For the fourth week, I watched The Newsroom and asked a fellow scribe to pick it apart with me. Today's victim: Garance Franke-Ruta of the Atlantic. Discerning viewers of Oscar-nominated documentaries might also know her from her role with ACT-UP, captured in How to Survive a Plague, which really should have bested Searching for Sugar Man.
Dave Weigel: Thanks for joining me, Garance! I have to admit that I'm worried about doing this recap with a woman, though—according to The Newsroom, you are likely to panic or extort me or fall in love if I become especially patronizing.
Garance Franke-Ruta: If that's how things really worked, Washington would be full of sex scandals ... oh, wait.
DW: In our reality, the women aren't nearly so passive about these things. (See: Leathers, Sydney). First off: What did you make of the resolution of the Romney bus story?
GFR: Beyond the fact that neither MacKenzie nor Jim Harper get what kind of stories do well online? "Yes" to a preview of a speech everyone else has; "no" to the press secretary melting down on the record? I'm just thinking what Michael Hastings would have done if the spokesperson for the likely eventual Republican presidential nominee said, "Go fuck yourself, Jim, that is the official comment of the Romney campaign."
DW: I keep trying to give the show the benefit of the doubt, and if you view this little scene as meta-commentary, it's less of a cop-out. For weeks Jim has been asking for an on-camera interview, and asking gotcha questions. When Meryl Streep's daughter gets the interview, we don't even hear what's in it, and Jim says (by way of covering his ass) that he didn't think Romney would even make news. Which it probably wouldn't have. The curse word would have made news.
GFR: Two words, my friend: Rick Gorka.
DW: Ah, yes—we just celebrated "what about your gaffes" day, and I was thinking about that. The reporter goading the Romney aide was a much bigger story than anything else on that trip.
GFR: Also, yes, Romney might not have made news. But he also might have! That's the fun of being a reporter—not knowing what someone will say in advance.
DW: Perhaps Sorkin didn't want to make Jim's ultimate victory a viral story about a cursing campaign aid, because that's not True Journalism. But it would have been interesting. It's crushing when a politician spins away your questions. It would have been fascinating to see Jim's idealism crash against the iron wall of Mitt Romney's onomatopoeiac laugh. Also, I would have enjoyed how they filmed that—I was pulling for a CGI Romney similar to the terrifyingly off "Livia Soprano" that appeared after she died.
GFR: I was having trouble taking the episode seriously after the female reporter's complaint, "These things aren't supposed to happen to me. I went to Vassar." Seriously?
DW: Right. Jim takes a dive in order to rebound with the girl he's been hate-flirting with. What was the meaning of her citing Vassar incessantly?
GFR: No idea. I think "Vassar girls" used to be a thing before co-ed education, but now it's just a school in Poughkeepsie. It's like saying, "These things aren't supposed to happen to me, I went to GWU."
DW: I get it now. I also just flashed back to the dark joke from the start of The Social Network, when Zuckerberg tells his girlfriend, "You don't have to study. You go to BU." Well, anyway, at least she came off as knowing, unlike the Occupy activist. Here was what I couldn't understand. She told Neal, in earshot of Jerry, that oh yeah she knew a guy at the camp who had written about the U.S. using chemical weapons. But when the Newsroom crew keeps sending reinforcements to get her to help Neal, she keeps asking what the story is about. Here's one theory: It's about the U.S. using chemical weapons!
GFR: Good point. Also, Google exists? What kind of NGO publishes secret reports about the U.S. allegedly using sarin gas on villagers? And they don't have any other sources in the international aid arena who could say, oh yeah, it was xyz group, here's a copy? And no ability to find new sources, either?
DW: "Hey, I'm Jerry Dantana, a producer obsessed with drones. You're one of my sources on Pakistan. Have you heard of this NGO?" "Oh, yeah."
