The Newsroom And ‘American Nostalgia’

I recently watched the first episode of Aaron Sorkin’s new show on HBO called The Newsroom. It has received ratings up there with Game of Thrones and highly mixed reviews. Personally, I loved it but then again I’m a big fan of Aaron Sorkin. Hell, he could probably write a movie about Facebook that would be Oscar-worthy. Oh wait, he did that. I’m not going to review The Newsroom, but I would like to use it to talk about something else.

The opening scene of The Newsroom starts the show off with Jeff Daniels’ character Will McAvoy going on a rant that will inevitably be compared by everyone to the justifiably classic rant in Paddy Chayevski’s Network. The rant starts off by talking about everything he feels is wrong with the country and ends with everything he feels used to be right with this country.  In the New Yorker, Emily Nusbaum writes a fairly snarky article where she says among other things, “Much of McAvoy’s diatribe is bona-fide baloney—false nostalgia for an America that never existed—but it is exciting to watch.”

Here’s the pertinent part of ‘McAvoy’s diatribe’: “We sure used to be. We stood up for what was right! We fought for moral reasons, we passed and struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, and we acted like men. We aspired to intelligence; we didn’t belittle it; it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn’t scare so easy. And we were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one—America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”

Now the typical line against this sort of talk is that also during this time we weren’t treating women, black people, gay people, and yes, pretty much anyone who wasn’t a straight white American guy like fellow human beings. This is true. No sane person disputes this. But the people who love to point this out tend to think that those wrongs regardless of the fact that they were eventually righted somehow erases absolutely every good thing any white guy did during that time. And that’s absolute bullshit.

Anyone who thinks that America couldn’t possibly have stood for great things or done great things while also doing terrible things is seeing the world in a very screwed up way. The truth is we do great and terrible things all the time both as a country and individually. Just last week Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 out of 48 charges stemming from accusations that he molested boys. But he was also one of the best assistant coaches of college ball in history. His crimes are unspeakable and wrong in every possible way. He’ll probably spend the rest of his life behind bars and rightly so. But this doesn’t erase the coaching he did. For some he was a monster. For others he was a mentor. These things, as much as we might wish otherwise, are not mutually exclusive.

America in the mid to late 20th Century was full of this sort of dichotomy. And it’s important to acknowledge both sides of it. It’s not “false nostalgia for an America that never existed”. It’s a glass half full way of looking at a certain part of American history. Yeah, we as a country did some shitty things in the 1960s but we also went to the moon. No amount of racism or bigotry erases that fact or makes that fact less great.

When it comes to The Newsroom, it’s clear that Aaron Sorkin’s argument is that journalism has failed to live up to what it used to be. You have to try pretty hard to not see that. And it’s pretty clear that most news anchors aren’t today Edward R. Murrow or Walter Chronkite. Both of those guys were great men and part of what made them great was speaking about the bad things that were happening as well as the good. This is clearly what Sorkin’s McAvoy character aspires to be.

I’m a white heterosexual male and I think that people who aren’t any of those things deserve every right and opportunity that I get. I also think that white heterosexual males, who have admittedly had it pretty good for most of history shouldn’t get the shaft just because of they were born white guys. I’m not saying us white guys have it tough. We don’t. But ignoring the accomplishments of white men and acting like it’s some sort of fallacy when we talk about great things white men have done is the exact sort of discrimination that us white guys have been guilty of for most of history, so we know it when we see it. And it’s just as wrong when it’s done to us as when it’s done to anyone else.

Most of the founding fathers were slave owners. OJ Simpson was a great football player and a criminal. Bill Clinton was a great President who made terrible personal decisions. If you’re under the impression that in order to be great you have to be perfect, well, that’s not very American of you.

– Jack Cameron