life imitates art

I have always enjoyed those applications of the dramatic arts that allow me to watch people expound on unfamiliar subjects in an unrealistically informed and intelligent way. My favorite filmmaker is Richard Linklater. I love My Dinner with André, the early Whit Stillman moves and the scenes in True Detective when Matthew McConaughey would ramble on in the car. 

When something scratches that particular itch, then, I have a hard time turning away from it. And so I have to admit that I watch The Newsroom on HBO. I don't think it's that good, and am actually relieved that the network has saved me from myself by canceling the show. There are only a few episodes left now, though, so I don't even pretend that I'm going to try not to watch them.

Jeff Daniels stars in Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom

Jeff Daniels stars in Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom

But I do feel the need to retract a particular criticism that I have leveled at the show lately. One of the things that I find irksome about The Newsroom is that the characters frequently turn to lofty debates about protecting sources, the First Amendment, promoting democracy and the like. These discussions are based entirely on principles and quickly veer away from the idiosyncrasies of any specific people or events. As such, the storylines sometimes seem like mere devices for introducing two sides of an issue and the show can feel more like a high school debate or philosophy seminar than an unfolding story.

Thus things on the show occasionally strike me as somewhat contrived. Lately, two separate storylines have converged on two different sets of characters debating very similar issues in unrelated contexts. In the first, Jim, who works at a CNN-style news network, has started dating a woman, Hallie, who took a job writing for a Buzzfeed-type website. Jim looks down his nose at Hallie's new job, arguing that the fact that she is paid by the click will undermine her journalistic integrity. She responds by saying that Jim is both an elitist and a hypocrite: catering to the largest audience gives the people what they want, advertisers pay for cable journalism as well, and of course TV news programs alter the content of their stories to avoid offending or inconveniencing their sponsors. Good points all around, I suppose. The other story finds an upstart tech millionaire seeking to buy the network and transform it into a vehicle for citizen journalism. The president of the network tells this young man that he doesn't respect traditional values of professionalism and integrity, while the new owner responds that the network can't continue to be operated at a loss and people do not have the attention spans required to sit through reports of old-timey journalistic investigations. Again, articulate and intelligent people with sincerely-held, yet incompatible, principles. The sterile and implacable logic of these debates has frequently alienated me, and I have often found them to be forced, affected and contrived.

But I'll be damned if these confrontations didn't entirely foreshadow exactly what happened at the New Republic this week. I believe that I owe Aaron Sorkin an apology.