Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom,” which ran on HBO from 2012 to 2014, depicts a media organization’s struggle to balance its obsession with ratings and a newfound sense of civic duty. Sorkin is a master of what we might call forward-looking nostalgia: harnessing the power of the past to recover its glories for our own day. From the opening theme — with its montage of Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, and other past greats — we are reminded of the gravity of newscasting.
The contrast couldn’t be clearer: Whereas news anchors in the past took their jobs seriously, the media of today has largely abdicated its responsibility to properly inform the American public. In chasing ratings rather than truth, today’s media has enabled a culture of political discourse in which superficial considerations predominate.
It’s a shame the show is no longer running, since this election cycle would have given it the perfect source material to work with. Although Sorkin was able to ridicule the networks for covering the Casey Anthony trial over more newsworthy events, the candidacy of Donald J. Trump represents the apogee of irresponsible media coverage.
Indeed, in Trump’s rise we see a media industry all too willing to prioritize his entertainment value over his value as a candidate. One would hope it’s beyond dispute that media saturation of Trump is at least partly responsible for the early demise of other, highly qualified and capable conservatives. While there’s certainly a political dimension to the media’s obsession with Trump, it’s equally true that if viewers didn’t care, the media would turn their attention to something else.
Goodbye, American Exceptionalism
“The Newsroom’s” preoccupying lament is that America is no longer the greatest country in the world. The show opens with its main character, the fictional news organization ACN’s lead anchor Will McAvoy, registering an unexpected and irrepressible moment of quasi-spiritual civic clarity. In a trance-like state, McAvoy muses on the reality that American exceptionalism is dead.
America is not the greatest country in the world, but…it sure 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 poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were and we never beat our chests. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men, we aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it, it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election and we didn’t scare so easy. We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed, by great men, men who were revered. First step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.
McAvoy would be horrified to learn that the great herald of this view in our day is none other than Donald Trump. That’s only partly true, of course: Although both McAvoy and Trump hold that America can become great again, they offer diametrically opposed directions for getting there.
“The Newsroom” suggests it can happen if the media redirects its priorities; Trump’s only hope is for the media to keep its priorities the same. We therefore have a tale of two Dons: McAvoy’s mission to civilize, inspired by Don Quixote, could not contrast more sharply with Trump’s commitment to brutalize.
Don’t Blame the Media, Blame Everyone
Trump’s neo-Know-Nothing-ism is the embodiment of political vulgarity. Rather than provide details of policy specifics, the vision he offers is of himself in the oval office. To sell this image, he needs to project his personality — cutthroat businessman, consummate deal-maker, successful executive — into every interview, every speech, every debate. Trump is thus the perfect candidate for our entertainment-obsessed age.
The media is certainly complicit in Trump’s rise. Had they committed to covering what really matters, Trump would’ve received far less coverage. Yet “The Newsroom’s” central argument — that if the media would focus on what matters rather than on what drives ratings the American people would make better decisions at the polls — misidentifies the root problem. Fundamentally, the problem is at the value level, not the access level.
In the worldview of “The Newsroom,” a civic revival is ready to wash over us, to awaken us, if the guardians of our information get serious about their jobs, which is to inform, not to entertain us. The vehicle that will get us back on top will be, in the words of MacKenzie McHale, McAvoy’s executive producer, “a nightly newscast that informs a debate worthy of a great nation.”
For far too long Americans have been distracted by trivialities and amusements. If the news — the real news — were offered us, we would become informed enough to make the right decisions about who should govern us and what policies he should pursue. And this would make America great again.
We Simply Don’t Care about What’s Important
Underlying this is a fantastically optimistic conception of human beings. Recently, a Twitter account devoted to tracking online interest in academic personalities tweeted that there are now 300 philosophers on the social media service with over 1,000 followers each. Washington Post writer Christopher Ingraham’s response was devastating: “Khloe Kardashian has 10 times as many followers as every philosopher on Twitter.”
“The Newsroom’s” central argument seems to miss that there is a reason information about what is going on with the Kardashians is more interesting to society than information about what is going on in Congress. That reason is simple: society values Kardashian happenings more than they value congressional happenings. It’s the same reason why my students can recite the entirety of the latest J. Cole album but not two lines from Shakespeare. It’s not a matter of having access to one and not the other; it’s a matter of caring about one and not the other.
The object isn’t to culture-shame my students or society at large. It’s simple realism about why “The Newsroom’s” mission to civilize will ultimately fail. When the dominant axiology in our society is centered on the pursuit of pleasure, when knowledge is not held to be intrinsically valuable but merely instrumentally useful, when civic virtue is inverted as mere therapeutic activism, the result is an information industry that reflects this enlargement of the self and sells it back to its viewers as news. Our values steer the coverage. It’s not that we are lacking the news, it’s that we don’t value the news. The problem lies at the value level, not at the access level.
This Is an Enduring Human Problem
This is not a new phenomenon. It’s the same reason Socrates’ life was one long, unremitting sigh of exasperation. At one point he asked his fellow Athenians, “Are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?”
He stared into the Athenian indifference to life’s most important matters and it confounded him. American indifference doesn’t confound Aaron Sorkin, because in his diagnosis it can be remedied by providing the people with truth and substance. He believes that in the end we will listen to reason; that we will become a virtuous citizenry again, if our politicians stop trying to pander to us and our media organizations stop trying to entertain us.
But the problem is not that we are uninformed, although that is indeed a problem — it’s that we don’t care to be. For that to change, we’re going to need more than a news program.