Aaron Sorkin tries to get his head around the internet, and almost succeeds
Glynnis MacNicol writes each week about the HBO series "The Newsroom." Previously: 'Newsroom' 1.1: Sorkin's attempt to turn around his troubled TV news drama shows real, if limited, progress.
One of the persistent irritants of Aaron Sorkin's HBO cable-news drama "The Newsroom"—aside from the show's woman problem, and the fact that one always wonders whether Aaron Sorkin has actually watched cable news—has been its complete erasure of the internet's role in the newsroom, and in the news cycle.
It doesn't need saying that the internet has completely disrupted traditional media, leaving its future fractured and uncertain. One might assume that very uncertainty would be irresistible for a storyteller of Sorkin’s talent, and yet in Sorkin’s world, until this episode, the internet had been something used by unserious people in basements who never get out of their pajamas. It's as though Matthew Weiner had decided to do a show about Madison Avenue in the 1960s in which the rise of television was just ignored.
To be sure, social media—and let’s just include texting in this definition, to simplify things—has made modern-day narrative storytelling difficult. "The Good Wife" was an early and excellent navigator of this new world, but generally it's not any fun to watch people tweet or text; it’s not exactly gripping drama to overlook, which is what a television viewer is doing, even if it can often create gripping drama for the person who is actually at his or her smart phone.
But if you want to do a show about a cable-news channel and you want to root it in real contemporary life, you have willingly or not agreed to write the internet, eventually. You have to find a way.
Unless you are Aaron Sorkin. Who, let’s recall, won an Oscar for a screenplay about the preeminent internet person of our time, Mark Zuckerberg, making it extra-frustrating that he can’t be bothered to take a deep dive into the ramifications of, say, Twitter on news reporting, which by the way are fascinating.
And that’s the thing. He can’t be bothered. For instance, in Sunday’s episode "The Genoa Tip," ACN anchor Elliott Hirsch is disgusted that Charlie wants to scroll Twitter feeds across the bottom of the screen during his show because it increases audience engagement (which it does). It's hard not to sense Sorkin’s disgust emanating from the character, rather than any genuine expression of Hirsch's lack of awareness about where the world is going.
But for now that is all water under the bridge because, last night, Sorkin leapt into the deep end of the internet, and all things considered he didn’t do too badly. Or at least he didn’t drown.
Sunday’s episode picks up immediately where the last one left off and for the most part builds on what we have been prepared to presume will be the big story lines to come. Jim mucks along on the Romney campaign trail, learning how to frame his own shot for remotes and striking up a sort of friendship with another reporter (played by Meryl Streep’s daughter Grace Gummer) who advocates for his being allowed on the bus and then informs him he is the competition. (This made me laugh; the challenge on the campaign trail is not so much the “competition” as it is the continual fight not to morph into one giant parrot.)
A number of people on Twitter last night pointed out the press actually pays for the campaign buses (and planes) to the tune of thousands of dollars, and therefore it's unlikely a reporter whose news outlet is in good standing could be kicked off, though it has happened before and in Sorkin’s defense I suspect this storyline was likely inspired by the time Maureen Dowd (incidentally Sorkin’s former girlfriend) got booted from the McCain plane in 2008.
Back at HQ new producer Jerry Dantana digs away at the Genoa tip, after demanding that MacKenzie take him and his tip seriously, poor neglected man that he is. Meanwhile, Will continues to struggle with the fact that he has been kicked off the 9/11 broadcast and eventually succumbs to the dangerous temptation of the self-Google—while on air even!—to find out just how much people hate him.
The answer is they hate him a lot. A lot. And like everyone else on the planet Will can’t keep himself from reading about it. Which, by the way, is pretty true to my experience insofar as cable-news hosts are without question among the most vain, insecure creatures in the media business, all peacock feathers and egg-shell egos: the more powerful the more insecure. (You would not believe the storied names we heard from when we were launching the Mediaite Power Grid in 2009 all wanting to know what metrics we were using and how they might best tweak them.)
To drive home why the 9/11 broadcast is so important to Will it is divulged that the anchor got his start after being called on the air to fill in on the day of 9/11 and subsequently pulled off a marathon broadcast holding America’s hand through that long and terrible night. This mimics the real life story of former CNN anchor Aaron Brown, who became an international star overnight for his on-air reporting on 9/11. (Unlike McAvoy, Brown left the network four years later and has since nearly disappeared from the media landscape.) But mostly the scene just reminded me how godawful this particular episode of "The West Wing" was.
