What We’ve Lost and Gained: Aaron Sorkin’s Complex Nostalgia




What We’ve Lost and Gained: Aaron Sorkin’s Complex Nostalgia by Matthew Brandon Wolfson

'Newsroom' as jeremiad on the loss of a dominant public discourse

September 15th, 2013 reset - +

THERE’S A STRIKING PHOTO of Aaron Sorkin on the set of his series The Newsroom, which is concluding its second season today. Posed in front of a wall of news screens in a crisp blue shirt and tan slacks, his hands resting on two television monitors, he leans slightly forward — attractive, intelligent, intense. What’s engaging about this moment is that Sorkin the man appears to so precisely embody the attributes of the characters he creates — attractive, intelligent, intense people working for a larger cause. Their focus is politics, but the larger theme of their endeavors is the triumph of determined excellence over mediocrity and complacency. Depending on your perspective, you could call their stories idealistic or fantastical or elitist or absorbing. What they quite clearly are, to the large numbers of people who watched A Few Good Men, The American President, The West Wing, and Charlie Wilson’s War, is inspiring, in sometimes tangible ways. For instance, it’s become a truism that The West Wing molded a career image for smart, ambitious teenagers now serving in or near government, just as All the President’s Men sent more people to journalism courses in the 1970s. This is a significant achievement, and it points to one of the primary virtues of Sorkin’s uncompromising momentum, which is that it’s watchable to the point of being contagious.

But there’s an obvious risk to this kind of heightened approach, which is that there comes a point at which intense forward motion outstrips reality. Idealism, in other words, is more compelling when it’s rooted in how things actually are; otherwise, it strays perilously close to irrelevance. This is a line Aaron Sorkin has flirted with, but never actually crossed, until The Newsroom, which spins quickly out of the bounds of life as we know it into a netherworld whose closest point of reference appears to be 1961, the heyday of postwar liberalism under John F. Kennedy. The first season’s many critics tended to characterize it in similar, personalized terms: self-righteous, grandiloquent, boring. In fact its dominant mode is nostalgia, which, since people tend to construct their idea of the best possible world from attractive pieces of the actual world, is where unmoored idealism often ends up.

The Newsroom’s protagonist Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) sets the series’ unequivocally backward looking terms in his first monologue. “America is not the greatest country in the world anymore,” he announces to an audience of college students. But, as this anymore implies, America used to be: “We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons. We passed laws, struck down laws — for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not on poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were and we never beat our chest.” Not unpredictably, McAvoy sees the country’s decline from this standard as directly connected to changing media dynamics: “We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed by great men, men who were revered.” The premise of The Newsroom is the possibility of reforming the media, and thus the country, by following in the tradition of those men (“with names like Murrow and Reasoner and Huntley and Brinkley and Buckley and Cronkite and Rather and Russert”). This means “deciding what goes on our air and how it's presented to you based on the simple truth that nothing is more important to a democracy than a well-informed electorate.” McAvoy later clarifies his role in this transaction, making the implicit jarringly explicit: “Who are we to make these decisions? We’re the media elite.”

Well, there we, the audience, are — five minutes into the pilot and already hurtling irretrievably into history, in the company of Murrow, Reasoner, Huntley, Brinkley and the other media elites, to make America the greatest country in the world again. What do we do in the face of goals at once so selective and so sweeping? We spend 10 dispiriting episodes watching talented, intelligent, fast-talking people flail — taking on right-wing cranks, craven gossip columnists, and cowardly heads of their own station to no apparent effect except to strike oratorical blows for the importance of their profession. (Such oratory climaxes in the final episode of the first season, when McAvoy labels the Tea Party the “American Taliban” on air, a curious move in light of his stated aim to inform rather than incite the public.) We’re caught, in other words, in a cul-de-sac of the imagination, where circular rhetoric stands in for clear expressions of problems and solutions. Judging from polls, a critical mass of Americans share Aaron Sorkin’s feeling that things have gone seriously amiss, but is the optimal response to a problem of this magnitude and complexity really to restore the “revered” anchormen of the 1950s and ’60s?

Apparently so, which says something about the clarity of Sorkin’s historical analysis and, more interestingly, about the blind spots born of his nostalgia. He’s not addressing the reality of the postwar period so much as bathing in its imagery. What’s more, judging by the content and tone of McAvoy’s opening speech, the imagery is intensely selective: it derives from John F. Kennedy’s administration and the first part of Lyndon Johnson’s. These were the five or so years between Dwight Eisenhower’s political malaise on one hand and a grassroots political groundswell on the other, when an administration staffed by the country’s intellectual elite enacted social policies of unprecedented breadth and depth. It did this with the support of a society that had enjoyed 15 years of unprecedented prosperity, in which most of the benefits accrued to a culturally and racially homogenous group of people. These years, immediately following World War II and extending until the middle of the 1960s, comprised a period when Americans trusted each other, and in which they reposed an unparalleled level of trust in their leaders and institutions. It was a good time to be an ordinary white American and a good time to be an elite, and, given Sorkin’s preferred narratives, his attraction to this historical window is unsurprising.

