LONDON—Not many days left to abuse that dateline. I'm still on leave, back next week, but I made sure to watch the seventh episode of The Newsroom, Season Two. And I got Peter Suderman, Reason magazine's film critic/health policy reporter, to watch it in tandem. If you haven't read Peter on the book that's helped hacks write every brain-dead action movie script of the decade, do that now.
Peter Suderman: Now we can talk about the Miley Cyrus episode of The Newsroom.
Dave Weigel: Why do you call it that? I mean, I like how it sounds, but why that label given how many Important Things happened here?
PS: Because it was slightly hard to concentrate on the show given all the VMA-tweeting that was happening at the same time. To be sure, I could have solved this problem by turning off Twitter. But I didn't.
DW: Peter, this is what's wrong with journalism. More theoretically, running a story that has been doctored and fed to you by spooks drunk on revenge is what's really wrong with journalism.
PS: Well, yes, that is a big problem, if that's what's going on. Which it is. Was. On The Newsroom. Do you get the impression that this plotline, in which our intrepid News Night team gets a Big Story very, very wrong, is an attempt to respond to criticism of the show's first season?
DW: Insofar as it's a plotline that runs through the season and creates something resembling tension?
PS: That, yes. But also in the sense that the first season, which I only saw snippets of, was perceived as very smug? This gives Sorkin a chance to take his characters down a peg. (Sort of.)
DW: As a schlocky moral lesson, it's pretty good, and having been fitted with every kind of black hat this season, it was good to see Jerry Dantana get smacked down.
Yes, only to be saved when Jane Fonda suddenly believes in the power of their journalism. She hated it when they pissed off Republicans with opinion, but she'll live with it when they blow a story. Perhaps it's because her news team is now so chastened that they won't possibly rebuff her. But as a drama—as someone who reviews a lot of movies, and knows how they are structured—what did you make of the Genoa payoff?
PS: I thought the episode worked better as drama than many of the episodes this season, mostly because it was focused on Genoa. Romantic entanglements and yesterday's news were generally back-burned, except for a Benghazi sequence intercut with a Genoa interview session at the end. The show is at its best when it's telling a story with meaningful stakes rather than offering Life Lessons, and we got more of that here than in previous episodes.
DW: As pompous as it can be/always is, I agree—I'd much rather watch Sorkin in "lecturing the audience" mode than in "teaching those women a lesson" mode.
PS: But he so obviously enjoys imparting lessons to Internet Girls everywhere. Part of what bugs me about the show is that it often feels like a one-man show, in which Sorkin is playing all the parts. This plot-heavy episode felt a little less like that than usual. What did you think of the way to Genoa story came apart? I can't decide whether it felt sort of real—a cascading series of unlikely failures—or totally contrived.
DW: Jerry turned out to be an interesting (I almost wrote "fascinating," but let's not push it) villain, and our second example this season of "the left" going too far and hurting its cause. First example: Occupy. Second: Jerry successfully goading the liberal News Night "red team" into thinking they were only cold on the story because they couldn't bring themselves to attack Obama. In the elevator confrontation—the best of its kind since Ryan Gosling smashed that one guy's head in Drive—he whines that he wouldn't have "done this" (i.e., make shit up) for any other story. He just cares SO MUCH—and sic semper annoying causeheads.
PS: Jerry makes an interesting symbol of a liberal tendency that Sorkin wants to critique. But his motivation doesn't strike me as terribly plausible. Why this story? Now? After eight years working as a produccer in the D.C. bureau, this is the moment he chooses to cook an interview? It's awfully convenient.
DW: Not that I've cooked a story, obviously (I HOPE that's obvious), but I could completely understand his motivation.
PS: Why did he think he could get away with it? How did he not notice the basketball game shot clock that gave him away?
DW: The story is sold to him as one that "makes careers and ends presidencies." Gosh, that sounds fun! Having spent eight months working on it, and assuming he has everything else down cold, I understand why he'd lie. Don't reporters sometimes rush into the breach before they've got the final, final confirmation, because damn it they don't want to be scooped?
PS: It's one thing to rush to a story before it's nailed down, and another thing to knowingly present your colleagues, and readers/watchers, with a doctored interview. But you're making a better case here than the show did.
DW: Well, Jerry was presented from the outset as an arrogant hobgoblin with no friends or relevance to anyone's life apart from this story.
PS: Right. A bad guy! Who exposes the weaknesses of the protagonists. And forces them to rethink Everything They Know. One bit I did enjoy was the garage scene with Charlie's source. Now, it was a little over-the-top. But I liked the way the source decided that the best way to get revenge on Charlie wasn't to hurt him physically—but to trick him into airing a bad story.
DW: It was nice how that revelation of journalistic fraud by a source was laid out in a parking garage. Though Sorkin, as usual, curdled the cream by having Sam Waterson snark about it.* "A parking garage?" Yes. Everyone gets it!
