In ‘The Newsroom,’ something to be sorry for

Will McAvoy, apologizing. ()
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Every Monday, Glynnis MacNicol will be writing about the new HBO series, 'The Newsroom.' Today, Episode 3. (Earlier posts here.)

In March, 2010, near the end of his riotous ("Bullcrap, sir! Bullcrap!") interview with tickle-happy, scandal-ridden congressman Eric Massa, and capping off one of the most extraordinary hours of live cable television in recent memory, Glenn Beck turned to the camera and said "I'm sorry for wasting your time, America" (not that anyone was complaining).

Last year, Rachel Maddow devoted a segment of her show to an apology to her audience, after she had mistaken the satirical blog Christwire for a real right-wing news outlet and embarrassingly chastised them for calling on Sarah Palin to lead an invasion of Egypt.

Both these incidents leapt to mind while watching this week's episode of "The Newsroom," which opens with a long (and we are lead to believe both risky and inspiring) on-air apology from Will to his audience for "the failure of this program during the time I've been in charge of it to successfully inform and educate the American electorate … . I was an accomplice to a slow and repeated and unacknowledged and unamended train wreck of failures that have brought us to now. I'm a leader in an industry that mis-called election results, hyped up terror scares, ginned up controversies and failed to report on tectonic shifts in our country."

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It goes on, leading eventually to a declaration of a new sort of program (one, judging from McAvoy's description, you could watch in real life on MSNBC weekdays at 9 p.m.) brought to you by a "media elite" newly unafraid to exercise leadership in the direction of its news report.

Apologies have become a minor art form in cable news these last few years; in lieu of an unscripted explosion they are the surest way to the online water cooler in the form of the viral video. Just this week Fox's Bill O'Reilly apologized for "being an idiot" (he predicted the Supreme Court health-care reform decision wrongly). A few years ago Keith Olbermann apologized to Jon Stewart for his series of aggressive attacks on Scott Brown. Jon Stewart once apologized (and rightly so) for his weak interview of Bush's deputy assistant attorney general John Yoo. And then there is the litany of apologies from folks who have been publicly castigated for doing or saying something stupid (more often than not involving a woman: Ed Schultz, Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews). No, the on-air apology is not a rarity on cable; cable news was Sorkinized (or McAvoy-ized) long before Sorkin got his hands on it.

All of this left me wondering where McAvoy's speech would have registered on the scale of Big Cable News Anchor Moments. High, I think.

Not high as in Cronkite's 1968 excoriation of America for its involvement in Vietnam (which is where Sorkin would clearly like us to rate it). But definitely viral, and likely the sort of moment that would have prompted some Sunday morning talk segments and at least one or two Bill Keller-like op-eds. So, not bad.

It's also clearly spelling out in no uncertain terms what Sorkin thinks is wrong with cable news (or at least CNN, the obvious real-world counterpart for the ACN cable network where McAvoy works). And laying the groundwork for where the show is going.

So far "The Newsroom" has presented itself as a weird, almost-true rewrite of recent cable-news history (or more accurately, a review of stuff that actually happened—often more interestingly in real life—through the eyes of a white, middle-aged man, and his often frantic ex-girlfriend). But this episode, titled "The 112th Congress," which unfolds in a series of flashbacks, covers May through November 2010 and ends on midterm election night, suggests that Sorkin is hoping to speed things up so he can tell us what should be happening right now. Or at least how we should best view the last four years ahead of election day in November 2012. By skipping straight from May to November, and devoting most of Sunday's episode to McAvoy Agonistes, Sorkin skipped over an entire summer of cable news juiciness, not the least of which was Glenn Beck's enormous rally in Washington followed by Jon Stewart's smaller one.

Sorkin, it is increasingly clear, is less interested in vagaries of cable news than he is in telling us how the country should be as a whole, and is busy fantasizing television as some sort of magic wand that might just be able to cast a curing spell on us. Cable's role in the show is not just a funhouse mirror of our behavior as voters and political theater in Washington; it's bigger.

