remembered from last season. I basically watch everything HBO hands me each week, figure I might as well if I'm paying for the subscription. I actually watched the whole first season and I honestly remembered none of this.

DW: Yes, for me, the developments at ACN last year have become hard to distinguish from the challenges of the Vampire Authority.

HW: I think Will smoked crack at a party and accidentally emailed Emily Blunt or something.

DW: Pot cookies and Emily Mortimer—same basic concept. As to this episode: If you suspend your disbelief about how campaign trail reporting works, and you're willing to patronize the press corps, there was some actual fun on display. (Here on Earth, a campaign would not strand reporters at a state park because they ask questions, because there is no "free press bus." The media fork over money for seats. Again, if you suspend disbelief...)

HW: Well, trying to catch young Romney press aides in a wonky policy gaffe is a heroic quest. It's well worth risking your seat. Plus, if you have some good thing to throw at them, best to have a public exchange in front of all the other reporters. They may get the sound bite too, but you impress Meryl Streep's daughter.

DW: That's who that actress was! Sorkin's view of the political press corps has evolved, or appears to have. In The West Wing, a ballsy press corps was constantly sparring with a capable press secretary. Lots of wit, very little exposure for the administration (which Sorkin liked, obviously—Bartlet was his dream president). Here, the press corps is a lobotomized herd that punishes the people who stand up and ask questions. How close is either of these to your experience with press corps following candidates?

HW: I think everyone appreciates a nice curveball for a candidate at a presser. However, this mayoral campaign is a far cry from the presidential trail. At these things people were literally throwing questions at Weiner. So much of the presidential grind is interacting with intermediaries. I know this puts me at risk of seeming like a hack in Sorkin terms, but I could see being annoyed at Jim. He's, at least at first with the Brooks Brothers dude, dealing with fairly junior aides. The idea that you would quote junior aides for their inability to articulate policy intricacies is silly. You could write the "X candidate's policy plan is empty" story without bickering with staff on a bus. Makes for less TV-ready drama, but that kind of headbutting doesn't strike me as how that sausage would get made.

DW: Also, by this point in a campaign, Jim should at least be getting surrogates and flacks in front of his camera. If he wants to concoct this "Romney's health care policy is incoherent" story, he can bait John Sununu (or someone similar) into the game, on camera. Instead, what we get is Aaron Sorkin shaming the media—two years later—for not nailing the Republican candidates the way he wanted them nailed, with brutal leading questions that would have left them dazzled and speechless. Maybe his heart's in the right place?

HW: It's funny. On the one hand, he's interested in shaming the media. On the other, he's doing so by creating characters that are such idealized versions of journalists. So he's sort of simultaneously bashing and lauding the press. I remember when word first got out about the plans for this show, I was still on the TV trade beat at the time. It was supposedly going to be based heavily on Olbermann. That would have been really interesting—a show about an extremely-difficult-to-work-with, egomaniacal personality. Instead, we get a guy who's literally talking about donning his cape and tights. I wrote a gossip item about Keith once in my Hollywood days, and he was on Twitter calling me a "dick" the next morning. Will is breaking out the Burt Bacharach and helping everyone be better people. So, yeah, he wants to shame us, but he's also created these examples of media who are really total white knights.

DW: Better people in the sense that they will be better to him. Do we think he'd smile on a secret meeting that got another network to kill a story? Maybe we're jaundiced, but it feels like "lying to viewers to switch out a controversial host" is a decent media story.

HW: Absolutely, but media gossip is not Sorkin-approved journalism, apparently. That's actually pretty funny considering he clearly has a media critic streak. You think he'd identify with Nina on that one. One thing I also am fascinated by is how he seems to believe Web media is inherently better. It's Twitter that would break the black ops story. I saw one of those post-episode featurettes and he described Neal as a "heroic figure of new media" or something along those lines. Reddit clued Neal in to Occupy and maybe he's totally biased but it's a good bias. I've never seen him explore the other side of media being overly influenced by Web. Neal strikes me as the type who'd be ID'ing fake Boston bombers on 4chan. But you don't see any downside to the Web on the show.

