Aaron Sorkin’s Liberalism

HBO The Newsroom

The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s fourth television series, debuts its second season tonight on HBO. And while the first season was something of a disappointment, Sorkin is still one of the most acclaimed writers on TV, with an Oscar and highly anticipated projects in Hollywood and on Broadway.

And yet The Newsroom seems to highlight all of Sorkin’s most annoying tendencies, from his inability to write women, to his smug condescension, to his love of self-plagiarism. But rather than repeat those complaints, I want to focus on what bothers me the most about Sorkin’s work—its lionization of a particularly virulent strain of liberalism.

I’m generally wary of the terms “liberal” and “conservative”, since they are often used to restrict the realm of acceptable political thought to the stances of the two dominant political parties. But Sorkin seems to represent a kind of liberalism that denotes a worldview rather than just stances on particular issues. Of course, on those issues Sorkin loves to parrot the most thoughtless talking points of the Democratic Party (the Christian right is silly; guns are bad; Islam is no more violent than other religions; etc.).*

*Though Sorkin is always quick to give his characters ideologically surprising points of view every now and then. It makes them seem nuanced and reasonable.

But while the specific policies addressed on The Newsroom, or Sorkin’s more famous political series The West Wing, vary from episode to episode, there is a streak of fealty to authority that never goes away. Sometimes that authority is a boss figure (like Will McAvoy or Jed Bartlett), sometimes that authority is an institution (like “the White House” or “the news”), and sometimes it’s just a vague sense of the American establishment, but it’s always there.

For example, all of his shows are littered with a sickening kind of hero-worship.* The West Wing is full of reverential bullshit that practically deifies the President (“When the President stands, nobody sits,” “My President is your President,” it’s treason to criticize the President, etc.), and in one particularly egregious scene from the first season of The Newsroom, a bunch of underlings line up to give checks to their boss, to thank him for something that required virtually no effort. This idea of dedicating oneself to a worthy leader is so omnipresent in Sorkin’s work that it sometimes feels like he was trained by Mao himself.

*Incidentally, this hero-worship explains some of the weirder plot elements in Sorkin’s shows, like comedy writers being stopped by strangers in the street for autographs (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), or tabloids running cover stories on a cable news anchor (The Newsroom). Of course, in real life nobody asks comedy writers for autographs, or reads US Weekly stories about Chris Matthews, but in Sorkin’s world everyone is as obsessed with his protagonists as his ensemble is.  

Of course, hero-worship is not an inherently political problem, but it’s intimately related to the cult of personality, an indispensable part of totalitarianism. And by writing “heroes” who are government officials and the media establishment, Sorkin makes it hard to see where devotion to a benevolent hero ends and devotion to the state begins. Just read about how a generation of viewers flocked to work for the government because of The West Wing, or listen to the reverence many Obama supporters have for the President, and you can see how one bleeds into the other.

But cult of personality is not unique to liberals—it’s practically a fixture of the modern American presidency. What makes Sorkin’s view distinctly liberal is that it is coupled with an idealized view of what the government actually does. The West Wing, by its very nature, glamorized even the drudgery of government work. But The Newsroom might be even worse.

Take a scene from “5/1,” the episode dealing with the death of Osama bin Laden. After the reporters get double confirmation that the emergency press conference is to announce OBL’s death, the news director tells them to wait for a go-ahead from the White House. In other words, a journalist asked for permission to report a story. His logic: Journalists and the White House are on the same team. As he puts it, “There’s nothing wrong with waiting for the White House to tell us it’s reportable.”

In fact, there is something wrong with that, as it contradicts the very essence of a free press. But as the hero news director says to the hero news anchor, “They’re not the enemy here.” For all of the bluster on The Newsroom about exposing those in power and “speaking truth to stupid,” the show presents a vision of journalism that invariably serves the status quo.

And this is what is so disturbing about Sorkin’s liberalism. In the guise of progressivism, he actually presents a profoundly reactionary worldview. Though he purports to champion “little guys,” his heroes are almost always people empowered by institutions like the military or the federal government. The overall impression is that an individual is simply not as valuable as the institutions he is there to serve.

This is a kind of “big government” philosophy that runs deeper than just who ought to pay for health care, or how to regulate the financial industry. And even though Sorkin is the best at illustrating it, it seems to run through a lot of the population. This is the part that trusts the government to spy and kill citizens ethically, and thinks exposing government secrets ought to be a crime. It’s not a part that needs to get any bigger, and it certainly doesn’t need its own TV show.

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