The opening scene of the pilot episode for Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series “The Newsroom” set the tone for what the series has become—an attempt to inspire, educate, inform, and show that “we” can do better, if we aspire to do so.
The opening dialog shoots right at the heart of what we have grown to believe is great about our country—our education system, our government, and our people. Then skewers the reality of such greatness.
“We’re seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four 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 twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies” says main character Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) to a college audience.
But Sorkin doesn’t leave us hanging our heads in shame, and despair for long. No, Sorkin clearly believes that we can do better, and constantly points to the past to demonstrate what the future might look like if we try hard enough.
“The Newsroom” attacks cable news, and says we can do better. It reminds us that the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh may look like the face of news today, but that the values of Walter Cronkite are still within reach, if only we are to remember our past, and strive for a greater future.
“The Newsroom” chronicles the behind-the-scenes events at the fictional Atlantis Cable News (ACN) channel and a nightly newscast called "News Night", with an anchor who has been playing it safe by playing to the ratings, to advertisers, and to corporate interests. Enter Sorkin, who starts the series by turning the newscaster’s world upside down when he is forced to work with a new team of colleagues believe that television news should be about truth, honesty, and acts as a public service. The “we can do better” theme suggests that Walter Cronkite was the “"the most trusted man in America"” and others have failed to live up to his reputation. "And that's the way it is." The news anchor soon join forces with his colleagues to recapture television news’ reputation for public service.
"I like writing about heroes that don’t wear capes and disguises," Sorkin told PBS’ Terry Gross on "Fresh Air" recently. "It's aspirational. 'Gee, it looks like the real world and feels like the real world, why can't this be the real world?' The metaphor of Don Quixote is used, all kinds of lost cities are used: Atlantis, Brigadoon ... The show is meant to be a fantasy set against very real and oftentimes very serious events."
Yes, this is episodic television. It is a drama, or dramedy. It is “fantasy” as it is creative writing written to entertain, and inform, and inspire.
Sorkin is a master at building us up to believe “we can do better” than where we are today. In A Few Good Men he took on the military establishment. On Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip he blasted the entertainment rules. On The West Wing created a “fantasy” White House where good could fight evil—and win. It was a “fantasy” show that led many to seek parallels to the themes of the Obama campaign of 2008.
If we believe, we can have hope.
Some critics have blasted Sorkin’s view of the world. Recently, Emily Nussbaum for The New Yorker called Sorkin’s world “false nostalgia for an America that never existed” and wrote: “The Newsroom” is…so naïve it’s cynical. Sorkin’s fantasy is of a cabal of proud, disdainful brainiacs, a “media élite” who swallow accusations of arrogance and shoot them back as lava.”
And there you have it. The cynics wishing to keep us ill-informed and biting at half-truths and gossip, by calling intelligence “elite” and hopes and dreams for a better society “naïve.” And as for “false nostalgia”—the world of yesteryear may not have been perfect, but why not take some of its greatness to shine up our systems of today?
Yes, as long as we believe that being great is mere fantasy, we will never achieve anything better.
For me, I’m with Sorkin. As history has shown us, we can do better.