NOTE: This post has been updated from its original content.
Critics of HBO’s “The Newsroom” – and there have been many of them – have chided the show’s writer-creator Aaron Sorkin for being too preachy. These criticisms have come from both the right and the left. The Wall Street Journal wrote that “preening virtue…weighs on this Aaron Sorkin series like a great damp cloud.” At the other end of the political spectrum, The New Yorker found that it “treats the audience as though we were extremely stupid.” The prevailing opinion of critics is that the show is too didactic and self-righteous.
The aim of the show is to shine a light on the failures of our journalists and elected officials over the last two years. When these criticisms come from an author or journalist, it’s fine. We give Pulitzer prizes for that sort of thing. When a television writer weighs in on these issues, political pundits and television critics start shouting about excessive moralizing and didacticism, as if they were the two most offensive qualities a television show could have. But the tragedy that unfolded in Colorado early this morning and the political environment surrounding it demonstrate with great clarity that those critics are wrong and that in times of great cynicism, there are far worse crimes than self-righteousness.
Last week’s episode of “The Newsroom” featured a lengthy segment in which Will McAvoy deconstructed the motives of pro-gun advocates who have erroneously painted the Obama administration as tough on gun control. Here is that scene:
While Sorkin’s conspiracy theory that Republicans fret about gun control in an effort to boost gun sales and NRA membership is debatable, Obama’s record on gun control is not. He has been an abject failure on this issue, and it’s easy to understand why. As a candidate, he was widely criticized for stating that working-class voters suffering from the poor economy “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them[.]” The NRA seized on this statement and has used it to paint Obama as an anti-gun zealot. But even left-wingers criticized him, not for the substance of his point but for saying something that could so easily be used against him.
Obama appears to have heard them. As president, he has not passed or supported any gun control legislation. After the shooting of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Obama asked for a “new conversation” on gun control. We’re still waiting for it. It is clear that Obama’s inaction on this issue, which was once a core Democratic principle, is based on his fear of dredging up the anger many Americans felt towards the “guns and religion” comment. Similarly, it is apparent that Obama’s emphasis on raiding California’s marijuana dispensaries is an effort to protect himself against those who would seek to characterize him as a figure of the counterculture, based on his admitted past drug use. For years, Republicans have won elections by painting Democrats as being soft on crime – just ask Michael Dukakis. And for almost just as long, Democrats have allowed themselves to be bullied.
Not all politicians are afraid to take this issue on. This morning, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of the nation’s strongest advocates for gun control, said this:
“I mean, there’s so many murders with guns every day. It’s just gotta stop. And instead of these two people, President [Barack] Obama and Gov. [Mitt] Romney, talking in broad things about, they want to make the world a better place. OK, tell us how. And this is a problem. No matter where you stand on the Second Amendment, no matter where you stand on guns, we have a right to hear from both of them, concretely, not just in generalities, specifically, what are they going to do about guns?”
He went further:
“There’s something more important than getting reelected. And that’s standing up and saying what you think is right.”
Mayor Bloomberg is right; this is not a political issue. At least 12 people lost their lives this morning. It would be presumptive to assume that stronger gun laws would have prevented this horrific crime. If we banned guns tomorrow, people who wanted them would still find a way to get them. But at the very least, gun control legislation should be on the table. We need to change the way we view guns in this country because offering prayers and sympathy just doesn’t cut it. We need to discourage violence, and having a national conversation on gun control is the best way to do that. Aaron Sorkin, as evidenced by this most recent episode of “The Newsroom,” gets this. Still, we find ourselves with a president who is too afraid of the political backlash to even broach the subject in a meaningful way. Given this administration’s shamefully poor record on gun control and the tragic events that occurred this morning in Colorado, we should not be criticizing the show for its didacticism. We should be lining up to heap praise upon it for shining a spotlight on this issue.
But, amazingly, last week’s episode had yet another connection to the events in Colorado this morning. In reporting the shooting, ABC News jumped to conclusions and incorrectly identified Colorado Tea party member Jim Holmes as the shooter. It turns out that the shooter was named James Holmes but was no relation to the man referenced. This mistake is conceptually similar to the events of the last 15 minutes of the very same episode of “The Newsroom,” in which major news outlets mistakenly reported that Congresswoman Giffords had been killed during the January shooting spree that left her wounded. And the failure of ABC news today, so similar to the events portrayed on last week’s show, provide a sadly perfect example of the kind of poor, ratings-driven reporting that Sorkin and the writers of “The Newsroom” are fed up with. As it turns out, they are exactly right.
That is not to say that “The Newsroom” is the answer to all of our problems. But on a day like today, it should be given credit for pointing out how political leaders on both sides of the aisle and journalists have failed the public on an issue that has affected so many people so deeply this morning. In times like these, it is hard to understand why so many critics hate this show. It is practically a public service.