No business like the news business: Aaron Sorkin on ‘Newsroom’
Aaron Sorkin, the playwright, television writer and Oscar-winning screenwriter of “The Social Network,” is causing a stir with his new HBO series, “The Newsroom,” about the inside antics of a cable news show and its commentary on American journalism. Sorkin’s “The West Wing” and “Sports Night,” among others, have earned the veteran show creator a reputation for intense examinations of institutional milieus — government, sports and now the news industry. He’s also distinguished himself through his style of writing, famous for its prolix dialogue, withering wit and moral idealism, for which he ranks among the most literary of Hollywood writers. In an e-mail interview, Sorkin expounded on the journalism he trusts, how he copes with bad reviews and the unique rewards of having a daughter.
“The Newsroom” is an indictment, specifically, of cable TV news but makes broader commentary about the culture of American journalism. What led to your disappointment in news media or at least provoked you enough to want to write a show about it?
Aaron Sorkin: I believe that “The Newsroom” is no more an indictment of cable news than “The West Wing” was an indictment of the Clinton and Bush White Houses. The show is a very romantic and idealistic take on a group of people trying to figure out how to do the news well in the face of market forces as well as their own personal entanglements. I like to write fantasies set against the backdrop of the real world.
When you want to be informed, what sources do you rely on? What people or publications do you most trust?
AS: For breaking news, I go to CNN. I like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal op-ed writers. I’ll listen to Rush [Limbaugh] for a few minutes in the morning to try to figure out why half the country hates the other half so much, and I like the gang at MSNBC. I think all the Sunday shows are helpful and compelling, but if I was forced to only trust one person — and of course I’m not — it would be Brian Williams.
There have been some harsh reviews about “The Newsroom.” The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wrote, “ ‘The Newsroom’ gets so bad so quickly that I found my jaw dropping,” and Maureen Ryan wrote on Huffington Post that she found it “obvious and self-congratulatory,” “manipulative and shrieky.” But, these same writers use words like “Sorkinese” and “Sorkinian” to describe the show’s style, which indicates their perception that your writing has established a new film and television lexicon — a high compliment. At this point in your career, how seriously do you take reviews of your work? How do they affect you personally?
AS: My writing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I wish it was, but as Hiram Roth would say, this is the business I’ve chosen. One of the nice things about being on HBO is that the whole season is written and shot before the first episode airs. That schedule removes the temptation to adjust how you’re writing in order to change the minds of your critics — whether they’re professional critics or your brother-in-law.
Your work is noted for being high-minded, idea-driven and zeitgeist-y. But it also has romance and relationship. Which area interests or concerns you more: matters of the heart or the head?
AS: In “The Newsroom,” as well as in some other things I’ve written, matters of the head and matters of the heart are often the same thing. My characters tend to be hyper-communicative. There are exceptions — Mark Zuckerberg for instance.
During a recent interview on “The Today Show,” you talked about your early discomfort being in the public eye and how your arrest for drug possession forced you to be more open about your image. Do you still feel you have to play a certain role for your audience? Or have you become more comfortable allowing your public image to reflect your true nature?
AS: As a writer, it would be best if nobody knew anything about me. I don’t want to get in between the audience and what’s on the screen or the stage. But, as you point out, my addiction and arrest in 2001 was a bell I can’t un-ring. I’ve seen far worse consequences of drug addiction, so I’m not going to complain.
You told The New York Times, “If writing is going well, I’m happy. If writing isn’t going well, there is nothing that is going to make me happy. Except my 11-year-old daughter, who always makes me happy.” What has surprised you most about being a parent? Has having a daughter changed or deepened your understanding of women?
AS: Being a father is the only thing that lives up to the hype. Whether we’re doing homework, eating breakfast, playing Starburst hockey — just trust me — kicking around a soccer ball or anything else, I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. As for understanding women, I go on the assumption that not all women are the same. I gave up trying to understand the women in my life a long time ago, and now I just try to please them. Much better results.
When asked about the Steve Jobs biopic you will soon write, you ruminated on the theme a bit and then said, “Now all I have to do is turn that into three acts with an intention, obstacle, exposition, inciting action, reversal, climax and denouement, and make it funny and emotional, and I’ll be in business.” Is your writing process more an adherence to structure or an innate, streaming sense of drama?
AS: I have to cling to the rules of drama — intention and obstacle. Somebody has to want something, and something has to be standing in the way of their getting it. If I don’t have that nailed down, I’ll be fingerpainting.
Aside from obvious things like wealth and that Oscar, in terms of your own self-understanding, what’s been the best benefit of success?
AS: With all respect to Lou Gehrig, I’m the luckiest man in the world. Aside from getting to be my daughter’s father, I get to earn a living doing exactly what I love doing. That’s winning the jackpot.
If you were ever to take a break from the Hollywood grind, how would you spend your time?
AS: Beating up fifth-grade boys who are checking out my kid.