“A Mission to Civilize”: In Defense of The Newsroom’s Fans

August 30, 2012
By | 8 Comments

My online diet has been overwhelmingly bloated with divisive, vitriolic rhetoric lately–I can’t escape the writers scoffing at “defiant intellectual superiority,” comparing their targets to “Spanish missionaries who forcibly ‘converted’ Native Americans,” and implying that anyone who doesn’t agree with their self-righteous viewpoint must not be an “educated citizen of this great nation.”  I’m not talking about divisive partisan politics here; these are the critics of HBO’s The Newsroom. From the series’ premiere on June 24th until Sunday’s season finale, a bevy of alarmingly disdainful reviewers has flocked to The Newsroom. Unfortunately, it’s not only the show they’re sneering at–it’s the fans.

In case you haven’t tuned in, The Newsroom goes behind the scenes at the fictional Atlantis Cable News (ACN) to examine journalism in our increasingly divided political landscape. Much of the first season focused on anchor Will McAvoy’s (Jeff Daniels) on-air tirades against the Tea Party and the political repercussions of those attacks. While the show’s creator Aaron Sorkin aims to soften his politically charged narratives with a spattering of office romance, the show’s strength is its “breaking news” segments. The Newsroom asks viewers to relive experiences like the BP oil spill, Nancy Grace’s Casey Anthony coverage, and the debt ceiling crisis, pulling drama from both the narrative world and our own memories.

At the risk of being mocked by the clearly superior chorus of The Newsroom haters, I unabashedly admit that I’m a fan. I cheered when Will revealed the Koch brothers’ Tea Party control, held my breath through ACN’s reverently cautious coverage of the Tucson shooting, and sat on the edge of my seat waiting for President Obama’s mysterious May 1st announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s death. Obviously, not everyone loves that kind of drama, and that’s okay. What bothers me as I scour The Newsroom’s popular press reviews is the nagging feeling that I am being judged for my fandom by some elite social club.

I’m not railing against your average “it stinks” reviews. This is a chorus of big-time reviewers–writers for Time, The New Yorker, and The Huffington Post, among others–arguing that The Newsroom is so obviously bad that its mere hundreds of fans only enjoy the show because we have no idea what good programming is because we “never watch TV.” They accuse The Newsroom’s supposedly self-righteous viewers of recommending the show to “less enlightened people than themselves” as a ploy to sound intelligent. There are even insinuations that the show’s viewers are tuning in for the purpose of “luxuriating in its particular badness [as] a kind of Twitter parlour game.” In this sea of hatred, it becomes hard to tell whether charges of “elitism, self-righteousness, windbaggery and bias” are being leveled at The Newsroom or its fans.

In the name of fairness (and balance), I’ll admit that some of the critiques of the show itself are reasonable. Sorkin likes his dialogue fast, which can make for an exhausting viewing experience. The show’s characters are on a “mission to civilize,” which sometimes results in preachy diatribes. And yes, the show’s women (all of its characters, really) sometimes act flakier than their job titles would allow in the real world. I don’t take issue with those, or any, arguments about the show’s content. I do take issue with the chorus of writers trying to prove their own journalistic savvy by denouncing The Newsroom’s fans as ignorant, illiterate outsiders, ill-equipped to draw our own conclusions because we don’t have a Master’s in Journalism from Northwestern.

The smugness that Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan detests in Will McAvoy oozes from her review of the show: “All I can do is what any other educated citizen of this great nation would do: Change the channel.” That emphasis is mine, because as an educated citizen who does not change the channel, I find her words condescending and dismissive. I’m not arguing that everyone should like the series, but there’s a certain irony in chiding The Newsroom for being overly partisan and divisive and then presuming to, in the show’s words, “speak truth to stupid.” You don’t have to be an audience studies scholar to see that this kind of elitist disdain is what trivializes soap opera fans, dismisses popular music as feminine, and ghettoizes television research. And the worst part is that this is a pile on. It’s as though entrance to the exclusive media critic club requires increasingly vitriolic and disdainful judgment, not of The Newsroom, but of its audience.

