Embattled News Fixer Aaron Sorkin Defends His Show on NPR: ‘I Write Corny, You Know?’

On Monday, mild-mannered NPR Q&A assassin Terry Gross got Aaron Sorkin on the “Fresh Air” hot seat. And while Gross boldly declares herself — try to hold down your retching noises, most of America — an actual fan of The Newsroom, she doesn’t hold back from lobbing the same criticisms most of you have been shouting at your TV since the show debuted. (The best parts of the interview are when she points out something ridiculous, and then, before Sorkin can respond, starts giggling to herself about how ridiculous it is. Never stop being you, Terry Gross.) You may have heard some of this stuff from Aaron before: He’s not claiming that he is smarter than everyone else, but rather is presenting characters who are, and he’s not saying some of this is not not preposterous, etc. But since this is one of Sorkin’s biggest platforms since the Monday-morning sport of Newsroom bashing got going for real, the show may be worth a listen. So: Explain thyself, Aaron Sorkin!

On the show’s, how shall we put this, detachment from how things really work:

Sorkin: I like writing about heroes that don’t wear capes and disguises. It’s aspirational. “Gee, it looks like the real world and feels like the real world, why can’t this be the real world?” The metaphor of Don Quixote is used, all kinds of lost cities are used: Atlantis, Brigadoon … The show is meant to be a fantasy set against very real and oftentimes very serious events.

On the smarter-than-thou aspect:

Sorkin: I look at a ton of interviews with tea party people that were conducted, and I try to take as fairly as I can take their answers to questions, and then I’ll have Will [Jeff Daniels's crusading anchor] ask the follow-up that I thought was never asked. In the episode a week ago, Sam Waterston’s character tells us that the idea is that Will is a fantastic prosecutor, and that they’re gonna harness that strength, and he’s gonna treat guests like they’re witnesses on the stand.

On the “set in the recent past” gimmick:

Sorkin: Making up the news would take us too far from reality. I didn’t want to make up assassination attempts, a stock market crash. Originally, [the recent-past thing] was something that solved a problem that I had. But then it sort of was a gift that kept giving. Because you have the fun that the audience knows more than the characters do. I know this has bothered some people, particularly people in the news, who think that I’m leveraging hindsight into a way of making my characters smarter. Again, that wasn’t the idea.

Gross: It took your characters like 15 minutes to figure out the BP oil spill … [Laughs.]

Sorkin: My intention in the pilot was not to say, gee, if only real news people were as smart as my guys, they would have figured this out in 15 minutes. There was a remarkable coincidence that happened to one of my characters. He had a college roommate who worked at BP, he has a sister who worked at Halliburton, both of whom were willing to whistle-blow …

Gross: To which I say, what are the odds? [Laughs.]

Sorkin: When you’re writing and you wanna use something that is unlikely, the way to do that is to fly in the teeth of its unlikeliness, to not try to get away with it but to shine a light on it. Will says, you’re telling me you got not one but two sources to roll over within five minutes. Jim says, I know, I just got lucky. And Will says, how often do you get this lucky? Jim says, this is my first time. In other words, we admit that it’s an unlikely coincidence. That is not a moment that’s there to show up other news organizations.

So, OK. The Newsroom world is supposed to be fantastical and aspirational, but set in a realistic world. Sorkin wants people doing things the way he wishes they were done the first time, but that doesn’t mean he’s criticizing anyone for not doing them right the first time. It’s a bit of a “have your cake and eat it too” situation here, for sure. How can a show be a fantasy and be grounded? This is why, for loads of people, this thing makes no sense.

But that’s where we’re at. You’re either buying this central concept — that Sorkin is allowed to tweak the real world into a more perfect real world, and that he’s the one allowed to decide what a more perfect real world looks like — or you’re not. Most of you are not, it seems. But does this explanation convince the Newsroom haters to consider not chucking huge rocks at the show’s frightened, huddled cadre of supporters? No?

Let’s go out with one last bit from Sorkin: “I write corny, you know? I feel like, if you can execute corny well enough, you can still strike a chord in people. You’re taking a big swing at the ball, you’re swinging for the fences. So if you miss, you’re gonna look bad.”

Filed Under: Aaron Sorkin, Sorkinology, The Newsroom

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Amos Barshad has written for New York magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ AmosBarshad