The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin's new television show for HBO, has a lot of obvious problems, dissected at length here and elsewhere. But the show at least nailed its reverence for broadcast journalism of yore, if you believe official Gawker Newsroom episode recapper Dan Rather. Murrow, Cronkite, Huntley, Brinkley, and, yes, Rather: they were newsmen, the show argues from the opening credits. Today's anchors are pundits and airheads.
But history doesn't support Sorkin's account, as Louis Menand explains in last week's New Yorker (subscription required). "Some of that narrative may be true," Menand writes of the Great Newsman myth, "but a lot of it is Camelot."
Start with LBJ and Cronkite: High-school U.S. history textbooks hold that Johnson's political career deteriorated when Cronkite told the nation, in February 1968, that Vietnam had turned into a stalemate. But the Times and the Wall Street Journal had called the conflict a stalemate months before Cronkite did. And there's little evidence—data or personal testimonials—to suggest that either the American public or Johnson reacted much to Cronkite's declaration. Cronkite and his peers are admired only retroactively, by a generation (Sorkin's) that claims it dearly misses the Real Newsmen on TV. Menand explains that Cronkite was never more popular, according to opinion surveys, than when he was off the air.
But Jeff Daniels's character, Will McAvoy, bears little resemblance to Walter Cronkite. McAvoy is a middle-American firebrand hellbent on holding Washington accountable. Cronkite, as Menand tells it, was an unexceptional, punch-pulling Johnson shill. He made the fabled Vietnam call only after visiting Vietnam. McAvoy decided to call Deepwater Horizon a debacle the night it happened. He's nothing like Walter Cronkite.
So Sorkin's crafted a tribute to another type of man entirely. He doesn't miss Walter Cronkite, although he probably thinks he does. He actually misses his father. He misses the way he listened to his father when he was young. Because who else talks and commands immediate respect? Who else has ultimate trust? Who else can issue snap judgments with such force? No broadcaster, not even Cronkite in his heyday, held viewers in thrall like a father does his kids.
I had forgotten the way we think about our fathers when we're young—how they're essentially arbiters of fact in the way Wikipedia entries accessed on our iPhones are now—but I've spent the past month living with my preteen cousins. It's a modern liberal-minded household, where Dad cooks and does dishes and walks the dog, and still: It's all, Daddy says, on any topic imaginable. Daddy says John Roberts is a man of great civic virtue. Daddy says Charlie Rangel is corrupt. Daddy says the dog actually can eat chocolate.
This is what Will McAvoy's doing when he rants about America's troubles in the beginning of the first episode. That's his plan when he powerfully but effortlessly dismisses the Tea Party. He's Your Dad, reflecting only a bit before he issues his decree, which happens to be final.
Sorkin made McAvoy an American prophet. He always happens to be right, factually and tonally, which is never the case with news broadcasters or Your Dad. When you reach adolescence, you realize that the authority you granted your father was premised on little else than biology and old-timey household roles. You realize that your father was not the smartest man in the world; he was just older and larger than you. Maybe your mother is even smarter than he is.
It's supremely weird for Sorkin to rehabilitate the father figure (even subconsciously) on this show. That's never been his game. Fathers always disappoint their sons on his shows. On Sports Night and The West Wing, Jeremy and Sam watched their fathers admit to long-time extramarital affairs. When Dan's father visits on Sports Night, he's hostile to his son, unappreciative, tells him he looks gay. Toby's father on The West Wing is a felon, Leo's father killed himself, and Charlie's father abandoned his family. Jed Bartlet's father wants nothing to do with his son. On Studio 60, Tom Jeter's father demeans his showbiz work.
That's an entire generation of Sorkin characters with bad fathers. The fathers come off better when dealing with their daughters, but Sorkin makes every man look great when he deals with women. Even McAvoy, who got drinks thrown in his face last week after condescending to multiple gals, gets absolution from the storytelling: The ladies, the show tells us, are dumb and crazy and wicked and part of Jane Fonda's organized smear campaign. The show sides with McAvoy. Unchallenged condescension reigns in the American home, too.
Does this pro-patriarchy motif have anything to do with Sorkin's own father? I'm not his therapist, although his shows tend to be more autobiographical than most. Sorkin's father, Bernard, is still alive today but in his late 80s. He's a World War Two veteran and a copyright lawyer—he retired as senior counsel at Time Warner. A 2001 NYT Magazine profile of Sorkin hinted that Sorkin's parents were very disappointed with him as a teenager and go-nowhere college drama student. So I imagine Bernard Sorkin's words meant a great deal to his kids when they were growing up. Sorkin's two siblings became lawyers, like dad. Bernard Sorkin was Your Dad, only with way more gravitas than your dad had. So could it be that Sorkin is softening on his dad's once-draconian authority, as his father reaches the end of his life? I'm not sure why else an enlightened lefty would fall in love with an old-school archetype.
But one needn't think anything about Sorkin's own life to see through The Newsroom's myth about news and find the show's real meaning. His critics always say his characters are too idealistic. Well, here they're just childlike, as is any fictional adult American who would adore an episode of News Night. The Newsroom thinks it's talking politics and journalistic ethics but is actually talking Freud. Or, as Sorkin might write it: When an educated television writer wishes for a gruff, all-knowing, condescending-to-women older man to tell him what to think, who is he really wishing for?