Amidst all the hoopla around Aaron Sorkin's new series The Newsroom, one surprising fact seems to have been lost: of all the once-in-a-lifetime news events of the recent past -- the economic collapse and the Arab Spring to name just two -- Sorkin chose an environmental story, the BP Oil Spill, as the centerpiece for his premiere.
In case you've missed the non-stop hype, The Newsroom revisits the outrage we saw in Broadcast News, Network and parodied in Anchorman, where the requirements of corporate news organizations drive anchors or their producers over the edge in desperate search of "real news."
Each episode of the series is based around a major news event, and Sorkin chose the Gulf Oil Spill as the heart of the all-important launch. Which is amazing. Think of all the other far more visually interesting news stories of the past few years. Sorkin could have chosen 2008's Wall Street crash or Bernie Madoff's confession or the 2008 presidential election, or 2009's Arab Spring or Fort Hood massacre. If he was determined to place the series in 2010, why not use the Haitian Earthquake, the top story of that year?
In choosing an environmental story for his premiere, Sorkin elevated that issue to what environmentalists believe should be its proper place as the issue of all issues, even in this election year. Soon, many more citizens will agree: just last week, CNN reported that all-time temperature records were broken in 1,000 cities across the U.S.
But some of the most vitriolic criticisms about the series were about its coverage of the BP Oil Spill, many from environmentalists themselves. The Guardian points out that "...the clunkiness of real events rather undoes Sorkin. A year on, we see that the BP oil spill, while devastating for some in Louisiana, has largely been settled as a case and is not yet the 'greatest environmental disaster of our time,' as a producer promises it might be."
A Swampland blogger quoted environmental writer Kate Sheppard's assessment:
"Two years later, it's clear that there were some environmental impacts (from the BP Oil Spill) -- to crabs, to birds, even to marshes. Oil spills do not promote ecosystem health. But there's no evidence to suggest that the BP disaster was the worst ecological disaster in history, or an ecological disaster at all. It's certainly not the worst ecological disaster in the history of the region; coastal erosion -- which, incidentally, is caused in part by the oil industry -- has obliterated over 2,000 square miles of southern Louisiana."
Granted, the degree to which the BP Oil Spill was the worst environmental disaster ever depends on how you measure it. One might argue that spilling 4.9 million gallons of oil should at the very least be a strong warning in a treasured part of the U.S., where, according to The Newsroom, 35,000 oil wells are allowed to continue drilling. (Fact-checking could not verify that number, but the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported there are 27,000 abandoned wells alone.) But I agree with Noah Gittell at Reelchange, who points out what a gift it was for Sorkin to have chosen an environmental event that has largely gone underground:
I realized that I had not thought about the spill in probably a year. In the midst of a presidential campaign, with its attack ads, surrogate drama, and politically motivated executive orders, it was as if -- in my mind -- the biggest environmental disaster in American history had not happened just two years ago. This was amazing to me. I consider myself an environmentalist and an animal advocate. And I had forgotten that this occurred.
Surely, many Americans watching had the same reaction. For whatever reason, Metacritics users rated The Newsroom premiere higher than any of Aaron Sorkin movies, even The Social Network. Maybe Sorkin is working his magic again. It's not the media that is ignoring our impending environmental collapse, but our politicians and citizenry. Perhaps the searing heat in our capital, combined with this "must-see" series premiere, will have some effect, if only to remind us of the horrifying possibilities when corporate interests outweigh the environment.