“Why did you come here?” one member of the press asked Aaron Sorkin.
The scribe stood surrounded by reporters at the Beverly Hilton. iPhones and mics extended towards his face from every angle, soaking up each word that escaped his mouth.
“I wanted to be able to talk to the press. If what you’re saying is that HBO canceled my appearance and I said ‘No, reinstate it,’ you’re right,” responded Sorkin. “I don’t want to have an adversarial relationship with the press.”
Without a doubt, what had transpired moments before had been the most highly-anticipated panel of the summer TCAs. HBO’s “The Newsroom” had polarized the journalism community, and at the “Newsroom” TCA panel, Sorkin would come face-to-face with his detractors. Many expected a feeding frenzy. By the time HBO panels were in session at 2pm, it was hard to find an empty seat in the ballroom.
When Jeff Daniels, Alan Poul and Sorkin took the stage, the room was silent. And after a bit of a warm up from some questions, slowly but surely, the press began to pelt Sorkin with criticism about “Newsroom.” Topics touched upon included his portrayal of females, his portrayal of the cable news industry, the research that went into the show and rumors of him firing his writing staff. At no other TCA session did I witness a panelist clarify and defend parts of a series scene-by-scene as members of the press continued to lambaste the writer, at times without a mic.
I could go into the details of how Sorkin defended “Newsroom,” how he believes he portrays men and women in an equal light, and how he shot down rumors that Corinne Kingsbury was ever his girlfriend. But what I left the panel with, mostly, was a better sense of Sorkin as a person. On stage sat not a man trying to steamroll his nay-sayers, but rather a writer attempting to clarify a vision and repair a strained relationship with the journalism community.
“One of the things I like about Aaron’s writing is that all of his characters — men and women — have flaws,” said Daniels, who interjected after a journalist lobbed another question at Sorkin. “It’s interesting because…we’re not supposed to brand ourselves like an action star who’s always likeable and gets redemption in the end. We come on with these warts…these flaws…”
The scribe said that as someone who likes to write “romantically” and “idealistically,” one of the stories he is penning on “Newsroom” is “about a guy who is broken and trying to fix himself…it’s a tough needle to thread.” And as Sorkin was taken to task by critics, I could not help but notice the parallels between Will McAvoy, the character Sorkin has built, and Sorkin’s own journey through “Newsroom.” Life, it seems, has begun to imitate art.
Will McAvoy, a man who cares about his ratings, witnesses a staff shakeup in the pilot of “Newsroom.” He is faced with the prospect that people — specifically his staff of journalists — do not like him, or what he has to say. And he embarks upon a mission to work within the scope of his own journalistic values and repair those relationships. He strives to ignore the cable ratings, ignore the tabloid articles and focus on the quality of his news content and relationships instead.
What we learned at TCAs is that while Sorkin is possibly the most famous screenwriter alive, he still does not ignore the opinions others have of his work. In fact, they can at times consume him. Ratings for “Newsroom” may be solid, but Sorkin’s ratings have plummeted with the press and that clearly has had an effect on him.
“I don’t like riling people up,” Sorkin earnestly told a journalist. “There was bound to be division [because of the show]…but I don’t wish to be a rabble-rouser.” And then: “I prefer to be liked.”
The press has lately enjoyed snaring not just Sorkin’s creative shortcomings, but his personal character as well. Many reputable publications reference the scribe’s purported “gigantic ego.” In the same way that media attacks on Will McAvoy became personal, so too did attacks on Sorkin. The “takedown pieces” that were referenced in “Newsroom” episode “I’ll Try To Fix You” crossed over into reality as journalists seemed to find, at times, joy in mocking and criticizing the famed scribe for his newest TV endeavor. Given the imperfect nature of “Newsroom” and its subject matter being the home base of journalists, it was like shooting Sorkin in a barrel.
“I have to be very, very careful,” said Sorkin to the huddle of reporters, “because I’m easily knocked around by other voices.” He continued: “I have to write the way I write and not write to change people’s minds. Because if 999 people like the show and one doesn’t, I will abandon those 999 people and try to get the one person to like it.”
His words echo the ones he put on paper for the HBO skein. “You don’t want ratings to drive content,” Reese Lansing says to Charlie Skinner on “Newsroom.” Skinner orders Lansing: “Don’t break down the numbers for Will.”
“Will McAvoy’s the biggest ratings whore in the business,” says Lansing in Skinner’s office. But Skinner reminds Reese, “We’re trying something new, and I don’t want him getting cold feet…we’re going to try to do the news, and see what happens.”
Well, Sorkin did try to do the news with “Newsroom.” And what happened was that while it took off with viewers, the skein didn’t land smoothly with critics. Sorkin is hyper-aware of this, and appeared at the TCAs to perhaps explain himself, perhaps clarify characters, perhaps defend himself, but mostly to build a “cordial” conversation with the press.
Will McAvoy approaches his detractors and the general public with an “Editorial Comment” at the end of one of his broadcasts. “From this moment on we’ll be deciding what goes on our air and how it’s presented to you based on the simple truth that nothing is more important to a democracy than a well informed electorate.” McAvoy continues: “We’re not the waiters at a restaurant serving you stories the way you wanted them…I’ll make no effort to subdue my personal opinions, and I’ll make every effort to expose you to informed opinions different than my own.”
At the end of the “Newsroom” panel, Sorkin had not issued an apology for the elements of the series that brought a firestorm of criticism upon him. He had defended his characters and their intentions tirelessly. He let the press know that he is, at heart, a writer who is at home in theater, and that he feels like an outsider in TV and film. He was candid about the show and himself. But he did let the journalists know he is hiring paid consultants for season two to help inform him about the news industry he will write about. He is bringing on the “informed opinions” of other people. But no, he will not “serve you stories the way you wanted them.”
Sorkin and his “Newsroom” project are, like his characters, flawed…but not irreparable. And though Sorkin was quick to state during the panel, “I want to make a clear distinction between me and the characters that are in the show,” the line between him and Will may not be as crisp as he once thought. It is not just Will McAvoy who is “trying to fix himself” and his relationships anymore. And while Sorkin has dubbed that story a “tough needle to thread,” it seems that given his journey through the reception of season one, Sorkin will place thread through eye of the needle and begin to sew together a stronger “Newsroom” fabric for season two.