I am a fan of The Newsroom, but I won’t judge you if you’re not. There’s no reason to generalize that an entire fan community is stupid, ignorant, or media illiterate, and it’s insulting and unfair to do so. The least we can do, as media critics and human beings, is call out divisive, elitist dismissal for what it is–the enemy of real discourse. After all, the fact that I disagree with you doesn’t mean either of us is stupid; it just means we’re having a conversation.


Tags: , , ,

8 Responses to “ “A Mission to Civilize”: In Defense of The Newsroom’s Fans ”

  1. Myles McNutt on August 30, 2012 at 9:57 AM

    Amanda, as someone who has been publicly critical of The Newsroom, I share your belief that disagreement about The Newsroom does not suggest that one of us is wrong and one of us is right.

    However, I have some questions about characterizing pre-air reviews—written before any viewers have seen the show—as a dismissal of fan communities when they don’t exist yet. The rhetorical strategy you’re responding to is the construction of an imagined audience, using patterns in media consumption—like the elitist “I never watch TV, but this show is excellent,” which I’d argue is endemic within discourse around premium cable programming, and which I think you’re unfairly characterizing as a suggestion ignorance is necessary to enjoy the show—as a way of framing the series for potential viewers. But can we take this construction as a judgment on those who watch The Newsroom differently when it’s a prediction of how they might watch it?

    I’m not suggesting that this criticism isn’t elitist, because I think there is an inherent elitism in almost all forms of criticism that is especially highlighted here by the discourses of elitism surrounding the program (where critics are allegedly being elitist in decrying a show’s elitism, trapping us in a loop from which we may never escape). However, I don’t know if pre-air reviews aiming to steer viewers away from a series critics feel is bad—which is part of their job description—stands in perpetual judgment of the people who do choose to watch it. The use of an imagined audience to contextualize and frame their criticism makes this reading possible, but I do think we need to draw a distinction between reviews which characterize the imagined audience in limiting ways and those which actively attempt to devalue real viewers and their opinions of a program over the course of its run.

  2. Craig on August 30, 2012 at 10:52 AM

    My biggest problem with the negative criticism surrounding the first season of The Newsroom is that much of it made me question my own feelings about the show.

    I think TV criticism is incredibly valuable (and elitist, but I have no complaints about that), but when reviewers make a fan feel as though their own reaction to a scene or an exchange or even a song choice is “wrong,” or that their appreciation of something is unfounded, it’s totally unfair.

    Talk all you want about narrative progression, character development, and story structure, but please don’t make me feel like an idiot for enjoying the Don-Maggie-Jim love triangle; and don’t make me feel ashamed for tearing up during the “Fix You” montage.

    I don’t care whether or not critics know that their words stand in judgment of those watching a show. If a reviewer makes me feel like a less-educated citizen of our great nation, I do what Maureen Ryan says and I turn the channel. Or, in this case, I leave the website.

    **Also: Miles, I’m a big fan. I think your ‘Awkward’ recaps are incredibly insightful and mature. So, thanks for that!

    • Kelli Marshall on September 1, 2012 at 10:46 AM

      “Talk all you want about narrative progression, character development, and story structure, but please don’t make me feel like an idiot for enjoying the Don-Maggie-Jim love triangle; and don’t make me feel ashamed for tearing up during the “Fix You” montage.”

      –Yes, Craig, yes. http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m83uk2tugy1ql23va.gif

      And Amanda, I love this post so much. Thanks for writing!

  3. Jamie Kern on August 30, 2012 at 6:54 PM

    As a fan of The Newsroom, I have also been insulted by the negative reviews. Not because they criticize The Newsroom but because they criticize me. The viewer.