DW: That's a good point. It is handled in a thuddingly obvious way—see above, re: Charlie not knowing how digital recorders work—but it's consistent. Up to now, it's felt like Neal's the only person who realizes the Internet's there. Now they're getting a break on a story by using Topsy, which is a thing that happens, definitely.

HW: That was a little silly, though. They were going back to '09 looking for tweets. Twitter was not nearly as big back then, and I doubt it had really penetrated all the way to Waziristan. And the fax thing! My God! The only person I know of who still uses faxes is Spike Lee. He only interacts with the press via fax. True story.

DW: Donald Trump, too. If he dislikes a story, he'll fax it to a reporter with notes on it. Usually stuff along the lines of "BAD REPORTER!!!"

HW: He did that to Juli Weiner at Vanity Fair. See, in Sorkin's world, we'd be part of the mindless press horde and we'd begrudge her for pissing him off.

DW: I'm sticking with my theory of the season, which is that the hubris of these people, and their proud biases, are leading them into disaster. Jerry, who's only ever been presented as a zealot, is clearly going to screw up the Genoa story because it's more dazzling than credible. Remember how it was pitched to him: a story that "makes careers and ends presidencies."

HW: Perhaps my alarm bell should have gone off when the guy told the story this week that was essentially, "We dropped sarin on some hostages we wanted to rescue." Random side note: apparently one of the things Sorkin did to research that was bugging Parker Spitzer staffers for info after he guested on an episode. They really need a character based on Spitzer. Would certainly spice things up.

DW: The lack of giant egos is mystifying—I get why he wants the planets to revolve around McAvoy, but it seems odd that every other personality on the network is either self-doubting (Sloan) or a doofus (Eliot, the 10 p.m. show host). The women problem isn't getting much better, either. Maggie's got to be the least respected female character on a TV show this side of Meg on Family Guy.

HW: Yes, we haven't talked about Nina, the gossip columnist, wanting to sleep with Will. As a reformed gossip myself, I can say the ladies of gossip are much more badass than that and regularly turn down things far more enticing than Jeff Daniels.

DW: Hang on, that was completely realistic—the younger female reporter confessing that she was ready to date Will the moment he insulted her at a party.

HW: Yes, just as completely realistic as a high-powered celebrity gossip columnist making a freelance rate of $275.

DW: Hold up a minute. Do you not realize that Sorkin pre-nullified this entire conversation? He put these words in Will's mouth: "Snark is the idiot's version of wit, and we're being polluted by it."

HW: Oh, that was incredible. That was the most Newsroom Newsroom moment ever. I'm surprised it took us that long to bring it up.

DW: Yes, characters interrupting their usual dialogue consisting of snark directed at each other—or meta-jokes, about how they just made witticisms because the joke structures presented themselves—to break the fourth wall and judge the real-world snarkers. I appreciated that.

HW: I think a guy who writes chair pratfalls might want to be a bit more careful before judging other forms of wit. However, like his characters, Sorkin is a bold media hero. Another great moment in The Newsroom's War on Women was MacKenzie's reaction to OWS. "As a news producer, my primary opinion of this movement is that one of its people messed with my shoes."

DW: At least she didn't immediately want to ask the offender on a date, because that's the other thing women do.

HW: Well, Burt Bacharach is a powerful aphrodisiac. Jim's campaign trail squeeze, though, she's a feminist. She may need Jim to teach her how to be a real journalist, but she cares about Women's Issues. Clearly, a powerful, strong female character.

DW: Sure, that was risible, but to end where we started ... I sort of respect what Sorkin's doing there. There is, indeed, some sort of airborne virus that gets reporters largely working from the same script and getting annoyed if another reporter interlopes and asks an off-the-wall question. The desire for more questions that deviate from the script, that makes sense, and any human should want that. Now, Jim happened to be horrible at that in a way that made for good TV, possibly because he took this assignment to channel his emasculation by a colleague into a paid-for hero's journey through New Hampshire. But the instinct is sound.

HW: Very true! I have a very fun question I'm planning to ask Weiner next time I see him. Will have to dedicate it to Jim—and to Sorkin.

DW: Remember to bring your own soaring music.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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