Aaron Sorkin has returned to television. After several years away from the tube — he was busy writing Oscar-winning screenplays, apparently — the man behind The West Wing has a brand new HBO series, The Newsroom.
For the third time in his career, Sorkin is making TV his subject as well as his medium. The Newsroom relocates Sorkinville to the world of cable news, which feels like a natural fit. Both realms, after all, feature brilliant but tormented characters, big world issues and everyone interrupting each other all the time.
Over email, we treated Sorkin to his own cable news-style interrogation. He gave as good as he got.
The opening credits of The Newsroom show Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley and Dan Rather. Is it fair to assume these are your news heroes? Those are four of them — we didn’t have enough space for all the others.
The fact that all but one those men are long off the scene is telling. Ever get the sense that the show is chronicling an industry’s death spiral? The idea behind the main title sequence is that the past is handing the baton off to our characters, who, in turn, refuse to believe that the industry is in a death spiral.
Were you concerned with making a hyper-accurate portrayal of our current cable landscape, or did you have broader things in mind? Typically, when you’re writing fiction, you’re not writing about something typical. It’s important to me that the fictional show, News Night, feel real but through a romantic and idealistic lens. It’s the opposite of Network. This group of people are reaching unrealistically high and so they’ll fall down a lot but hopefully we’ll be rooting for them to get back up.
You mention writing romantically and idealistically, but The Newsroom feels slightly more jaded than The West Wing. Has the past decade chipped away at your optimism? Not on paper it hasn’t.
MACKENZIE: You know what you forgot to mention in your sermon? That America is the only country on the planet that since the beginning has said over and over, “We can do better.” It’s part of our DNA.
How’s that for romantic optimism?
What’s your regular media diet? I read the New York Times, the L.A. Times and The Huffington Post, and in the last year or so, writing The Newsroom, I’ve been watching CNN, Fox, MSNBC and the networks as much as I can.
What do you make of the state of our modern media world? With the exception of Fox and MSNBC, I haven’t noticed an ideological bias. What I see is a bias toward fairness — a bias toward phony balance and false equivalency.
Did you and your actors go to any of the real TV networks for research? I spent time in a number of newsrooms being a fly on the wall. I think if you asked anyone who’s worked in the real White House, they’d tell you that The West Wing was nothing like the real White House but that there was something about it that felt like the real White House. At the risk of sounding too cute, it’s not important to me that something be real, but it’s very important to me that it feels real.
You have something of a public persona as an Internet-hater. Is it true? Of course I don’t hate the Internet. I was once quoted saying that nothing has made us nationally dumber and meaner than the anonymity of the Internet and I still believe that. I recognize that in some situations anonymity is helpful — even necessary — but those situations are rare. Anonymity in a comments section of an Internet piece seems cowardly to me and tends to lead to a mob mentality. But I have the option of not reading comments sections, and so I don’t.
Your shows tend to revolve around powerful men — first Martin Sheen, now Jeff Daniels. Have you ever considered building a show around a female lead? There are powerful men on this show — not just Jeff’s character but also John Gallagher, Tom Sadoski, Dev Patel and Sam Waterston’s characters — but I think you’ll see that the women played by Emily Mortimer, Allison Pill and Olivia Munn are every bit their equals. (And I wouldn’t mess with Jane Fonda, Hope Davis or Kelen Coleman either.)
How did you wrangle all of these people? Half of them were stolen off of movie sets and the other half were kidnapped off of Broadway stages. They woke up in a stupor at Sunset Gower Studios and the rest I’m not allowed to tell you.