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