PS: It's a common Sorkin problem. He doesn't trust his viewers to pick up on things. For example: that the basketball game would be important later. He hung a neon sign on that plot point last episode. And then put together a Basketball Lecture sequence, with Will helpfull mansplaining sports timing rules to Mac, as well as the segment clock clue that led Mac to review Jerry's footage.
DW: Yes, who was the viewer who needed that? This isn't TV, it's HBO! This is the audience that watched Deadwood and tried to understand John From Cinncinati and can figure out who the six identical-looking guys with beards in Game of Thrones are! Surely they saw the basketball game last episode and thought, "Hrm, problem!"
PS: And surely the problems with the footage could have been discovered by Mac obsessively rewatching the footage following complaints about the story. Which is probably what a producer in that situation would actually be doing—extensively reviewing the evidence in order to see what, if anything, was missed.
DW: But she doesn't realize that live sports happens in linear time. A common mistake, honestly.
PS: Well, she is a woman on an Aaron Sorkin show. I guess the next two episodes are just Aftermath/Redemption? This felt very much like the end of Act II, with everything unraveling and a period of reflection as the protagonists come to grips with all they have lost and learned. Which ought to send us into Act III, in which the protagonists put all their new knowledge to use in order to Achieve Victory. I don't recall it being very exciting. But I assume it will be for the News Night crew, because they'll learn to get their stories right—and get their credibility back.
DW: The next two appear to be a suite called "Election Night I and II." Do you recall how exciting election night 2012 was? (I assume it will also be boring in the Sorkinverse, but Jim will have to choose between Maggie and his campaign bus squeeze.) Back to this ep, though. Let's establish that it was pretty gripping drama qua drama, far and above the usual for this show.
DW: Did it feel like journalism? The coda (or pre-coda) about the News Night-ers being so sad they repeat the State Department's Benghazi spin was meant to say ... that reporters get cowed when they've screwed up? I think that's true.
PS: Right. There are costs to screw-ups that go beyond the original story.
DW: Tough for them to call up their State sources knowing that they are the face of botched national security news. I do think that's happened. It would be interesting to see the sources' side of it—political sources do not mind manipulating reporters if they know they're bleeding credibility.
PS: That also struck me as one of those highly convenient Sorkin moments where they had the story right—or could have, anyway. Maybe that's the lesson of Genoa —its true cost—that it prevented News Night from being the news program that Aaron Sorkin knows in his heart it could be.
DW: I think so. All season I've been giving the show bonus points for seemingly sending the message that hubris—as exhibited by every character here—is a killer.
But ... what if that message is softened a bit? What if it turns out that hubris is OK, as long as you don't employ an Aspergers-y guy who yells about drones? And trust him on his story?
PS: here's more than a hint of that in the final scene, with Fonda.
DW: "We've lost the trust of the public!" "So get it back, you stupid liberals I keep trying to fire!" I'm not sure who has the most promising yet one-note "bossy woman" role this year, Fonda here or Kirsten Scott Thomas in Only God Forgives.
PS: She strongly suggests that the lesson these folks ought to be learn is that when they get taken by a rogue producer, the correct response is not to shoulder any of the blame, but to be really angry at that jerk producer.
DW: Let the fall guy take it—that's why he's a fall guy. Yes, quite the lesson.
PS: And the fact that Jerry's lawsuit basically says it was a systemic failure—well, that shows you it's the coward's argument.
DW: Yep. If crazy Jerry thinks it's everyone's fault, surely it isn't. Jim, as usual, is made to look like a saint.
PS: Not that I want to defend Jerry in any way, but a little bit of reflection on the newsgathering and story verification process strikes me as totally in order following a botch like Genoa.
DW: I hope that actor is at least getting some hot fanmail from this. He's the biggest Mary Sue since Garth Marenghi. Sorry, I've been in the U.K. for a week and all my references are adjusting accordingly.
PS: Yeah, I had to Google that one.
DW: "Garth is the most talented entertainer I've ever worked with, and I've worked with Lulu and three other people. So we're talking creme de la creme." End now my appeal to sell this on Region 1 DVDs. Anyway—yes, I'd like the comeuppance theme of the season, and feel that, as interesting as it was to watch Jerry go down, the lesson of this episode was not "don't do bad journalism" but "don't hire Jerry."
PS: And/or: "Even great journalists sometimes hire Jerry. And run his crap stories. But that doesn't mean they're not great journalists." It's rather defensive. In an earlier episode, Mac told the rest of the team to always ask of any story: "Is this the best version of the argument?" It's a good question for journos. I wish Sorkin were a little more committed to that standard himself.
*Correction, Aug. 26, 2013: This post originally misspelled Sam Waterston's name.