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Paleyfest: Sorkin spurs lofty debate at ‘Newsroom’ sesh

Fans swoon as creator talks Jeff Zucker, Sandy Hook and making sequester sexy

The panel for HBO’s “The Newsroom” at this year’s PaleyFest arrives at an interesting time for cable news, as CNN begins what’s expected to be a top-to-bottom overhaul under the leadership of Jeff Zucker.

Appropriately, much of the panel’s chatter was about perceived differences in what constitutes solid news and programming with entertainment value.

“The news is exciting,” said “Newsroom” thesp Emily Mortimer. “It should be exciting. When it’s working well, that is communicated.”

Sunday’s Paleyfest love-fest for “Newsroom” was certainly a world apart from last summer’s TCA session where series creator Aaron Sorkin endured a verbal lashing from TV critics. The fan-centric gathering at the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills was moderated by CNN anchor Piers Morgan, who pressed Sorkin on the recent news events the show will tackle in its second season, which bows in June.

Sorkin promised that Will McAvoy and Co. and the fictional ACN cable news net will tackle the 2012 presidential election, controversy over the use of drone aircraft in military operations, and the Trayvon Martin killing. Sorkin admitted that the thought of depicting the Sandy Hook massacre that occurred at a Connecticut elementary school in December has given him pause.

“Right now I’m writing episode five,” Sorkin explained. “[Sandy Hook] is a tough thing to write about without minimizing it or exploiting it…It’s a profoundly important moment to all of us, and the last thing you want to do is handle it poorly.”

Sorkin later said “In doing a story like Sandy Hook, there are so many land mines to step on.”

However, it looks like the scribe won’t shirk away from what Morgan hailed the news event of the year in season two of “Newsroom.” (Morgan himself said it wouldn’t be very “Sorkin” to leave that national tragedy out of the scope of the series.)

Sorkin and Morgan sparred lightly when it came to the merits of dry news programming versus entertainment on a cable news net like CNN.

Morgan briefly relayed to the panel how discouraging it was to watch HLN slay CNN in viewership with their “wall-to-wall” coverage of the sensational Jodi Arias trial, dubbing it like “a tsunami” that CNN simply could not compete with. (“Newsroom” features similar plot points where ACN must compete with other news nets that dole out scandal over legitimate news and analysis.)

“I understand the dilemma completely,” said Sorkin. “I wish you didn’t have the responsibility to bring a ton of people into CNN. But, there are people who, in the final analysis, will choose news over a reality show.”

Sorkin stated that when he watches cable news, he seeks the “theatrical elements” that can be deployed on “Newsroom.” Conversation on the panel then turned to CNN’s extensive (and at times mocked) coverage of the Carnival Cruise debacle, which Morgan said he initially had “zero interest in.”

“When Jeff Zucker became president, everyone was curious what he would bring to CNN,” Morgan said. “The cruise ship that was stranded at sea…I had zero interest in. But a fascinating thing happened. I got completely engrossed in this bloody cruise ship! Around two in the morning, I told Jeff, ‘I don’t know how you did this…but I really care about this now.’ It was an event. The ratings the next day were double the normal ratings.”

Sorkin  fired back at Morgan: “Do you think there’s a way Jeff and the network can apply that to the sequester?” Morgan responded bluntly, “Honestly? No. I think it’s one of the most supremely boring things on TV.”

(Later, Morgan jokingly implored the scribe to “make the sequester sexy!” to which Sorkin replied, “Well, now I’m going to have to.”)

Cast members throughout the panel expressed noted reverence for one another, particularly when it comes to Sam Waterston and star Jeff Daniels.

“We are good because Jeff is wonderful,” Waterston said. “He set a standard of quality of work and how to go at it.”

Daniels recalled auditioning for the role of McAvoy, stating, “When I met with Aaron, I wasn’t leaving until I had this role.”

The thesp continued: “When you get an opportunity to sit with Aaron, and he’s going to go back to TV, how lucky is television? You have a shot to lead that foray into wherever his artistry is going to take it.”

The topliner also noted that he still doesn’t read reviews of the show, and doesn’t watch the dailies. “I wait for it to come out on air, just like everyone else,” Daniels explained. “The show you’re going to see isn’t the one you have in your head. As soon as you understand that, you enjoy it a lot more.”

The praise for Sorkin both from the cast and Paleyfest attendees was in stark contrast to the harsh reviews of “Newsroom” from journos during its first season HBO last summer. ACN’s stars, however, stood by their leader:

“Aaron’s writing required of you focus and dedication and respect for the written word,” said Thomas Sadoski. “In this industry, it takes work to bring all those things together at the same time…it requires a great deal out of you.”

Waterston stated succinctly: “When there is material like this…everyone rises and becomes their best selves.”

The Newsroom” returns to HBO this June.

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