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The Newsroom Recap: Scorched Source Tactics

See how much more fun it is when people make mistakes? “Bullies” was Newsroom’s best episode yet, one filled with characters making (debatable!) errors in judgment and actually having to deal with the consequences. Hubris was finally a flaw, not an asset. The halos that Sorkin had given his characters over the last five weeks were snatched away.

We’re meant to think that Sloan’s mistake is the gravest. Which it is, but not for the reasons Sorkin thinks. Sloan is reporting on the Fukushima nuclear disaster because she speaks impeccable Japanese and — deus ex machina alert! — knows the spokesperson for TEPCO. (At some point, Sorkin’s insistence that good journalism is only committed when journalists get lucky and not when they do hard work becomes more harmful to journalism’s reputation than all the fluff news that Sorkin vilifies.) The spokesperson tells her off the record that the radiation is far worse than they’re saying publicly. But Sloan, channeling Will’s arrogance, burns her source, revealing the information on air.

If we’re to believe Charlie, this is a sin the journalistic gods will not let go unpunished. (There should be an award for the way Sam Waterston delivered the line, “What in the name of jolly fuck were you thinking about?!") But Sloan — excuse me, “Girl” — actually does an okay job arguing for the burn, suggesting at one point that it was in the name of public health. If Japan was lying about the danger on the ground, putting thousands of people at risk, there’s a plausible argument that the news should do anything it can to spread that message. One man’s honor does not come before thousands’ lives.

The more unquestionable error — one that Sorkin never addresses — is that Sloan is apparently too lazy to be a good journalist. What a good journalist does when she’s given an off-the-record scoop is go and confirm it elsewhere. Work the phones; leverage the scoop into confirmation; impress upon sources the mortal consequences to not going public with news of imminent disaster. But Sloan is too busy dreaming about her Gucci wardrobe to follow up. And so she airs her thinly sourced report anyway, perpetrating the kind of shoddy journalism that Sorkin so detests but fails to mention here.

To be fair, it’s Will’s fault, too. When Sloan asks Will for advice about how to get her source to go on the record, Will doesn’t tell her to try doing a modicum of reporting. Instead, ever trustful in the efficacy of berating a witness on the stand, he tells her to call him on his lies. Will is so devoted to his own flawed methods that he can’t advise anyone to do differently.

This is an interesting problem! The limitations of one’s professional instincts is ripe material for a workplace drama. But Sorkin walks away from this message and instead soaks in the meek pool of a different one: that Will let Sloan down by scaring her. It wasn’t that Will failed to offer sound journalistic advice, it’s that Will failed to motivate her the right way. Will’s problem is one of management, not one of substance. The Newsroom purports to be a show about journalism, but at times last night it was a dramaturgy of Who Moved My Cheese?

Will’s mistakes were not limited to Sloan. He begins the evening by trying to “single-handedly fix the Internet.” He demands that all commenters on his website provide their name, age, occupation, and level of education, just in case anybody who hasn’t graduated from college is thinking of sullying the comments section with their philistine thoughts. Once all that information has been provided, he’d then like for a third-party service to validate all of the details, just in case they’re lying. Anonymity has no place in Will’s life! Unless, of course, he’s bribing a gossip reporter.

The episode ends with Will going overboard, eviscerating a guest that’s a figment of Sorkin’s imagination: a black, gay adviser to Rick Santorum. The religious right wouldn’t let Mitt Romney keep a stalwart foreign policy adviser on his staff because he was gay — what’s to say that Santorum, a far stauncher opponent to gay rights, would work so closely with a gay man? Again, this would not be an issue if The Newsroom weren’t so grounded in reality at times and so divorced from it at others. Sorkin wants it both ways; he wants to concoct archetypal strawmen while decrying news coverage that traffics in lazy archetypes and token strawmen.*

Regardless, Will goes overboard on the adviser, Sutton Wall. We know we’re meant to think Will’s bullying him, because Sutton is the rare conservative allowed to offer a reasonable defense in response to Will’s withering interrogation. Unsurprisingly, it makes Sutton far more interesting than all the empty vessels Sorkin usually trots out. Sutton summons one of those good Sorkin speeches that make you believe in the nuances of humanity, even if just for a moment. “I am more than one thing. How dare you reduce me to the color of my skin or my sexual orientation? How dare you presume to decide what I think is important?” Sutton tells Will. In a previous episode, Will has already explained why he dares to presume. He’s the media elite.

