Quizzing Jeff Daniels on HBO's The Newsroom: Taking critics' hits while trying to save the news business from itself
Can Aaron Sorkin save the TV news business from itself?
Ask Jeff Daniels, star of the Oscar and Emmy-winning screenwriter’s highly-anticipated new series, HBO’s The Newsroom, and he has a quick answer.
He’s not sure Sorkin’s even trying.
“A lot of what Aaron is dealing with is saying ‘Let’s start telling the truth,’” said Daniels, a self-described “political news junkie” now playing a disillusioned cable news anchor pushed to stop playing it safe and, in the words of one character “speak the truth to stupid.”
“It seems you can say anything (on newscasts) these days…just say it is true, and it is,” added the actor, best known as the philandering husband in Terms of Endearment and Jim Carrey’s addled brother in Dumb and Dumber. “Aaron loves grand ideas, he loves writing about big things, and how we get our news is a big thing to all of us. I don’t know that he’s out to save (the news business); certainly, he’s saying we can do better.”
But TV Critics have been saying the same thing about Sorkin, the agile mind behind hits such as The West Wing and The Social Network, dinging The Newsroom with the kind of sharp jabs rarely delivered to HBO or its high-profile creator.
The New Yorker declared the show was "stuffed with piety and syrup," and "treats the audience as if it were extremely stupid." Esquire's Charlie Pierce decried Sorkin's "historical amnesia" and "unwieldy hankering for when giants walked the (TV) networks."
And ABC News correspondent and anchor Jake Tapper delivered a review for The New Republic titled "The Snoozeroom," in which the longtime political reporter declared "'The Newsroom' had me contemplating that which is so feared in my industry: changing the channel. And I was watching it on DVD."
Indeed, critics have made a punching bag of the show, dinging it for everything from being too high-minded to being too unrealistic, too sexist, too clumsy and too didactic.
But as flawed as the first four episodes of this show may be, I know I will watch every moment of it, hoping Sorkin will work out the kinks and multiply on the many interesting moments he manages early on.
That's because he had the stones to tackle an area of modern life critics know too well; the world of television news, especially on cable.
So many of us have covered this subject for so long, we can see immediately where all the fault lines lie in Sorkin's logic. For instance, Daniels' character supposedly found success by being inoffensive and never delivering an opinion; that may be how network TV anchors do it, but in cable land, the route to success is a quick opinion delivered with lots of blowhardiness (just ask the top-rated guy in cable news, Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly). And this fictional staff figures that the B.P. Oil spill was a result of the company's errors in minutes; in truth, it took days of pressing for answers until journalists sussed that out.
Daniels plays Will McAvoy, a cable news anchor whose success has been rooted in pandering to viewers; a prime Sorkin candidate for conversion to a higher calling, courtesy of a huge crisis.
That crisis shows up in the pilot episode's opening scene, as McAvoy melts down at a public forum where he lists all the reasons America isn’t really the best country in the world, in response to a bubble-headed question. (fun fact: an HBO press release says Daniels originally was supposed to be flanked by ex-MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann and now deceased conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart in that scene, until the show decided not to use real news or political figures as actors.)
It’s a typically epic Sorkin rant, aimed at a jingoistic college student, soaring through sagging life expectancy rates, literacy rates and infant mortality rates before settling on the capper line “I don’t know what the f--- you’re talking about.” (yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is HBO).
“We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it; it didn’t make us feel inferior,” Daniels says as McAvoy. “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.”
Critics have dinged those lines as pining for a history which never existed; but if there's anything journalists spend lots of time doing these days, it's wondering if we've strayed too far from our roots in more objective, even-handed information delivery. Most journalists I know are the biggest nostalgics on the planet, particularly when it comes to the subject of our own business.
McAvoy emerges as an intelligent, talented guy who tolerated the vapidity and venality of the modern cable TV news game as long as he could before snapping -- a big theme in much of Sorkin’s work seems to center on principled, super-intelligent folks struggling to deal with the world’s stupendous lack of both qualities. Often, that attitude feels tremendously condescending, but it's also the same kind of stuff critics like me spend a lot of time dissecting, as well.
