When the complete history of The Newsroom is written, the sixth episode of season two should be remembered as the moment it went from an uneven drama with political overtones to outright propaganda. There’s just no other way to describe it anymore. In season two, Aaron Sorkin’s motivations have been revealed: he is hell-bent on manipulating his audience to hate Republicans and forgive Democrats for all of their failures. That’s fine for a campaign ad or an op-ed, but for an entity that claims to be entertainment, it’s an unacceptable breach of the relationship between a show and its audience.
Good propaganda is always entertaining; that’s why it’s effective. You’re so busy being entertained that you don’t notice the message. I continue to think that the show is at its most entertaining when it is doing one of two things: presenting us with a complex situation, the outcome of which is not immediately obvious to the viewer, or giving us a glimpse of what really happens inside a newsroom. The opening scene of “One Step Too Many” did both. For starters, I had never heard the term “Red Team” before this season, and now I’ve seen a tense dramatization of one. Good stuff. Further, we know Operation Genoa turns out to be false, but we have no idea quite how it’s going to happen, and that makes me interested. So this was a good scene and overall, a good episode, although the lengthy diversion into the characters’ personal lives was by turns boring (Jim’s relationship with Hallie Shea is no more interesting than his relationship with Maggie or whatshername) and disturbing (all of a sudden, Neal is a ladies’ man who likes to get girls drunk and sleep with them).
But the show’s politics have always been a problem for me, and now it has reached a tipping point where I can no longer justify the show’s existence. It’s not just that Sorkin uses the show as a soapbox to voice his political opinions – it’s that he cheats and manipulates us to get us to agree with him.
Consider the two political storylines that have coursed through the season: the Romney campaign and Operation Genoa. In the former, Sorkin uses Romney as a way to criticize the Republican party for having nonsensical and vague positions on important issues. He only picks Romney because Romney was the nominee, but his criticism could really apply to any of them. They all had spokespeople who were shameless in their willingness to give non-answers to serious, thoughtful questions.
But this criticism could also apply to Obama’s campaign, whose spokespeople were only slightly less evasive than Constance Zimmer’s character has been this season (quick: what was Obama’s position on reforming social security?). It’s the nature of national politics these days – spokespeople don’t really answer tough questions – and it doesn’t apply only to Republicans. But Sorkin is not interested in extending that criticism to Obama; he prefers to beat up on a Republican candidate who lost the presidency twice and has no plans to run again. Very useful.
I wouldn’t mind Sorkin rubbing salt in the wounds of the Romney campaign and ignoring the Obama campaign’s flaws if he saved some ire for national Democrats elsewhere – even a little would balance the scales. Instead, he introduces criticism of President Obama from the left for the sole purpose of discrediting it.
This criticism is voiced through the unholy deeds of Jerry Dantana. Dantana, who was brought in this season presumably just to screw everything up, has a near-religious belief that Operation Genoa has occurred, but his criticism of Obama also extends to torture, drone warfare, and domestic spying. In essence, he is a representation of all of Obama’s critics on the “intellectual left,” as former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs famously coined them.
So what does Sorkin do with this character who raises some compelling criticisms of Obama? He completely discredits him. Not only does Genoa turn out to be false (which, by association, means that Dantana’s other criticisms do not have merit), but Dantana ends up falsifying information and violating basic journalistic ethics. Essentially, Sorkin turns him into a liar, a despicable character who, through a brazen act, endangers the livelihoods of the entire news team, every character we have grown to care about. In this episode, he interviews a conflicted former general (Stephen Root), who won’t quite say on camera that Operation Genoa occurred and doesn’t produce the smoking gun that Dantana needs. But he won’t get a little thing like the facts get in the way of his belief that Genoa occurred, so Dantana recuts the tape so that it appears that the general is confirming it.
It is a complex piece of propaganda. Sorkin doesn’t only present one side of the argument; he presents both sides, and then thoroughly dismantles the one he doesn’t like through narrative trickery. Operation Genoa is the only news event in the show that is not real. Yes, it is based on Operation Tailwind, but Sorkin has thoroughly fictionalized it, which gives him license to do whatever he wants with it. And what he does with this uniquely fictional event (in a show otherwise filled with real news events) is create a classic straw man argument. Jerry Dantana is so clouded by his negative opinions of the Obama administration that he makes a fatal mistake. Don’t be Jerry, Sorkin is telling us. Don’t criticize Democrats. Criticize the Republicans who were running for office two years ago. That’s more important.
It’s hard not to admire Sorkin’s mastery of the medium, except it gets in the way of what could be a very good, important show. Were Sorkin to ever actually explore the criticisms of Obama from the left, instead of creating a straw man like Dantana, he’d have something very interesting on his hands. Unfortunately, his only goal seems to be to prop up national Democrats, without a thought to whether they even deserve it.