One of Wall’s last lines — “I am far more insulted by your high-handed implication that I need your protection” — haunts Will, driving him, subconsciously or otherwise, to the therapist’s office. Sorkin can be forgiven for resorting to a Sopranos trope because, at least last night, it solved some of the show’s woes. The episode had a thematic cohesion — the bullied unknowingly turning into the bully — that other episodes have lacked.

It also suggested a way forward for the show. With the revelation that Will’s dad was abusive, and that Will’s own tics stem from that foundational trauma, it’s evident that Sorkin’s characters and Sorkin’s subject are both preoccupied with the same questions about power. Will’s father used it to abuse his family; Will now flaunts it to intimidate guests and protect his friends. Journalism, likewise, is about navigating power. Sometimes it means exposing those who have it, but often it’s the more mundane work of figuring out how to use it yourself. Last night both Sloan and Will abused the power their sources and guests gave to them. Now it’s Sorkin who has the power to do something creative with that tension. But does he know how to use it?

The Sorkin Sexism Watch:

  • Sloan misinterprets Don’s suggestion that she’s expanding as a crack on her weight. “Oh, come on, I gained four freaking pounds.” And thus, through miscommunication, she ends up objectifying her own body.
  • Maggie has trouble keeping Georgia and Georgia straight.
  • MacKenzie routinely gets gum stuck in her hair.
  • Maggie, ever the flighty brochick, shot guns at soda cans on top of a propane tank.
  • Charlie calls Sloan “girl” several times. This is so garish that both Sloan and Will can’t take it. Sloan: “Don’t call me girl!” Will: “Do you really need to call her that?” Will then calls her that.

 Other news lost in translation:

  • Romantic shenanigans: Will bought an engagement ring for MacKenzie as a prank, but isn’t planning on returning it; Jim and Maggie flirted by handing each other manila folders; Don suspects he’s losing Maggie and is already using his heartbreak as an excuse to talk to Sloan; Neal misses Amen, even though he’s too embarrassed to say it.
  • Your next fan-fic assignment: Who is Terry Smith, the anchor who always follows News Night with his Capitol Report? Is he like Will, an insufferable windbag shouting down the insufferable windbags of Congress? Or an innocuous John King, offering a little news, a little insight, and a little inside-the-beltway gossip? My fan-fic will treat him as the Godot figure he’s made out to be, haunting our characters with the mere promise of his presence.
  • Love that someone filed a complaint against Will for yelling at Maggie a year ago, but nobody has filed a complaint against the dozens of people who have screaming matches in the middle of the bullpen. Sloan and Charlie took it to another level this week. “The Japanese are a deferential people!”
  • Great Sorkin line: Jim, to Maggie: “The deep south could have used you when the Russians invaded.”
  • Awful Sorkin line: Sloan, to the world: “A Japanese man's honor is at stake!"
  • A solid week for name-drops, high on quality if only middle percentile on quantity: Cat Fancy, Tonto from The Lone Ranger, Sarah Bernhardt, Sandra Bernhard, Kanye West, Akira Kurosawa, Madame Butterfly, Good Will Hunting, Leonard Cohen, The Sting, Wizard of Oz, Groucho Marx, and Doogie Howser. What’d I miss?

* Correction: Santorum did have a gay aide. He defended Santorum's record to Chris Matthews earlier this year.

Photo: Melissa Moseley/HBO