Making Daniels’ McAvoy a closet Republican won’t likely stem the tide of conservative anger sure to be leveled at this show. Though the anchor is supposed to be a moderate right winger, he seems to agree with his liberal colleagues much of the time, challenging the corporate backing and fact-free atmosphere of the Fox News/tea party side of the political spectrum.
“I can see why the right side might get a little concerned about how it’s being portrayed,” Daniels said. “But one of the things Aaron’s been saying is ‘We’re using their words.’ I remember doing the opening speech (on America no longer being a great nation), and thinking ‘There’s nothing in this that isn’t true.’ For those that hang with us through the whole season, they’ll find the reclaiming of what the Republican Party used to be is a big part of season one.”
Complicating it all is the game many industry types like to play with Sorkin shows: “Guess who this character is based on?”
Because the scriptwriter spent research time with Olbermann during his time at MSNBC, many assume McAvoy is a thinly-veiled version of the liberal firebrand (including the former anchor himself, according to the New York Times).
It doesn’t help that the pilot episode features McAvoy losing almost all his staff because he treats them terribly; accusations of similar behavior have dogged Olbermann for years.
When I tell him his take on McAvoy reminds me of a curious combination of Tom Brokaw and Olbermann – he’s a practical-yet-nostalgic romantic who is also scary smart and capable of seriously bratty behavior (like throwing a cellphone at a camera when asked to take it off his desk) -- Daniels reiterates the show’s party line: No character here is based on any one person.
“Whoever Aaron may have based (these characters) on, by episode three or four you start tailoring it for the character and the actor,” said Daniels, who said he didn’t base his performance on any existing news anchors and didn’t even visit a cable newschannel for research. “He writes one script at a time, discovering as he goes and tailoring the world as he goes. I could imagine Olbermann throwing a cellphone at a camera; I could not imagine Tom Brokaw doing that.”
Despite all the criticisms, there are bright spots in The Newsroom. Law & Order alum Sam Waterston finally gets a chance to shed the dourness which shadowed his character on NBC's long-running legal drama, playing a cagey cable news president who uses McAvoy's meltdown as an opportunity to push him into a more substantive, aggressive news show.
He also delivers my favorite line in the pilot, telling a smartass TV producer "I am a marine and I will beat the sh-- out of you, no matter how many protein bars you eat." Hey, it's HBO.
Daniels creates a complex character in McAvoy, a guy with wounded heart who is so self-involved he can't remember the names of most of his staff. Sorkin's TV shows mostly revolve around smart people trying to get out of their own way; Daniels makes that journey interesting, even if you've seen this story many times before.
And Sorkin's dialogue can bristle with emotional energy. It is a delight when these actors nail some scenes, weaving through his thicket of lines like expert gymnasts navigating a performance without a net.
More than anything, what feels unrealistic here, is some characters’ insistence that a focus on facts will dim the partisanship and triviality which dogs the modern TV news process, revealing the “truth” about every issue.
Those of us who have covered these outlets for years can tell you; it isn’t the lack of facts which hobbles modern TV news, but the rise of "truthiness" -- that notion that the only facts which matter are those confirming what the audience already believes. When reporting is yoked to the idea of ensuring your ideology “wins,” the news process is seriously corrupted by a lack of context and fairness.
The most experienced reporters know; there can be many truths or none in every story. In an odd way, Sorkin's liberal-friendly media critique furthers that issue, skewing the debate on journalism by picking sides without admitting it.
For Daniels, it’s all part of the story Sorkin wants to tell; the flawed hero who gives up a lot – part of his multi-million dollar salary, his status as a cable news success and his favored status inside the company – while reaching to be better man and newsman.
“There are a lot of angry Americans out there; Aaron’s one of them, I’m one of them,” said the actor. “There are a lot of people in the middle of the country who aren’t right or left, they’re both. And they just want to be told the truth.”