Alas, in Sorkin's world the Internet, the driving force behind everything on cable, remains the domain of a guy named Vinny in his efficiency apartment, when in fact it's the phenomenon that has both dismantled and reconstructed the media in its entirety, and cable news particularly. (The Internet, Fox News, and "The Daily Show," three of the most powerful forces in terms of how we consume media and understand democracy in the last five years, have yet to factor at all in "The Newsroom.")

In Sorkin's world, however, the bad guy is not Roger Ailes (yet, anyway). It's Big Business. Enter the splendid Jane Fonda, who owns the screen (and Sam Waterston!) playing Leona Lansing, C.E.O. of ACN and a thinly veiled version of her real-life ex-husband, and founder of CNN, Ted Turner. It is Lansing's close friendship and business dealings with the Koch brothers (which Sorkin spells out —in what sounds like a dramatized version of Jane Mayer's 2010 New Yorker article) that are at the root of the many evils of society.

McAvoy's months-long tirade against the hapless, misled Tea Party and its candidates has put her in a spot because they've all just been elected to Congress, and now Lansing must bring them her business.

Skinner makes a comparison between Michele Bachmann and Joe McCarthy, which makes one wonder just when this episode was written. Lansing scoffs at the comparison: "I got where I am by knowing who to fear," she says. Well if she feared Bachmann, she's not getting very far, as the audience now knows. The Koch brothers, we are made to understand, are another matter entirely.

This predicament mirrors closely what many media watchers initially assumed had happened when Keith Olbermann abruptly departed from MSNBC in January 2011. Days earlier, Congress approved Comcast's acquisition of NBC Universal from G.E., and Olbermann's antics were rumored to have been met with far less understanding from the new, less-willing-to-rock-the-boat owners. That Olbermann's disposition subsequently (and in record speed) lost him his job at left-leaning and publicity-hungry Current TV quickly made this view of things seem slightly less realistic. Nonetheless Sorkin seems keen to explore what happens when a news division runs afoul of its corporate overlord's interests (Answer: CBS News), a voyage no less worthy just because Tina Fey has already made it herself.

Will McAvoy kowtow to business interests or sign his own death warrant (or more likely, knowing Sorkin, convince Fonda of the errors of her ways and create the sort of news network Sorkin thinks Murrow would be proud of)?

And now, a word about the women. Sorkin does not have a terrific recent track record with his female characters, and the fact that he opened this series with a monologue from Will bemoaning a past where America was blessed with "great men, men who were revered" did not exactly bode well for the female-driven storylines to come. So far, however, his female characters (namely MacKenzie McHale and Maggie Jordan) have struck me as such pale derivatives of Sorkin's past female characters that I was willing to give it a wait and see. Well, I've waited, and I've seen.

In this week's episode Maggie (Allison Pill) suffers a severe panic attack during a staff meeting and needs to be talked off the ledge (almost literally) by the ever-knowing, always confident Jim (who employs expertise learned in the field in Afghanistanto coax her from her fit). Meanwhile, McHale, whose own impeccable war-zone credentials we were assured of in the first episode, flubs and natters her way through various confrontations with a series of women McAvoy parades through the office. We can all be grateful McHale didn't fall in love on the battlefield; she gives a whole new meaning to I.E.D.

In Sorkin's world women are helpmates, entirely emotional beings, always just one tick away from an explosion. They are worthy of being feared, the way a small child fears its mother; they must be constantly soothed. The result is less offensive than exasperating and quickly becoming boring to watch. Sorkin, who clearly draws on the screwball comedies of yore as the basis for his male-female relationships, would do well to re-watch Katharine Hepburn's entire contribution to the genre, which gave a depth to the "battle of the sexes" that only a shallow interpretation would be able to ignore, but which Sorkin appears to have managed to do.