In a recent episode of Aaron Sorkin's new HBO drama, Newsroom, about the inner workings of a network news program, a young staffer puts his fist through a computer monitor. He had become enraged after repeatedly viewing a clip in which Rush Limbaugh expressed lack of sympathy for foreign correspondents imperiled while covering the uprising in Egypt. I can relate. Not fifteen minutes earlier, the same episode had me seething during a scene in which unfounded attacks were made on reputable policy shops like Heritage and Cato. I had the good sense not to break my hand over it, though.
Newsroom follows the exploits of Will McAvoy, a once staid evening news anchor whose profanity laden moment of honesty during a panel discussion at Northwestern University transforms him into a YouTube sensation. His direct superior decides to seize upon this notoriety and refashion Will--whose reputation had been that he was safe, the Jay Leno of news--into the sort of old fashioned, idealistic newsman who speaks truth to power. Not surprisingly for an Aaron Sorkin show, power correlates approximately 1:1 with conservative interests.
The twist is that McAvoy, played as likeably flawed by veteran actor Jeff Daniels, constantly proclaims that he is a member of the Republican Party and balks at any notion of liberal favoritism on his show. Right. We are informed that conservatives perceive him as a RINO. He does little to bolster his GOP credentials, scoffing at the New York Post for being too lowbrow, blanching when a date brings a legally permitted concealed carry weapon into his swank Manhattan apartment, and describing himself as a member of the "media elite" on air -- using the phrase proudly as a credential, not in the self-effacing pejorative.
It is almost as if Sorkin foresaw the coming complaints from conservative watchdog groups about his latest unbalanced show and decided to add a measure of even-handedness. And a weak measure, at that. McAvoy is not so much Sorkin's ideal newsman, as his ideal conservative. He never articulates a single conservative value and uses his airtime to attack other conservatives. More on that later. Even McAvoy's ostensible Republicanism itself is played for smug laughs. "I am a registered Republican," he tells his boss, "I only seem liberal because I believe that hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage." Ignoring for a moment that hurricanes are actually caused by low pressure, the irony is apparently lost on McAvoy that the global warming agenda he alludes to is essentially a secular religion with adherents as zealous as anti-gay bigots.
McAvoy, supposedly distressed by what he sees as the extremist drift of the GOP, turns his guns on the Tea Party movement. In his eyes, the movement started as a legitimate populist response to heavy-handed governance but transformed into a rag tag group of ignorant radicals acting as useful idiots for the Koch brothers. He laments that a dentist is running a campaign to the right of a career conservative politician. A dentist! Remember, viewers, in this progressive world born of the imperious politics of Woodrow Wilson, only "experts" should hold office.
The anti-Tea Party crusade begins with McAvoy embarrassing two blameless activists on air for the sin of declaring that the Tea Party is a decentralized movement while being unaware that the Koch brothers funded a rally in a neighboring state. He helpfully informs them that the Kochs could buy their liberal equivalent, George Soros, several times over, as if greater success in business somehow makes the exercise of political speech insidious. The network owner, played by noted American super-patriot Jane Fonda, later warns McAvoy's boss that the Koch brothers bury enemies under Brinks trucks for these sorts of incidences.
Sorkin's greatest beef with the Tea Party, besides their purported ignorance, seems to be that they are centrally controlled by malevolent plutocrats. In a later episode, he approvingly juxtaposes government employees picketing against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker with pro-democracy protesters in Tahrir Square. Surely, those noble activists who trashed the Wisconsin legislative chambers with an illegal and raucous sit-in, bilked taxpayers with phony doctor's notes, and brought about recall proceedings of a duly elected public official over a matter of political disagreement weren't centrally aided or influenced at all by union leaders.
One wonders if Sorkin is also a fan of that other "decentralized" protest movement, Occupy Wall Street, which completely exceeds the Tea Party in several key indicators including rapes, shootings, and defecation on police vehicles. But aside from his fandom for noxious political movements, Sorkin's latest creative effort betrays two flawed lines of reasoning typical of liberals at the turn of this century.
