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The Newsroom and the Myth of American Nostalgia

Arts & Culture | October 8, 2012

illustration by Robert CollinsThis summer, a three minute YouTube clip labeled “The most honest three and a half minutes of television, EVER…” popped up on my newsfeed. Normally, something with such a dumb title wouldn’t warrant a second look, but I saw Jeff Daniels’ face in the preview image and realized it was a segment from Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO drama, “The Newsroom.” Yes, the man who brought us “The West Wing,” wrote the screenplay for The Social Network, and has grown famous for his fast-talking, fast-walking scenes is back. I had heard mixed reactions to the show; critics were frustrated by it, but many of my friends loved it. I decided to watch this clip to see if it could pique my interest. Instead, it pissed me off.

The first half of the clip features a young woman who stands up and asks a panel, “Why is America the greatest country in the world?” This pushes snarky anchor Will McAvoy (Sorkin’s ideological stand-in on the show played by Jeff Daniels) to launch into a monologue about why America is not, in fact, such a great country. He fires out statistics at a frenetic pace, and gives the clip’s title some credibility. Then, he loses it. He starts off by referring to the young woman’s generation as the, “Worst, period, generation, period, ever. Period.” The irony was clearly lost on those who were sharing this clip on Facebook. The people who were advocating this as “truth,” and making comments like, “Couldn’t agree more,” are the ones being insulted. We are being insulted.

Here lies a typical generation gap and a classic case of blind American nostalgia. Far too many people subscribe to the idea that America used to be better than it is now, that the way our country and our people acted was superior to the way we currently act.  Politicians and members of the media alike love to invoke the past in order connect with their audience.  For those on the left, this means talking about Clinton or Kennedy.  For those on the right, it’s all Reagan, all the time. In every case, it is implied that America used to be better and that our fathers did it better than us. For them, this strategy works perfectly—political and patriotic nostalgia like this sells just as well as sex. But let me pause to call bullshit on this whole notion. America has never been as good as we like to think.

After devoting the first half of his speech to more concrete facts, McAvoy begins speaking in vague generalities about the America of the past. These generalities, seemingly straight from his imagination, prove mostly untrue and border on offensive, ripe with contradictions and hypocrisy. He says that in the past “we stood up for what was right.” Like what? Civil rights? Took us long enough. And even when they were recognized as law, more than half the country opposed them with fierce bitterness. Amid soft, inspirational music, McAvoy wistfully refers to a time when we “acted like men.” Feminism and women be damned. Grab a bottle of scotch and a gun, and get cracking on the world’s problems. The most blatantly false line comes when he laments that, “We didn’t scare so easy.” What the hell was communism? It was literally called the “Red Scare.” Americans were so paranoid that they mistook their school desks for bomb shelters.

McAvoy continues the speech by belittling many current accomplishments, as if everything good in the world happened before 1970.  He says we “made ungodly technological inventions, explored the universe, cured diseases.” That is true—but it implies that we have ceased to do those things. What about today’s advanced computers, the Curiosity rover, and breakthroughs in cancer research?

Every era has its problems, yet every era’s people think in the one before theirs was the best one.  Nostalgia is as American as apple pie and baseball. Mention anything from the 90s around our generation and we start gushing over early “NOW” CDs and cartoons.  Jon Stewart provides an eloquent explanation (and I’m paraphrasing): “it’s because we were fucking kids.”  You can’t get through thirty minutes of a speech or editorial newscast without hearing, “When I was kid…”

Memory isn’t a bad thing, and is necessary for us to understand our current state, but it becomes dangerous when we start glossing over the ugly spots.  This is what makes “The Newsroom” so maddening. One of Sorkin’s main satirical targets throughout the show is the cable news cycle, and his critique of the media hits the nail on the head. The show depicts the way that different media outlets often argue with one another without saying anything of substance. It also accurately captures and critiques how the media quickly moves on from important issues to the most interesting news piece of the day, or how certain outlets perpetuate false information. In these aspects, “The Newsroom” is reminiscent of the Daily Show, but with much more plot. However, the show fails to criticize the past or examine how our media got to this point—in other words, the show’s critique hinges solely on Sorkin’s opinion of what the news should be. Sorkin is addressing real problems, but his analysis falls into the same trap of American nostalgia as the media practices it condemns. In its inconsistency, it loses its credibility.

As Will McAvoy says in the final part of his speech, “The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.” Let’s recognize the difference between remembering our past and analyzing it.  The former involves selectivity and self-denial, while the latter involves objectivity and honesty. Which one sounds better?