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Tilting at Windmills: Civil Discourse According to The Newsroom

Alissa Wilkinson

How personal relationships are the foundation of civil discourse

Associate Professor of English and Humanities, The King's College / Film Critic / Author
March 2, 2015

During the first season of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, which recently concluded its three-season run on HBO, news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) declared he was on a “mission to civilize,” a mission that quickly began to look like a lost cause.

His target: public discourse.

His method: take a fluffy nightly news show and turn it back into hard-hitting journalism with integrity, with the help of his ex-girlfriend and executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) and the support of the news division head Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston).

The character of Will sits at his desk

McAvoy is the anchor of the show, and with the help of a cast of earnest colleagues (including one associate producer unsubtly named Gary Cooper), he’s seeking to shift the state of public discussion in the country. Most news coverage, he says, has devolved into a ratings scramble propped up by shouting heads and extreme positions, with news-that-is-not-news—celebrity gossip, invented “scandals”—trucked in to lure in viewers.

By contrast, he wants to take his viewers seriously, considering them intelligent people who want to hear other intelligent people explain viewpoints that are reasonable and rational. He wants to help people think carefully. And he wants everyone else to shut up.

A Mission to Civilize

McHale, brought in by Skinner to light a fire under McAvoy’s seat, puts the job this way:

“Reclaiming the fourth estate. Reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession. A nightly newscast that informs a debate worthy of a great nation. Civility, respect, and a return to what’s important; the death of b****iness; the death of gossip and voyeurism; speaking truth to stupid. No demographic sweet spot; a place where we all come together.”

That “mission to civilize” is probably the most explicit statement of Sorkin’s perception of his own career, from Sports Night and West Wing to today. His writing is marked by characters calling each other out for unfairness or ideological entrenchment at the cost of the common good. Of late, Sorkin has become almost gratingly loud on this point, and when it comes to The Newsroom, some critics couldn’t stand it anymore, declaring the characters’ proclamations too smug.

Sorkin himself acknowledged the trouble at the Tribeca Film Festival before the third season premiered.“I think you and I got off on the wrong foot with The Newsroom and I apologize, and I’d like to start over,” he said, continuing by explaining, “I like writing romantically and idealistically. I try to balance that with just enough realism so that it feels like whatever romantic ideal is in there is somewhat attainable.”

Nevertheless, critical reaction to the third season didn’t shift, with the show making some missteps on critical issues that were beyond the pale for many. But the series finale, which aired in December 2014, did help point up the overriding romantic metaphor buried in the series—a metaphor that says some simple, important things to Christians concerned with civil discourse.

Don Quixote and The Newsroom

Early in the series, Don Quixote is inserted into the conversation, with McAvoy, McHale, and Skinner all positioning themselves as the errant knight. Quixote, you’ll recall, is the character in Miguel de Cervantes’ early seventeenth century novel who reads so many chivalric novels that he loses his mind and sets out on a quest to restore chivalry—which, in our age, is much of what we mean by civility. Along the way, he is accompanied by his faithful, less crazy squire, Sancho Panza.

30 or 40 Hulking Giants

At one point in the novel, Quixote happens on a field of windmills. “Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished,” he says to Sancho Panza. “Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich, for this is a righteous war, and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless.”

Don Quixote is knocked off his horse by a windmill

When Sancho Panza asks him what he’s talking about, Quixote points to the giants—the windmills. “Take care, sir,” Sancho says. “Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone.”

Tilting at Windmills

The phrase “tilting at windmills” generally stands in for attacking an imagined enemy, which becomes interesting when applied to the News Night team, who find over and over that the people they considered their enemies—Reese Lansing, the network president; gossip columnists; reticent informants; competing anchors—are sometimes their friends. The show falls down on digital media entirely (Sorkin is not a fan of the Internet, and lets all new media journalists have it with a horsewhip), and characters seem wrongheaded in the midst of sometimes-smug speeches.

At the end of the novel, Don Quixote awakes from his madness and declares it such, and later dies. And yet, it appears he’s converted Sancho Panza to the belief in chivalry. The end of the show revisits the Don Quixote metaphor, revealing who the real knight was—who also seems to have lost his mind near the end of the show—and recasts his story as a tragedy that nonetheless seems to have brought about some good.

Movie post for Don Quixote

There is hope at the end of The Newsroom, but it’s not that the “mission to civilize” might succeed (the struggles ahead are profound). Rather, what the last few scenes of the show point to are the ability to civilize inherent in relationships, something all the main characters in the show have been struggling with from the start.

Intellectual Virtue, Civil Discourse, and The Newsroom

There are two important points here for Christians who want to pursue and promote civility.

First, civility can’t be pursued in a relational vacuum.

The News Night “mission to civilize” is doomed from the start, partly because of the exact same reason that Sorkin’s own mission grates so much against many viewers and critics. The effort to force others into acting better and being more thoughtful through a screen just doesn’t work.

Preaching at them, divorced from a personal encounter (as exists in, for instance, a classroom or church context), too often yields the feeling of, well, being preached at, no matter how well-intentioned the speaker. Without relationship, or at least something humanizing alongside—humor, community, empathy—the results mostly feed some audience members’ confirmation bias while alienating those who might find it useful.

Second, pursuing civility and intellectual virtue is not for the faint of heart.

It’s a quest that must be pursued over decades, not months, and evidence of failure will be everywhere. Courage is needed, and not just courage, but a fair bit of foolishness, because the jeering and the misunderstanding will still be there. Those who call for civility will be ignored. They will be misunderstood. They will be mischaracterized and marginalized and shoved aside when ratings go down. Haters gon’ hate.

That’s why Christians are perhaps the best people to take on this pursuit, because we purport to follow a man whose mission to bring sanity to the world looked utterly insane, making him look like a fool and a scandal. He doesn’t need our defending. All he asks for is our faithfulness, in the face of apparently lost causes.