Many critics pronounced The Newsroom DOA when it premiered in June, and the show has been flogged regularly by recappers (including ours) ever since. So when HBO announced last month that it would be bringing the show’s creator, Aaron Sorkin, to this summer’s Television Critics Association’s press tour, we at Vulture braced ourselves for a brawl. (Recall how critics brought about the Meltdown of Michael Patrick King!) One journalist who didn’t outright hate the first four episodes of the show even took it upon himself to write an advice column especially for Sorkin in advance of Wednesday’s session, anticipating how the auteur might deal with the “outrage” and field charges of sexism, pontificating, and the like.
Here’s what actually happened:
HBO president of entertainment Sue Naegle introduces The Newsroom as “one of the most talked about shows of the year.” And that’s certainly one way to put it. Then reporters are treated to (or forced to watch?) a trailer for the rest of the season, which includes these highlights: the News Night gang will refuse to cover the Casey Anthony trial; Don will confess to Will that he’s afraid of losing Maggie; Jim will say aloud, “I’m nobody’s second choice” (bam!); Anthony Weiner tweeting pictures of his groin will come to the attention of MacKenzie; Paul Schneider will arrive playing the guy with whom MacKenzie cheated — and he wants her back!; Will will be hospitalized; and Leona will say these words to Will: “You were very good the night we got Bin Laden. You’re fired.”
Then Sorkin takes the stage alongside star Jeff Daniels and executive producer Alan Poul to make the following points:
He is not Will MacAvoy. The first two questions, in so many words, are about whether or not Sorkin disguises his own views as those of his characters. It’s an accusation he’s heard before, so he makes a blanket statement: “I want to make a clear distinction between me and the characters that are in the show. Most of the time I write about things I don’t know very much about,” he says. “Political opinions that I have are at the level of someone who has a BFA in musical theater.” Sorkin adds that he uses the same research system on all his projects, which is to get “pumped full of information from people who do know what they’re talking about so I can find the point of friction so I can write an episode.”
He appreciates the reviews, including the bad ones, but he wouldn’t change a thing. “For sure, we all know there were critics who did not enjoy watching the first four episodes,” he says, at which point, Daniels laughs. “And there were critics that did, but I think, and obviously you’d prefer praise for the show be unanimous, but any time that people are talking about a show this much, it’s good for television.” He adds that one of the “nice, unintended consequences” of working for HBO is that the entire season is shot and finished before the first episode airs, so even if he were tempted to tweak — and it’s pretty clear, he’s not — changes to the first season aren’t really possible.
He doesn’t have a woman problem. Asked about the charges of sexism against the show, Sorkin says he respects that opinion, “but I 100 percent disagree with it.” The women are “every bit the equals of the men, I think they are not just talked about as being good at their job, they are plainly good at their job.” He then rattles off examples of this: News Night is better only after MacKenzie arrives declaring, “we are going to do better,” Maggie is a beacon of loyalty and Sloan is so serious-minded about economics she’s turned down higher-paying jobs on Wall Street. “Caring about other things than yourself, reaching high, being thoughtful, curious, plainly smart, being a great team player, those are to me what define these characters,” he says. “Once you have those things down, you can have them slip on as many banana peels as you want.”
He did not fire the entire Newsroom writing staff, except for his ex-girlfriend. Also, he does not have an ex-girlfriend on staff. Reporters don’t even have a chance to ask about the report, because he brings it up on his own. “A couple of weeks ago, an un-sourced and untrue story appeared on the Internet that got repeated all over the place,” he begins. “The writing staff was not fired. Just seeing that in print scared the hell out of the staff. They’re acting very strange, they’re coming to work early, they’re being very polite to me,” he joked before explaining that in fact only “a couple” of changes were made, two of which were the promotion of a pair of writers assistants to story editors. “Even more important, I want to stand up for Corrine Kingsbury,” he says, noting that the original report omitted the g in her last name. “She was incorrectly identified as my ex-girlfriend. She is not. I don’t have an ex-girlfriend nor a current girlfriend in the writers' room. I would hate for this rumor or implication to follow her for the rest of her career … She is on the staff for the same reason everyone else is on the staff. She is very talented, she has a sensibility that is very different from my own, and she’s an incredibly hard worker.” Sorkin caps all this off by saying the other change he’s making in season two will be to hire paid consultants from a wide range of media. For the first season, consultants were working on a voluntary, un-paid basis.
No, seriously, the women aren’t there for comedic relief. One critic brings it back to the women, asking Sorkin to address MacKenzie after feeling that her function is constantly “screw up and apologize to Will.” How does Sorkin strike the balance between doing comedy and doing a disservice to his female characters? Sorkin repeats that he’s established that MacKenzie is a great leader. “After you’ve got that down, it’s permissible for her to make a mistake, that I know I’ve made, with an e-mail. I disagree that all she does is apologize to Will.” When the critic points to MacKenzie apologizing to Will at the end of that same episode, the fourth in the season, Sorkin remains unfazed. “She’s talking about cheating on Will there, not ‘I’m sorry I’m doing bad in the newsroom.’ She’s talking about something worth apologizing for. That’s not slipping on a banana peel.”
Will is on a “mission to civilize” and you shouldn’t necessarily admire him for it. At this late point in the session, Jeff Daniels comes to Sorkin’s defense when a reporter specifically asks Sorkin, “You’ve got this character [in Will] who’s interested in correcting the women around him. Why is that compelling to you?” Says Daniels, “Yeah, and it’s a weakness of Will’s. One of the things I like about Aaron’s writing — and then I’ll shut up — is that all of his characters, men and women, have flaws.” But, the reporter continues, “there is a basic asymmetry in the show,” which she explains is that men screw up in the workplace and women screw up in “fluffy ways,” in their personal life or in the very basics, i.e., MacKenzie is a top-notch news producer who doesn’t know basic economics. “I disagree with asymmetry. We present Will’s mission to civilize as, first of all, something people roll their eyes at, and second, it always blows up in his face. Hubris on this show is always punished. Men and women screw up in the same ways.”
He’s not critiquing the way journalists do the news. No character on the show disses the competition while patting themselves on the back for a job well done. “If our guys do something right, like [the coverage of] Gabby Giffords for instance, there is never a time that [another outlet] didn’t also get it right.” Sorkin says he also doesn’t believe he’s correcting previous wrongs by depicting of a group of idealistic journalists. “This is not a chance to do that. What it is is a chance to do what I love doing, creating a workplace environment that becomes a workplace family [who are] working toward a goal that is noble,” he says, noting that the Don Quixote metaphor is apt. “They’re reaching unrealistically high and they will fall down a lot. It is by no means a review of how the news was done.”