But the window closed quickly, when the elites mired the country in a 12-year war that cost 58,000 American lives, and imposed a draft to force citizens to fight it. This expiry date was in some ways predictable, as Vietnam was simply the precipitating event that made a number of quieter, longer-term shifts significant. There was the presence of a cohort of twentysomethings who had become distrustful of large institutions like state universities and national bureaucracies that seemed unresponsive to their concerns. There was the growing determination of minority communities to express themselves on their own terms, rather than in the preferred modes of a white-dominated culture of respectability that had denied them most of the material benefits of the postwar boom. There was the understandable if unexamined resentment toward government felt by middle-age, middle-class, increasingly politically conservative whites who had built their lives with help from the GI bill and government home-ownership loans and were grateful for it, but disliked sending more of their money to help people who, to judge by Tom Hayden’s, Abbie Hoffman’s and Malcolm X’s rhetoric, didn’t seem grateful, just idealistic and angry. There was the irrevocable explosion of consumer culture, once marketers discovered that a cash-flushed society could be chopped into infinite demographics for whom products could be particularized and then mass produced, while the members of those demographics discovered that personal taste cultivation could become a full-time occupation. This is the way consensus splits, and the fact that widespread trust in institutions and elites failed to survive the added pressure of a disastrous war is not, in this context, particularly surprising. This is the part that The Newsroom leaves out.

If we were to evaluate him by the analysis on offer in his new series, it would appear Aaron Sorkin knows nothing of this fraught and fractured history. What he does know is how to recalibrate his writing in the face of sustained criticism: the second season of The Newsroom has been pared down to focus less on the past and more on the mechanics of how a substantial news program might successfully operate within the constraints of the 24 hour news cycle. But the nostalgic premise is still central, and in some ways it remains the most interesting thing about the series, because political nostalgia is not limited to Aaron Sorkin, though in his hands it exudes a special sort of melodrama. It’s become a prevailing mode of discourse, not just among Tea Partiers but also Democrats, mainline Republicans, and the growing numbers of politically nonaffiliated. It’s a stance that’s difficult to articulate and define beyond the anecdotal, but it’s one that occasionally surfaces in empirical form: for example, since the beginning of the last decade, polls have consistently recorded that more than 50 percent of Americans believe their children’s lives will be quantitatively and qualitatively less satisfying than their own. Sorkin has tapped into one strain of this broader, appreciable sense of loss. Season 2 of The Newsroom, perhaps inadvertently, clarifies what Sorkin and many like him are nostalgic for: not the rhetoric or idealism of the early 1960s so much as the sense of stable public standards that postwar society, for better and for worse, made possible.

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Season 2’s great virtue is its specificity. We are no longer hurtling through history in the company of the old media elite so much as watching its current members come to conflicted decisions about how to cover complex events. Material, practical concerns have edged out abstract, ideological ones. Should an Occupy Wall Street member with no apparent expertise in the field be allowed to discuss financial malfeasance on air? How aggressive a stand should McAvoy take against the Obama Administration’s drone policy? Can the friend of a gay college student who committed suicide because of his sexuality come out on national television? Is it reasonable or prudent for McAvoy to invite heads of Christian coalitions onto his show and then take strenuous issue with their political claims? How, hovering quietly over all of these issues, does the question of ratings factor in? This probing of particulars makes for a more disclosing media critique than was on offer in the first season — one that yields a specific and compelling central purpose for the series’ idealistic protagonists. For, when you strip away the occasional oratorical foray into 1960s liberalism and the more frequent sallies against Christian-libertarian conservatism, what Will McAvoy and his crew are worried about is quality journalism, and what they’re trying to create and maintain is a space uncontaminated by modern media’s two most recognizable features, hyper-politicization and hyper-personalization.