Down at Zuccotti Park, Patel is doggedly reporting on the Occupy Wall Street movement, despite the brutal mockery of his co-workers. While following up on the (fake) Radiohead rumor Patel gets caught in the first NYPD crackdown on the movement, which he manages to film, and briefly ends up in jail before being bailed out by a crusading Will. At least Will can fix something!
The real action of the episode, however, is romantic. After moving out of Don’s apartment Maggie is determined to get the damning video of her meltdown taken off the internet before Lisa sees it (a commenter on last week’s post correctly points out Lisa was not on the bus, only Jim). Like everyone else who has attempted to elicit help from YouTube via official channels Maggie discovers it takes a glacial five days for the site to respond to anything. (Or officially takes five days; unofficially, five days is optimistic.) In a moment of digital brilliance, however, Maggie figures out that the title of the YouTube video (“Another New Yorker loses it”) suggests its poster is local, and quickly Googles her on Foursquare in the hopes of discovering her current location.
I am going to cut Aaron Sorkin some slack here. Mostly because there are eight more episodes to go in this season and getting too picky this early on is really just a recipe for hate-watching exhaustion. However. Considering Sorkin’s holier-than-thou allegiance to fact-checking it’s worth pointing out that it’s not actually possible to view someone’s Foursquare check-ins without being Foursquare friends with them. The internet is stalky but it’s not that stalky. Just to be sure, and because I don’t use Foursquare, I double-checked this with Harry Heymann, the vice president of engineering at Foursquare, who confirmed it for me: “Not really possible. If the Foursquare user in question had sent their check-in to a public twitter account (like this) then Google could have found that but it wouldn't have been public on foursquare.com anywhere.”
For what it’s worth, Harry is a Sorkin fan and was pretty psyched to hear that Foursquare had been written into a storyline, however misshapenly. He later emailed to say the inaccuracy “was about as frustrating as I could possibly imagine.”
Also for what it's worth, before I emailed Harry I asked a friend of mine, a frequent Foursquare user, the same question: the immediate response was to ask me if I was asking in relation to a guy I used to be involved with. So Sorkin at least has the spirit of exchange right, if not the details.
Maggie discovers via Foursquare that the woman she is looking for is doing laundry in Queens and after some quick snappy Sorkiny calculations she and Sloan (“I’m not letting you go to Queens to negotiate with Sylvia Plath by yourself”) go there to confront her. It does not go well. The video poster in question turns out to be a "Sex and the City" fan-fiction blogger (I don’t know where Sorkin’s hate of SATC comes from; that show accomplished more truth about the zeitgeist of its time in 30 seconds than Sorkin has so far with this whole series) who has received more traffic from Maggie’s video than she has in the history of her blog.
In an act of desperation Sloan offers to let the girl tweet from her account (to its 450,000 followers) with a link to the blog in exchange for taking the video down. (Sloan is a Charlotte fan, presumably some sort of nod to Kristin Davis, Sorkin’s former girlfriend.)
I’m not sure whether Sorkin intentionally or accidentally stumbled upon an essential truth about the power of Twitter followers–I’m guessing he was trying to make some snide damning judgement about the unserious people who value Twitter—but this exchange struck me as one of the more accurate of the series so far. More like this please!
But the bargain proves a failure when the girl opts to blog about her interaction with famous-faced Sloan rather than abide by the deal, thereby guaranteeing herself even more traffic. And Maggie returns home to discover an irate Lisa has seen the video and (in a Sorkin version of the “you are the wound” exchange) essentially ends their friendship. Thereby setting the stage for Maggie’s departure to Uganda, which she convinces McKenzie is a good idea, and the subsequent trauma she will face there, as prefigured in the premiere episode.
The episode ends with MacKenzie making first contact with the Genoa tipster, who tells her the U.S. used sarin gas on a village of civilians. And thus we leave our shaken hero navigating the strange and mucky waters of the self-loathing internet and the U.S. counterterrorism policies. It may not be an episode worthy of fan fiction, but the tweets weren’t bad.