    It makes absolutely no difference that these reviews were pre-air reviews. Who is reading the reviews? Real people. Real people who might have been interested in The Newsroom until they were shamed for even considering it. To even bring up this “imagined audience” is simply a way to distract from the real argument here. The real argument here is about the role of critics.

    The above comment states that pre-air reviews aim to “steer viewers away from a series critics feel is bad.” What a condescending, pretentious approach to criticism — to believe that the poor, stupid viewer needs the critic to save them from themselves. A critic’s job is to evaluate a show’s merits and flaws. A critic’s job is to provide arguments and evidence for why a show works or why it doesn’t work. A critic’s job is to give the viewer enough information to make her own decision about how she wants to spend her time.

    It is a poor excuse for a critic that cannot critique a show without insulting the audience – real or imagined.

    I think the point Amanda is trying to make is less about The Newsroom and more about criticism and its purpose. Criticism is only elitist when a critic thinks he or she is better, smarter, and more educated than his or her audience.

  4. Amanda Nell Edgar on August 30, 2012 at 9:25 PM

    Thanks, Myles and Craig, for your comments. Since I agree with pretty much everything Craig mentioned, I’d like to respond briefly to Myles.

    I think you bring up a really interesting point about the “imagined fan,” but I’m not sure that I agree with you because I don’t think it’s a necessary point of conversation here. My argument is that (most of) the critical reviews I read of this particular show were so focused on (as you point out in your own post on The Newsroom, actually) aligning with a certain camp that they largely ignore the aspects of the show that they liked or did not like. I don’t think the critic’s job is to say “it’s good” or “it’s bad.” I think the critics job is to tell us enough about the show (with value judgements linked into the specific elements up for discussion) so that we can make our own decisions about whether or not to watch it. I’m arguing here that we shouldn’t be asked to make those decisions based on a perception of social shame. In my opinion, it’s unnecessary and, frankly, it’s bad argumentation.

    To tease out what you’re proposing, though, we all know that things we post online hang around for a long, long time. Even if those fans are hypothetical when the review is written, you’ve gotta know that there are eventually going to be fans. What is the utility of including language that dismisses their viewpoints — especially when those viewpoints are outside of the text (or “work”)? And, in my opinion, if you want to talk about those viewpoints, maybe you ask the (actual, not hypothetical) fans rather than just assuming what they might think and why. Obviously, it’s because that kind of discussion is beyond the scope of this type of criticism — and these reviews are evidence of why it *should* be.

    Finally, I hadn’t happened upon your review of The Newsroom, but I looked it up on Cultural Learnings and felt it was more than fair. Wish I had seen it before — I would have given you a link-cite!

  5. Amanda Nell Edgar on August 30, 2012 at 9:28 PM

    Jamie, your comment wasn’t up yet when I drafted mine. Thanks, also, for your thoughts on the post.

  6. Michael L. Wayne on September 5, 2012 at 6:17 PM


    You raise several important points in this essay as do several of the comments. Yet, it seems there some parallels between your reaction to critical evaluations of Newsroom and critical reactions to Newsroom. Based on my reading of the reviews you cite and several chosen at random from those listed by MetaCritic, it seems many critics feel that Aaron Sorkin is talking down to them through the show. Is this not the exact problem you have with the negative critical evaluations?
    As such, I’m not sure the traditional dichotomy between critics as elite and fans as dupes is at work here.

    Thanks for the post.


  7. Myles McNutt on September 25, 2012 at 3:04 AM

    Before the comments close on this post, I wanted to post a link to something I curated at the time the post first debuted. Given that this post speaks specifically regarding the work of three critics who are active on Twitter, I asked them to offer their response to Amanda’s argument in the interest of exploring the questions at hand beyond their individual reviews and more in terms of their personal critical philosophies.


    I’m very interested in this discourse, given my own interest in—and practice of—television criticism, so thanks again to Amanda for starting us off and to all of those who have commented for their contributions.