Fellow Newsroom viewers: At long last, we have reached our destination. Here we are, in the true Heart of Sorkness: the climax of the season-long arc about how the morally righteous and journalistically superpowered cast of The Newsroom came to air an utterly false story about an illegal black op by the name of Genoa. And it turns out that at the heart of Genoa story is an honestly compelling narrative about what people will do in the name of what they want to believe.
These days, everyone with sufficient access to a free blogging or micro-blogging platform can take the stage and give their versions of what is happening in the world, and why it matters, and what people ought to think or do about it. But if we’re all creating media, then we all need media ethics. So at the heart of The Newsroom’s Genoa plot — and, yes, Jerry’s gloriously stupid move of editing a recorded interview and lying about it so as to get the quote he wants — is an increasingly relevant question. If we have all the power to create a story, have we thought through how we’re willing to use it? Do we pick and choose the narratives we want to see and the facts we want to acknowledge, and does this lead us to do harm — to truth, to the discourse, to other people? Everyone could stand a chance to think that one through, whether or not they’re interested in the doings of a mildly fictionalized Republican Keith Olbermann and his gang of wacky sidekicks.
So Genoa could have been a great story, were it not for its need to valorize The Newsroom’s regular characters, through an increasingly ridiculous series of plot pitfalls, and through the ever-more craven and despicable actions of Suddenly Evil Jerry. Who, we learn at the beginning of the episode, has kicked off the entirety of the legal frame story by filing himself a wrongful termination lawsuit. He claims that “institutional error,” rather than his own incompetence, was responsible for the Genoa story falling through. Which, yes, I suppose you could chalk some of this up to “institutional error,” in that News Night with Will McAvoy has no solid HR policy in re: Employees Who Are Just Suddenly Evil.
Also not apparently in place: A coping strategy for what happens when every single Genoa source develops a number of implausible holes. Sergeant Sweeney, who claims he was present for Genoa, just happens to have a traumatic brain injury that he doesn’t disclose until he’s on the follow-up interview circuit. Traumatic brain injuries affect memory, so that’s it for Sergeant Sweeney. Valenzuela, a fellow soldier who backed Sweeney up, was doing just that: Backing Sweeney up. Mac realizes this when she flashes back to his interview: Every single one of Valenzeula’s answers was basically “Uh, yeah, what he said.” So that’s it for the military sources.
Meanwhile, Charlie flies to D.C., in the most implausible moment of the night, to find that his source was just exacting revenge for that one time that Neal straight-up killed an intern. This intern, an ex-junkie, was the source’s son, whom Neal fired on a clinically significant date in his recovery. This drove him straight back into the sweet arms of Mother Heroin and from thence unto death. So, yeah. Neal killed a guy. Understandably, at least in The Newsroom’s universe, this has led to Charlie’s source blatantly falsifying information, thereby smacking Charlie’s career right straight in the head.
And then there’s Jerry, who just sits around scoffing at each new unreliable source and loudly bringing up the fact that at least his source is unimpeachable. Meanwhile, he is completely unaware that his downfall will come, not just because he is evil, but because he is also so incompetent that he can’t frame a shot. He shot the entirety of his groundbreaking — and summarily doctored — interview in front of the General’s television, which had a basketball game playing.
All the while, Mac is haunted by clocks. Will is watching a sporting event! There are clocks on those broadcasts. What will we do with this TV footage running in the background of Jerry’s interview, the News Night crew asks? They’ll just blur it, so that it’s not distracting anyone. And they’ll accidentally blur the clock on it, too. Finally, someone just walks up to Mac holding a gigantic clock, at which point she looks at the very clearly skipping footage behind Jerry’s interviewee — yes, there’s an extreme close-up; yes, it is of the clock — and pieces things together.
And thus Jerry is fired. (Full, surprising credit to Sorkin for having a female character save the day, although it did take quite a bit of Will explaining what “sports” were, and at least one extra waving around a giant clock, for her to get there.) Will, Mac and Charlie tender their resignations. They are refused. Jane Fonda arrives at the end of the day to give a stirring speech about how News Night will earn! Back! The Trust! Of the American People!
But there was a good story in here, and we missed it amidst all the Sorkiny mile-a-minute chatter and slain interns. Because ultimately, Jerry isn’t a careerist. He isn’t selfish or craven. Jerry, when the show remains consistent in his motivations, is just a guy who wants to believe that Genoa happened. He wants to believe it because the war pisses him off, because the Obama administration’s foreign policy pisses him off, he wants to believe because he is morally appalled by deaths he can’t do anything about, and because, if he’s right, this is his chance to finally do something. He’s a liar, and he’s incompetent. But the terrifying thing about Jerry is that he believes the lie he’s telling, and he believes it for all the right reasons. And it destroys him.
For all our venerated ideas of journalistic objectivity, the news will always, inevitably, be made by people — people with perspectives, histories, opinions and emotions. People who, like all people, can be led astray by their passions and their limited perspectives and their all-too-human needs. This is a story that deserves to be told; The Newsroom’s great failing is that, because of Sorkin’s need to make all of his characters into ridiculously morally upright journalistic superheroes, he can never quite tell it. Jerry is the closest he’s come: Jerry is the guy who feels so much that he stops thinking, the guy whose opinions are so big and so urgent that they take up room where the facts should be. We’re all creating media now, and we all stand in a position where our personal perspectives and passions stand to do harm, to lead us down blind alleys or into cruelty or simply away from the fullest and most nuanced account of the truth. We all need inhumanly clear eyes, these days, and we are all too human to ever truly possess them. I know any number of people who stand to make some version of Jerry’s mistake. History is full of people who have made it. If The Newsroom had stuck with telling this story, and if it had let its other characters be culpable, this could have been an amazing plot.
As it stands, though, it continues to allow circuitous “Gotcha!” moments — Sergeant Sweeney’s brain injury! Neal killed a guy! — to act as a distraction from the issues that could endure beyond the characters’ individual exploits.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.