The first is their assessment of the news industry. Liberals have never been comfortable with conservative dominance of talk radio, which developed out of the less overt liberal domination of every other medium. Conservative talk radio emerged as a refuge for those who sought an alternative to left-leaning traditional news. With the advent of the Internet, the rise of blogging, and an increase in the number of cable channels, the news has been democratized to a degree never previously thought possible.
All of this stymies liberals, who fondly recall the days of purportedly impartial newsmen, McAvoy's "media elite." McAvoy's news director calls for McAvoy to model himself after Murrow, who brought down McCarthy, and Cronkite, who ended the Vietnam War. The arrogant assumption underpinning this call for a return to news in an old-fashioned mold is that if Americans just heard the "truth," they would vote for progressives. One should presumably ignore the facts that McCarthy, though his methods were deplorable, was correct about government infiltration by communists, or that we were actually winning the Vietnam War before a crisis of faith brought on by Cronkite's blistering -- and inaccurate -- Tet Offensive editorial.
Sorkin's most frequent news industry targets are Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. A weekly fixture of Newsroom is some clip or another in which either of those pundits misinforms their audience. What Sorkin misses is that no one gets their news from pundits. The audience that consumes Limbaugh and Beck is made up of dyed in the wool conservatives and masochistic liberals seeking entertainment. Anyone who does get their news from talk shows already knows where they stand and presumably wouldn't be swayed by the "truths" dispensed by Sorkin's brand of journalism.
Jon Stewart, who anchors the Daily Show, a "fake news" program on Comedy Central, made a similarly flawed argument in his now infamous raking over the coals of conservative pundit Tucker Carlson. Stewart took Carlson to task for his work as co-anchor of CNN's Crossfire, a legendary political program which may or may not have been taken off the air due to Stewart's stinging guest appearance. He accused the hosts of doing a disservice to the public discourse by featuring partisan political theater rather than legitimate debate. The great unfairness, of course, is that the audience of Crossfire was made up of political junkies, not truth seekers.
The second logical flaw, and one that has even greater implications for our national discourse, is a line of reasoning best described as "poisoned root, poisoned fruit." It all stems from the tortured progressive understanding of the relationship between cause and effect. Naturally, if an organization accepts corporate money from villains such as the Koch brothers, their product is tainted, according to liberals. It is not that people -- including the wealthy -- support causes that they philosophically agree with or that buttress their rational interests. No, conservative think tanks are merely bought and paid for.
A former employer of mine was once slammed in a leading national newspaper for accepting a grant from the foundation of a large retailer. No matter that the amount of money was just about enough for a single large dinner event, and was spit in the bucket of a multimillion dollar budget. The reporter -- this was a news piece, not an editorial -- implied that my employer had written favorably about the retailer because of this grant money, as unconvincing as that would seem to anyone with common sense. No wonder conservatives seek out alternative media.
Liberals dutifully ignore that the flow of dollars cuts both ways. Soros and Buffett on the left throw their money behind plenty of political agendas. While they are usually wrong in their policy prescriptions, they are certainly free to state them. Buffett and Soros have come by their beliefs honorably, and so they support organizations that do work amenable to those beliefs. The same goes for the Koch brothers on the other side. Nothing sinister is at play and there is nothing inherently harmful about the wealthy using the influence their wealth affords them. Such is the marketplace of ideas.
Sorkin is a gifted storyteller. My college friends and I used to have West Wing days in which we would try to imitate the rapid fire dialogue characteristic of his programs. I will surely continue to watch Newsroom as although it puts any glass monitors within my vicinity at risk of being punched, it is extremely entertaining. But Sorkin needs to be more intellectually honest. There is no such thing as an impartial newsman, conservative money in politics is no more or less detrimental to civic life than liberal money in politics, and a thin veneer of "balance" is insulting to viewers.