The first season of The Newsroom, HBO's drama about a cable news broadcast that decides to take on the Tea Party, came to a merciful end last week. The show began as a masochistic hourly ritual of pompous harangues, left-wing agitprop, clichéd love triangles, and error-riddled "news" presentations. It got even worse from there.
Much of the finale was spent in a hospital ward after news anchor and Keith Olbermann mimic Will McEvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, overdosed on antidepressants. At one point, Will jokes that his nurse is trying to euthanize him. After nine episodes, I think many of us were wishing she would.
Fortunately, in a speechifying whirlwind about Don Quixote and the evils of voter ID (and when have those things not gone together?), Will manages to rise from his bed. He's soon back at work, reporting the news behind his anchor desk.
That's when we're treated to this on-air monologue:
"They can call themselves the Tea Party. They can call themselves conservatives. They can even call themselves Republicans, though Republicans certainly shouldn't. But we should call them what they are: the American Taliban."
That might sound like a drunken rant at your local College Democrat club. But then the scene shifts to the newsroom where Will's producers are backslapping and hear-hearing each other, as though the French had finally sailed into Yorktown. This is perhaps the most striking feature of The Newsroom. Seeping out of every pore of its characters, embedded in every word of its dialogue, is the demand that we prostrate ourselves before its crayon-scrawled, left-wing nonsense and hail its moral courage.
The Newsroom is the brain child of Aaron Sorkin, the once-wunderkind writer behind The West Wing. He clearly intends for conservatives like me to be either outraged or intellectually swayed by his Speaking Truth to Power.
Instead it's hard not to feel bored…even sorry for Sorkin. Will's entire rant feels yellowed and musty. The "American Taliban"? Really? In addition to being tedious, that was also the title of a book by Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas. At this point, the savants of liberalism are even borrowing banalities from each other.
The left once expressed itself through twanging protest songs, Norman Lear television shows, and artful movies by directors like Oliver Stone. Now after decades of cultural hegemony, the liberal imagination is exhausted. The Newsroom is liberal culture sputtering, flailing, coughing up on the carpet.
There are many ways to sculpt good satire. You can use hyperbole to show the logical end of an argument. You can populate your world with stock characters to show trends. Or you can employ a wry narrator to comment on everything. Sorkin offers a new approach: having his characters read Huffington Post op-eds to each other.
Thus we get this Will McEvoy rant from the first episode of The Newsroom:
[America is] seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, fourth in labor force and fourth in exports. We lead the world in only three categories -- number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined…So when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don't know what the f*** you're talking about.
His audience sits rapt with attention, as they usually do when Will is Refuting Right-Wing Lies. He quotes statistics! My God, we've been buried beneath his intellectual heft! Set aside Will's inaccuracies and focus on just his dialogue for a second. Who the hell talks like that? Hollywood is so hermetically sealed from opposing viewpoints, Sorkin believes his characters can recite left-wing blog posts and people will cheer.
This is a major hazard when you control the culture. Because your views dominate the media and the little urban enclave where you live, you can breeze through life without ever being challenged. Opposing viewpoints are shouted down through the cultural megaphone. AMERICA IS RANKED 178TH IN INFANT MORTALITY! Well, no, it isn't. As Kyle Smith noticed, Sorkin literally read the CIA Factbook upside-down. And unlike many other first-world countries, the United States counts neonatal deaths as infant mortalities, artificially driving up its numbers. But America's epidemic of dying babies is now gospel in many quarters, with McEvoy's quote being carried around the Internet like a holy tabernacle.
Despite all the shrieking and ringing of bells about the "Right-Wing Noise Machine" (the savvy now just abbreviate it as RWNM), it's the left that's deafening the culture with its volume. Take this on-air exchange between Will McEvoy and a straw-man opponent of the Ground Zero Mosque who veers into worrying about Sharia Law:
STRAW MAN: All over America, we're seeing the influence of creeping Islam. … Women can be stoned to death for committing adultery.
WILL: No, they can't. Actual laws are the only ones that are enforceable, including the one that says you can't create religious laws. And the U.S. is in no more danger of coming under the rules of Sharia Law than it is the rules of Fight Club.
Will goes on to school her about how it's actually American Christians who have a history of theocratic violence. He cites, among other examples, JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, an ardent admirer of that papal state the Soviet Union.
And there are plenty of examples of Sharia Law being cited in the United States. There's the monstrous New Jersey judge who refused to grant a restraining order to a woman who had been sexually assaulted by her Muslim husband after he cited Sharia. There was Exxon Mobil's dispute with a Saudi company where the judge consulted with experts on Islamic law. These are provable facts. Conservatives may or may not be wrong about "creeping Islam," but they're not leering at monsters under the bed.
But why engage the facts when it's so much easier to scream categorical statements? On and on it goes. THERE IS NO VOTER FRAUD! Except 177 people have been convicted of voting illegally in Minnesota's 2008 Senate election alone. SADDAM HUSSEIN WAS A SECULARIST! Then why was he trying to build the largest mosque in history and have an Islamic calligrapher write a Koran in his blood? THERE'S A SCIENTIFIC CONSENSUS ON CLIMATE CHANGE! Are there any scientists still defending the IPCC report?
The Newsroom provides an airtight world where characters make these proclamations and pushover conservatives (or cliché dissenting Republicans, as South Park once called them) never retaliate with pesky facts. Liberal culture is stuck in a loop, needing to reinforce its opinions over and over again.
It's the same thing that's happening at MSNBC where Meghan McCain is considered a reliable tap into the Republican psyche. Every evening it's a drumbeat of the same stories while left-wing contributors smirk and nod vigorously. Conservative guests who could articulately challenge the conventional wisdom are rarely allowed on.
The Newsroom is several ideological heart attacks beyond even MSNBC. Thus does the Tea Party become the American Taliban (apparently Sorkin did discover Sharia in America). Cue the inspirational music. Roll the credits. As the horrified reviews have shown, it's too much for even most progressives to digest.
HBO has already renewed The Newsroom for a second season. Thus Sorkin will once again have a platform to take up his sword and slice his way through a field of straw men before taking a deep bow in expectation of our gratitude.
He'll insist that it's high entertainment. But really, it all just feels exhausted.
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