In Will McAvoy’s newsroom, skepticism is exercised toward any unproven claim, the facts of a story matter more than the imposition of an ideological narrative, rhetoric is mostly subservient to questions, and expertise trumps lived experiences, however compelling those experiences might be. This code puts McAvoy at predictable loggerheads with conservative media personalities, skirmishes that appear to occupy the majority of his airtime, but he’s also forced to restrain some of the impulses of his friends and to reject some of the strategies employed by his competitors. For instance, executive producer MacKenzie McHale won’t let the murdered student’s schoolmate come out as gay on air because, however pure his intentions, coming out to your parents is not national news; McAvoy agrees that he should spend more time talking about income inequality but insists on restricting the conversation to experts, not OWS members; and, when initial evidence regarding Trayvon Martin’s killing surfaces, he questions the claim that it was racially motivated until he’s eventually persuaded by a detailed examination of the facts. McAvoy also resists, mostly successfully, the ubiquitous practice of monitoring his program’s ratings. You can agree or disagree with particular calls, but the underlying motivation, delivering hard news by focusing on facts, is difficult to critique. So is the unapologetic nostalgia that remains central to the enterprise, since its object is something considerably more concrete than the flickering glow of Cronkite and Murrow. It’s the measured public discourse, represented by the old media elite but predicated on basic assumptions shared by a large cohort of Americans, whose existence the social and political arrangements of the postwar period enabled.

What Aaron Sorkin is nostalgic for, in other words, is the active public space supported by a large cohort of Americans between 1945 and 1965, one which reflected their faith that clear rules existed by which to play the game and that the people running it were doing so responsibly. White, middling in income, centrist in politics, and conservative in their daily lives, these Americans joined clubs and served in local office in record numbers, paid higher tax rates than any time before or after, and eventually supported the Great Society and Civil Rights Act. They operated on the belief that if you set realistic goals and didn’t trust to luck, you’d end up in a decent place, and, if you gave other people the chance to prove themselves, those people probably would, too. After all, a depression and a war gave government the leverage to offer citizens who wanted to invest in their futures the capital to do so. The culture this cohort helped create and support had many blind spots — an eventually tragic faith in the people running the show, a corresponding tendency to muffle voices of dissent, and a similarly fatal carelessness toward the consequences of spiraling consumerism and expanding corporatism — but one of its virtues was that enough shared assumptions existed, or were assumed to exist, among 250 million people for intelligible public dialogue to occur.

Theirs is a faith we no longer hold, and the modern media functions as both an enabler and a barometer of that loss. Progressive capitalization of the airwaves gave us hundreds of channels to choose from, and the split of consensus politics rendered these channels more representative, but both shifts also made the news a bare-knuckled business, where garnering ratings became a matter of selling the narrative and projecting the style that specific demographics and sub-demographics wanted to see. The right-wing media’s success pioneering this approach, and consequently stoking the grievances of the country’s largest active voting bloc, merits the discursive criticism The Newsroom throws its way, but Richard Nixon and Roger Ailes were profiteers from, not precipitators of, this fractionalization, which was a cultural tradeoff: we got diversity in our politics and diversity in our marketplace, and we lost a public space that could, even remotely, simulate cohesiveness.

This is the deficit that Aaron Sorkin has intuitively, though not necessarily intellectually, recognized and run with. His stand is an admirable one precisely because, in a fractured society that supports a hyper-rhetorical culture, it’s so difficult to intelligently maintain. Very few of us, apart from the more febrile elements of the Republican Party, would countenance a return to 1965, and the creator of The West Wing certainly would not count himself among the atavists. Yet he’s managed to create a series predicated on a visceral, often inexpressible sense of cultural loss, by focusing on fictional people who are trying to deliver actual news in an environment that’s generally hostile to the endeavor. Sorkin has disciplined himself into making a precise critique, unlike his ideological enemies at Fox who have flailed against the culture at large for 17 years, and, in similarly stark distinction, he’s making the point without excessive anger or bitterness. Instead, he’s offering determined and canny, if occasionally overdetermined, hope. There are a number of people — some of whom are 60 and some of whom are 20; some of whom voted for Obama, others for Romney, and many for no one at all — who can remember, want to remember or want to imagine a period hospitable to a different kind of public space. This is the demographic, if you can call it that, whose members are giving HBO its revenue Sunday nights at 10.

But Aaron Sorkin’s sharpened nostalgia is not the end of the story, because, though it points to what we’ve lost, it does not address the issue of whether or not we can reclaim it. Certainly, The Newsroom’s particular rescue scenario amounts to a fantasy, largely because it misidentifies its rescuers. To change the content of the news you need to change the makeup of the society that watches it; our society undervalues objective coverage not because our anchors have failed us, but because we’ve traded cohesiveness for diversity. The real question is whether we can have both virtues at once: a varied society with a responsive political system that is nonetheless sufficiently united to support a public space operating on accepted facts rather than market-tested niche narratives. This is not a question that Aaron Sorkin is capable of answering, but it’s one his series raises. Perhaps more to the point, it’s a meaningful question for the personality types he admires and aims to inspire — idealistic, intelligent, intense people who care about the culture, and who are willing to work to improve it.

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Matthew Wolfson is a writer living in New York. He holds a BA from Pomona College and an MPhil in political thought and intellectual history from the University of Cambridge. 

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