GFR: Unless it was a never-published report. It all feels like a setup for a date between the OWS woman and McAvoy in a later episode. I also love how he mansplains the history of the civil rights movement to her.
DW: This stage of the OWS plotline was well-handled, I thought. It's a good explanation of how hippie-punching works in the mainstream media. Sorkin, because he's Sorkin, has Will reveal it in his own words—he hated on Occupy to "burnish my moderate credentials." But that is a thing that happens.
GFR: I guess. And there were legitimate questions about whether OWS was more a '60s-style movement or a '30s-style encampment.
DW: How do you remember generally liberal journalists talking/thinking about that at the time?
GFR: I think there was robust debate. The people who have a fantasy that the '60s are coming back and the youth will rise up were really into it. But a lot of people also had the same questions/response McAvoy channeled in the show. A lack of clear message, which is a direct result of the question that helped launch the movement, "What is our one demand?" A lack of connection to Washington, Congress. Being political in a broad sense but not a specific electoral one. I still hear people complaining about how the Tea Party movement got politics better, shifting the debate by shifting election results, while OWS got uprooted and dissipated once the physical spaces that gave it force no longer were accessible to it. I would say rather than hippie-punching, McAvoy was offering the Washington liberal take on what began as a New York progressive/radical movement.
DW: Does the show get anything particularly right about activists and engagement with MSM? I've seen video of ACT-UP people on panel TV shows where they're absolutely dominant.
GFR: I dunno. I actually did a MSNBC hit with someone who was a young female OWS activist who seemed both able to hold her own and treated with respect. I think McAvoy accurately channels one critique of OWS, but not necessarily how it was delivered. Also, can we talk about the editor who says, "Unless you want to put on heels and fuck me for an hour, you need to stop being a little bitch?"
DW: Again, over failure to get an EMAILED COPY OF A SPEECH.
GFR: In general it's not that common for anyone in media to talk like that to someone's face—as opposed to behind their back. Seemed needlessly cruel.
DW: It seemed at odds with how she'd described her job, as a startup she'd launched because she wanted to cover Real Stories. Turns out she's a mistreated woman whom Jim can save/make up with. And yeah, I've never worked with people whom I could imagine saying such a thing, even the ones who seemed to have trouble trusting women. It was like Sorkin imagining the worst possible words he could say to a woman, on cable. Turns out those words are pretty bad.
GFR: The disembodied voice of the auteur.
DW: Finally, about that the Africa plotline, which features a tender sexism-as-self-discovery moment. At the orphanage Maggie befriends an adorable kid and the orphan-master (I assume that's what he's called—orphanmonger?) jokes that blondes are trouble. The kid is killed. Maggie flashes black to the blonde joke and gets the Ziggy Stardust haircut. Deep.
GFR: Well, it is a well-established fact women who give themselves bad haircuts are often grappling with self-loathing. Cutting your own hair for any reasons beyond being economical or efficient usually is a sign of distress. I actually thought that was not handled badly.
DW: Of our two "blowing a story, learning lessons" narratives, it worked better than the Romney bus plot. It was a fine portrayal of naïveté and wonderment at a new story—and "I'll find myself in Africa" is a cliché dating back to Stanley—leading to disaster. (Stanley got around that by killing lots of people.)
GFR: Overall the thing I find frustrating about The Newsroom is there are so many great actors and actresses but the whole thing adds up to less than the sum of its parts.
DW: Yes, the theme of the season is biased incompetence, and these actors could probably play competent people if given the roles.
GFR: I enjoyed Marcia Gay Harden. And Olivia Munn is pretty good at finding the space in the Venn diagram where comic, dorky and sexy come together. But overall, if I have a choice between watching another episode of Newsroom on HBO Go or Orange Is the New Black on Netflix, I'll choose the show that's covering new territory.
DW: A lot of that going around. I'm still bitter this got renewed but Bunheads didn't. Onward I go, though. Thanks for suffering with me.
GFR: Always a pleasure.