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Hey Media Snarks: Sorkin Has a Point

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WASHINGTON -- To all of you media snarks out there trashing Aaron Sorkin for his HBO show The Newsroom I say: take no comfort from the fact that the show sucks. His point about our business -- that it needs to remember, revere and renew its commitment to its ideals -- is too on-target to ignore.

It's all-too-easy to make fun of Sorkin. He endlessly recycles his own cheeky/lofty white-collar workplace patter. The dramatic question is always the same: how do educated, well-intentioned people -- a military lawyer (A Few Good Men), a White House aide (The West Wing), a childhood Internet mogul (The Social Network) -- square raw ambition with professional ideals? As characters grapple with the dilemma, they emit nervous, flirty talk; engage in charming false self-deprecation; and recite long, eloquent soliloquys about their defiant, chest-beating refusals to settle.

The Newsroom is a paint-by-numbers Sorkin effort, given a frisson of media interest and buzz only because the workplace this time is the media itself. Nothing gets us going like someone we don't like -- and who's never been in the business -- preaching to us about our shortcomings.

The set up is laughable. A bored, bland but popular cable anchorman (Jeff Daniels) suddenly starts channeling the investigative juice of the Murrow-Cronkite era after the return to his newsroom of a former lover and crack executive producer (Emily Mortimer), who is British but who was conceived in Washington (don't ask) and who has been in Afghanistan getting scoops and knife wounds and who is now back to save the soul of news.

She tells the anchor that news can sell if done right, which means by her, with digging on deadline and a crack, loyal and selfless staff driven by a sense of dedication to the central mission of journalism in a democracy, which is to help educate and inform the voters who are supposed to run the country. The drunken, bow-tied top news guy (Sam Waterston), backs them up, and indeed, it was his idea in the first place to bring the EP home.

On her first day back, they blow the lid off possible corporate malfeasance in the gulf oil spill and inadequate regulation of the oil rigs by the federal government.

It's great, riveting television, as junior producers find whistleblowers in minutes and the well-prepped anchor grills guests for the hair-raising facts of the emerging crisis.

See? News works!

Now, I agree: the only thing worse than being lectured to by Sorkin is being lectured to by a know-it-all, self-righteous Brit who is speaking Sorkinese.

Conservatives are right to complain that Sorkin's idea of righteousness often has a liberal tilt. His enemies often tend to be corrupt military commanders, right-wing politicians and greedy corporate types -- and now, TV executives who would rather air meaningless ideological catfights and celebrity fare rather than honor Ed Murrow by exposing corrupt military commanders, right wing politicians and greedy corporate types.

Sorkin misses an entire generation of developments in the news business -- namely, the rise of websites such as this one, which these days are just as likely, if not more likely, than anyone else to provide minute-by-minute reporting on key events such as the disaster in the Gulf.

The sanctimony of the stock-characters makes the thing almost impossible to watch after a while. The lighter Sorkinese banter is stale and even less believable than usual.

Still and all, Sorkin has a point. Where are the resources that the big news operations once put into reporters taking time for the deep story? Which of us really feels that we do enough to speak truth to power and report the relevant facts to the people? Who thinks that we do enough to explain the numbers, the issues and the complex forces that define our public life?

I am proud of what we are doing and trying to do at The Huffington Post. I see plenty of evidence of the fictional ferocious and idealistic anchorman in the hearts and in the work of the people I know at MSNBC and NBC.

But we can do more, and we can do it better. And that, in the end, is all that Sorkin is saying. And why trash him for doing it? I think that we are protesting a little too much. Snarks, unsnark thy selves. The man has a point.

As for me, I loved it when the kid bookers and producers were digging out the oil spill facts. Was it a fairy tale? To a greater extent than I would like, yes.

But I was inspired to watch great journalists in action, even if Aaron Sorkin made it all up.