'The Newsroom' review: Jane Fonda, radical politics, and 'We are the media elite'

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Image Credit: Melissa Moseley/HBO

Early on in The Newsroom this week, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) delivered a manifesto detailing what his cable-news show News Night would stand for from now on. No more giving viewers what they think they want; the show will give them what Will McAvoy thinks they need. Why? Because, he concluded, “We’re the media elite.”

Nice rhetorical flourish, that: Creator Aaron Sorkin knows that one way to make viewers pay attention is to take a cliche with a certain connotation (negative, in this case) and present it as its reverse. In this case, Sorkin (and co-writer/good journalist Gideon Yago) was asserting that elitism — that is, valuing something superior (knowledge, in this instance) — isn’t the bad thing kneejerk anti-elitists think. One of the consistent themes of The Newsroom since it began is that people who bring you the news ought, should, and do know better than what they push through your TV screens. They fail to challenge partisan guests who spout easily disprovable false facts; they encourage confrontation at the expense of calm analysis.

And so we got a lot of Will in his new role of “The Champion of Facts,” over a number of months in 2010, as he covered phenomena such as the rise of the Tea Party and the Republican mid-term election victories — or as his boss, Sam Waterston’s Charlie Skinner characterized it, “the most dangerous and addle-minded Congress in my lifetime.”

What was the dramatic contrast to this, in Sorkin’s construction? Jane Fonda. Jane Fonda as Leona Lansing, the owner of the cable news network that broadcasts News Night, and Lansing was highly agitated over the fact that Will had been going after the Koch brothers David and Charles, who fund many a right-wing cause and, according to Aaron Sorkin’s fact-checkers and in case you thought there was some parity between rich folks bankrolling the right and the left, they were additionally labeled as guys so loaded, they “could buy and sell George Soros ten times over.”

Fonda’s character was furious with Charlie that he’d encouraged Will to attack the Kochs and the newly elected Congress, because, she said, “I have business before this Congress,” and she didn’t want to have that business curtailed by angering these powerful people. Sorkin was stressing that Fonda’s character didn’t give a damn about ratings, since the cable channel accounts for less than 3% of her corporation’s profits, but rather it was her other business ventures, unnamed, that were potentially in peril. She threatened to fire Will, but Charlie chose to keep this threat from Will, because he doesn’t want the skittish rich playboy newsman to back down from his new mission.

We were supposed to think that it was cool casting to have Fonda — or Hanoi Jane, as Fox News still calls her regularly — playing a character comparable to one of her ex-husbands (CNN founder Ted Turner) as well as a character with politics that are the opposite of Fonda’s own. And indeed, Fonda gave a very good, convincing performance, letting loose with mighty rage.

So, yes, that was kind of cool. Less so was the false equivalency that underpinned a key part of this episode’s argument against the Tea Party’s influence on Republican policy initiatives. Sorkin’s script argued that moderate Republicans were losing their Congressional seats to Tea Party candidates and therefore the GOP was going to adopt radical-right policies to appease the powerful Partiers. But the economic theories that were powering Republican policy, and the refusal of Republicans to compromise on any issue raised by the Democrats and President Obama, had nothing to do with the Tea Party — this was a concerted plan that launched the day Obama won the Presidency, agreed upon by the most establishment, least fringe, least middle-American Tea Party folks imaginable.

Also, Sorkin did that really irritating, inaccurate thing of equating 1960s leftist politics — specifically this night, talking about the Yippies — as though their 21st-century right-wing counterparts are the Tea Party. Charlie said the only difference between then and now is that while the ’60s Democrats never would have put Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin forward to represent their party, the contemporary Republicans have already pushed Michele Bachmann and Jim DeMint centerstage with their endorsement.

This makes for a good Sorkin speech, but like a lot of the speechifying in The Newsroom, it sounds great when it tumbles out of the mouths of appealing characters at a fast, eloquent clip, but it doesn’t hold up when you think about it afterward. The Yippies were anarchists who wanted to remain outside the system while demonstrating that progressive thought as represented by any liberal politician could move much further to the left than anyone in what was then called The Establishment might dare dream of. The Tea Party as represented by someone like Bachmann has no coherent philosophy while wanting very much to seize control of the government in order to have it wither away. In brief: Abbie Hoffman knew he was playing the fool, cagily. Bachmann does not, serenely. The Yippies were, for better or for worse, their own people; Sorkin wants you to think of the Tea Party as a bunch of people “being radicalized” (Sorkin’s phrase) by… who, exactly? The Koch brothers? Michele Bachmann? You see how this falls apart as easily as Sorkin’s other big rhetorical gesture this week, which was to have Will say that “a cable anchor is in the exact same business as the producer of The Jersey Shore.” Naw, Aaron — that’s giving anchors too much credit.

In other news this week, Alison Pill’s Maggie went through Xanax withdrawal, and John Gallagher’s Jim helped her and pined after her a lot. Oh, and Emily Mortimer’s MacKenzie became a yelping flibbertigibbet in the presence of a parade of lissome Will McAvoy dates. News Night was referred to as “MSNBC’s more combative brother.” (Really? Will is no more combative than Lawrence O’Donnell, and less analytical than the sister-colleague he should wish he had, Rachel Maddow.) The great Elvis Presley hit “Burnin’ Love” was used over a damp montage. And as is apparently required by Newroom law, a Broadway musical was cited improbably (Gypsy), and Edward R. Murrow was once again invoked as the ultimate newsman of all time. All of these elements were silly.

Still with The Newsroom? I know I am.

Twitter: @kentucker

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