I have been thinking about the pilot for Aaron Sorkin's new HBO drama, "The Newsroom," for more than a week now.
I screened it last week for a radio piece on WYPR-FM (88.1), Baltimore's NPR outlet, which you can listen to here. Usually, such a screening/review is out of my head the minute the producer and show segment host give it a thumbs-up and say goodbye -- and we all move on to the 50 other tasks we have to perform the rest of the day to stay employed in the new media universe.
But Sorkin's words won't let go. They are put in the mouth of a sarcastic, angry, offensive, smart and troubled cable TV news show host, Will McAvoy. He's played by Jeff Daniels, who delivers the goods and then some in the speech.
The setting, a university symposium, is perfect for the vapid intellectual climate of today, as McAvoy shares the stage with a liberal, a conservative and a university professor. The academic is moderating a discussion among the other three.
Actually, it's really only between two -- the liberal and conservative who create a non-stop stream of self-important, ideologically-straight-jacketed, ignorant, listen-to-me chatter. Turn on MSNBC, Fox News or CNN, and you can hear it almost anytime of the night. CNN specializes in it with their analysts from the left and the right in their TV makeup and prime-time tube-friendly outfits.
McAvoy, however, is floating at the edges of the public conversation purposefully keeping himself disengaged, even as the hot-dog professor keeps trying to draw him in.
"... You're the Jay Leno of news anchors," the professor says trying to get a rise out of McAvoy. "You're popular because you don't offend anyone."
At another point he presses McAvoy, "Are you ready to say whether you lean right or left?"
McAvoy isn't buying any of it. He keeps deflecting with wisecracks.
But then, with the professor still yapping at his heels, an earnest student gets up during a Q & A and asks McAvoy, "Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?" (You can see some of that in a trailer here.)
And all the anger, rage, resentment and sense of failure over what journalism and the national discourse have become during his generation's watch, comes pouring out in the kind of majestic, moving, operatic speech that no one in TV can write like Sorkin. This is the stuff of great stage plays in the golden age of American theater, and it will be well worth the 75 minutes of running time that you spend with the premiere on June 24 just to hear the speech. Really, trust me, even if you believe nothing else I say.
I won't spoil it for you by doing a close reading and deconstructing it line by line, word by word, until all the life is sucked out of it and it is a another meaningless piece of postmodern roadkill. I'll let the professors who have never come within smelling distance of the belly of the American media beast do that on blogs only their undergraduate students would read -- and only then, if they are going to be tested on it.
No, this is a great speech, and you should not let anyone ruin it for you. Just open yourself to it on the visceral as well as intellectual level. Let it flow all over you, as they said of feature films in the 1960s. (And, by the way, what you get in the trailers is about 2 percent of what happens in the full speech.)
Intellectually, here is what I love about the speech: the way Sorkin simply and elegantly states the connection between an aggressive, ethical press that doesn't lean left or right and the success or failure of democracy in this nation.
After a crescendo of facts showing definitely that America is not such a great nation any more, McAvoy in a softer and sadder voice, tells the students we once were great. He's referring to post-World-War-II America when he says, "We waged war on poverty, not poor people... And we didn't scare so easily."
And here's his central argument: One of the reasons we were great in that era, is because we had a great press committed to providing citizens fact-based, reliable, professionally gathered and vetted information that they could trust and use to make informed decisions about their lives -- decisions like who to vote for.
We don't have that any more, he says, and that is one of the reasons we are such an angry, confused, and even pathetic nation of loud mouths at each others throats, trying to score ideological points rather than achieve greatness -- or even functionality.
I must quibble with Sorkin's argument to this extent: McAvoy says the nation was great because "great men" did great work as journalists informing the nation.
I don't want to fight with anyone today, but I will probably be asked to when I say, for example, that I'm not so sure Walter Cronkite, whose visage is featured in the opening credits, was a great man.
I interviewed Cronkite over the years, and I even got in a not so pleasant disagreement with him when I called him for comment on a Dan Rather profile that my wife, Christina Stoehr, and I wrote for the American Journalism Review. The kindly Uncle Walter called AJR and complained about me not taking a phony PR statement from his staff that he was unavailable for comment as the truth. He was available enough to call up and complain, and we got our quote for AJR. And he did later call me and sort of apologize.
But what Cronkite and Murrow and Don Hewitt, who are also shown in the opening credits, shared was an understanding and commitment to the crucial role of a free and honest press in democracy. And they not only held that belief, they socialized their teams of editors and reporters to it. And because their teams at CBS News were the best of the best in broadcast news, it filtered down and became standard operating procedure in the national press for almost half a century. And God bless them for it.
And may God help us for having abandoned it once the journalism dollars got tight and such values were judged by some to be getting in the way of their survival. God help us also for being duped by those who would make a cynical joke out of "fair and balanced" for their own ideological reasons.
If that sounds sanctimonious, so be it.
As they say in cable TV news, let's leave it right there for now.
But stop back, because I have so much more to say about this speech, which I believe is one of the most important TV moments of the last decade -- whether or not the HBO drama that it launches becomes a hit.