Lashing out at divided America

Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom makes its debut in the US tonight on HBO. Now, HBO makes half of all the television in America that people end up excited about. Sorkin has helped to create a whole bunch of stuff (The West Wing, The Social Network, American President, A Few Good Men) that I, and other respectable frequenters of American films and television, enjoyed. So there has been expectation for the Newsroom to be great.

There's something about the exchange of ideas in America at the moment that is redundant. As we approach the election, the zeitgeist is focused too neatly on the tussle between two irreconcilable ideas: conservative v liberal, Obama v Romney, Democrat v Republican. It is both boring and dangerous. Everyone is preaching to the choir. While campaigns are often reported on like sports games, it feels baser than ever.     

So for this reason I can't watch The Newsroom. I know it is a television show. As well acted and poignantly verbose as it may be... I can't do it. It is the straw that has broken this camel's back in terms of my tolerance for naïve, earnest and partisan entertainments that, unintentionally or not, keep people in their different corners. 

There's a spot in the trailer that needled me the most, where a news anchor (Jeff Daniels) scolds a student who asks his character what makes America the greatest nation on Earth.

He clucks, "Just in case you wander into a voting booth there's some things you should know. We're seventh in literacy, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor and number four in exports. Now, none of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student but when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don't know what the f*** you're talking about ...Yosemite?"

This stance is a classic dismissal of American Exceptionalism by the left. It is delivered with such self-importance and condescension that it seems Aaron Sorkin really thinks that this is Serious stuff. But whether or not the facts check out (it seems they do) the style, tone and delivery make it as useful as discourse as a standard Fox News roundtable. 

But I guess, at least the Newsroom is having fun with tropes.

In contrast, the presidential candidates have so, so meekly defined themselves by their opposition to the other, instead of actual ideas. 

Part of the fault lies with how dependent each candidate is on raising money for survival. When I see Obama or Romney in the news, they're mugging at $40,000-a-plate fundraisers held by people like Sarah Jessica Parker or Donald Trump.

Frank Bruni put it nicely in last week's Sunday New York Times, "...presidential candidates have been turned into platinum-level panhandlers. When they could and should be mulling the metastasising challenges of a country on the ropes, they're begging."

This has turned each of the two candidates into a slick figurehead for his respective side of the coin. Outside of smug photo-ops and black-tie fundraisers, Romney and Obama are most frequently spotted on news shows running clips from their stump speeches. The message of these speeches is invariably that Romney is an uncaring, hypocritical, rich jerk, or that Obama just made everything worse and still tries to blame it on everyone else.

The conversation, nearly four months out from the election, has become meaningless. The other week, Romney told a group of evangelical Christians that in regards to Israel he would simply do the "opposite" of what Obama did.

Frank Egan (from the same New York Times issue I quoted from above), said: "Elections are about narrative; as such, money and partisan reporting are vital to shape a story line that moves a majority of voters." 

In the current campaign actual facts are every day shown to be irrelevant. Obama announced a reprioritising of how his government would prosecute immigration cases, to free up a pathway for low-risk illegal immigrants to work. Republicans denounced him uniformly for not acting sooner to pass a law when he had both popular mandate and a majority. Except he did so in 2010, and Republicans blocked it. Maybe they forgot that happened, but I doubt all. 

Which all just makes The Newsroom more awkward. Because it acts as though there's a simple answer, which I'm not sure there is, and that it only needs to be stated in an authoritative manner to get through.

There's a lot of numbers and a lot of facts around, and none of them are good. There's $1 trillion of student debt, $13.2 trillion in consumer debt and $14 trillion in federal debt. There's $700 billion in bad equity sinking the housing market, 8 per cent unemployment, a hypersensitive stockmarket, looming crises in Europe and China, Syria, Iran, climate change, spiralling costs of education and health insurance...

So I get frustrated when each candidate makes me feel that he cares more about winning for his side, than addressing in any real way even some of the current list of problems.

Maybe I'm being too negative? There's always elements of all this in every election. Maybe the point is just to win at all cost so you can do the most amount of good, later.  

So enjoy The Newsroom, if that is your thing.

(The advance reviews have been mixed, which makes me feel better.)          

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