Progressive Shaming: The Newsroom and Rhetoric without a Vector

That title gives me a headache, but I think it works. Well, it probably doesn’t work. Instead it’s probably just a self-aggrandizing load of bullshit, but I’m a grad student. I’ve been wading through loads of self-aggrandizing bullshit for a little over two years now and don’t intend to stop. You get used to the smell. Really. Or just numb….hard to tell. That was cathartic.

Will McAvoy’s bodyguard says at one point in the sixth episode of The Newsroom, “I see you thinking about it. Do not do it.” Someone should have told me that before I started writing this thing.

I have a problem with The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s latest progressive show which airs on HBO. That’s actually not true. I have several issues with Sorkin’s show, but I think the overall issue that I have with the show is where it leaves the audience after viewing. I know there are many issues with the show, as well as with most of Sorkin’s writing in general, and, more specifically, his female characters being usually bad. I’m leaving those to the side for the moment.

The problem that I have with Sorkin’s show is that we’re left without anything to do after we see it and this is a problem that is new for Sorkin. All the other things were there in The West Wing or SportsNight (That’s right. I’ve watched SportsNight extensively and it’s a piece of crap, but I like sports. Sports, sports, sports.), but they were off in their own little fantasy lands. When we were dealing with Bush2, there was always Jed Bartlett to satisfy our liberal fantasies. When the MLB wasn’t doing jack shit about steroids in the late 1990’s, we had Dan Rydell and Casey McCall delving into steroid use in major league sports. In both we had the dreamy Joshua Malina doing cool things. These were all fantasy worlds where we could deal with things away from the here and now. People need those arenas, but there’s a reason that we call them fantasies.

The thing about fantasies is that they’re supposed to have some sort of impetus. They have causes, but they also have solutions. Fantasies are entire stories with beginnings, middles, and ends and those ends are the things that are supposed to eventually be taken into the real world. I’m supposed to be able to do something with these stories. And this is what is infuriating about The Newsroom. I’m left with nothing to do except feel ashamed for going along with certain pieces of information or listening to certain sources for news.

So here’s what we have. We have a giant pile of progressive shame that works both within the show and projects outward from the characters and the subjects that they discuss. We should start with how the shaming starts. First it’s wholly within the show, but that lasts all of three or so minutes, until we are the subject of that shame. Jeff Daniels’ character is shamed into answering a question, but he is allowed a way out of his shaming. This way out for him is the move from apathy. Is this the central idea of The Newsroom, that the American public must move out of apathy on the issues facing the day? If it is, we might be getting somewhere, but we do not have the power of the characters within this show. The character of Will McAvoy has the ability to move out of apathy and move toward actual action.

This isn’t the shaming of one side of the political spectrum or another, but the entirety of the American populace. Is this really the best way to try bringing about change? I don’t know how I feel about shaming, but I do know that when we shame without possible solutions to where that shame comes from, we’re left with nothing to do. Actually, we’re not even left with the possibility of empowerment to change things as we might be able to get from some types of shaming.

The idea of fantasy that I’m using here is one that is more specifically located within a certain method of rhetorical analysis called fantasy theme analysis (FTA). For people who do FTA, fantasy is any part of discourse which uses narrative elements to describe events that are not currently occurring. However, we must realize that the word ‘fantasy’ can never totally stay within the realm of a methodology in the humanities. Fantasy soon conflates with fantasy, and we leave the real world.

The thing is that this is what has happened with The Newsroom’s fantasies. They are no longer fantasies in relation to the methodology, but fantasies in the same way that we talk about unicorns and Grimm fairy tales. I understand that Sorkin is trying to create a certain history in the face of events that have occurred in the past two years, but this sort of history does nothing more for us than offering a counter to, what I assume, is in the unabashedly conservative textbooks written for Texas public schools. Sorkin constantly writes about the need to change the tone of American journalism in order to move away from the polarization of American political life in the last five years, but we know the history that he is creating is one that is at least understood as polarizing. Maybe these are all facts. Sam Waterson’s character at one point states that “Facts are centrist.” Maybe that is the case, but audiences don’t see centrism. We see progressive and regressive facts, and we certainly know which side Sorkin is putting forward.

Yeah, those are a ton of different thoughts that might not really make any sense together except for the fact that they’re all about The Newsroom. Not the best way to write, but here I am. Good stories don’t stay as stories. They don’t stay as fantasies, but they move outwards from their narrative elements and expand in the world at large. I used the word “vector” in my title because there needs to be movement to big cultural pieces like The Newsroom, and not this shitty ideological movement, but movement on the surface. We need more explicit rhetorical moves, especially when we’re dealing with histories that exist so close to our present. For someone like Sorkin, who isn’t the best at subtlety, I’m surprised that’s such a hard thing to get.

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