Aaron Sorkin's idea of science journalism: it has something to do with a high school science fair…

By Carl Zimmer | June 26, 2012 10:20 am

You can watch the whole first episode of HBO’s new series The Newsroom on Youtube. At no cost, you can marvel at just how awful a show about journalism can be, managing to be exquisitely sanctimonious and clueless at the same time.

Here’s the shtick: Jeff Daniels plays a cable news anchor who discovers his inner Walter Cronkite, as his new producers remember what it’s like to do real journalism. In fact, the first episode is about science journalism. In about fifteen minutes, the producers completely decipher the Horizon oil spill, down to the quality of the concrete and the physics of ruptured deep-sea drills. In the real world, journalists like Julia Whitty at Mother JonesRichard Harris at NPR and Abraham Lustgarten at ProPublica chewed away for weeks, even months, to get the story. But in Aaron Sorkin’s twisted universe, you can figure it out based on–well, based on a volcano you made for your school science fair project.

Honest! I’ve cued up the tape for you here. Give it till 44:55 and you’ll see I’m not making this up.


Comments (21)

  1. While I look for a version that’s available in my country, I’ll share this montage of ‘Sorkinisms’ that’s doing the rounds. Might make for good bingo.

  2. Pete

    Ha! I was storming around the house saying exactly the same thing during that execrable program.

  3. John Kubie

    I knew I chose the wrong project! (pin hole camera).

  4. Alex

    Paying attention to Aaron Sorkin is like paying attention to the Kardashians. You’re better than this, move along.

  5. Have you never watched an Aaron Sorkin written show before? Having his characters able to magically suss out the details of anything instantly and explain it in blazingly fast dialog is his stock and trade. It compresses the storyline immensely and makes you wish you could be like them, even if nobody is really able to do it. Asking him to write stories that are realistic instead is like asking him to give up his trade.

    What I find particularly interesting is that his characters fall into two categories, those that can do this magic trick and those that are like the rest of us mortals. I wonder how he decides which category a particular character is in? In his television shows pretty much all of the regulars do it, but the movies show the division more clearly. In The Social Network for instance, only Zuckerberg, Sean Parker and Larry Summers can do it. I can see the first two, but I wonder why he chose that style for Summers?

    Anyway, my point is that his scripts are riveting, and consider that most scripts get the science completely wrong. Are you really complaining because the science is right but the science journalism is too fast?

  6. Matunos

    See how informative journalism can be when they have two years to get the story?

    Anyway, this reminds me of all the whizz-bang things that the folks at CSI can do within an hour. The difference here is that Sorkin gives his stuff an extra air of credibility because it’s based on actual events (while at the same time disregarding history).

    You win again, David Simon.

  7. Hemo_jr

    “…exquisitely sanctimonious and clueless at the same time.” Sounds like all of Sorkin’s series, new or not.

  8. Satan Claws

    That Youtube video doesn’t seem to be visible to people outside of the US, sorry. Can provide a version which international viewers are allowed to watch?

  9. Fred Lepore

    Leave it to a gifted science journalist (that would be you) to demand that Sorkin should hold a mirror up to science journalism.

    Daniels, ably abetted by Sam Waterston, was diverting, provocative, all-too-human, and at times inspirational as he railed against the passing of a pre-eminent America.

    The jury is still out on whether this HBO series will “delight and instruct” … would you prefer yet another teenage paranormal romance series?

    Give it a chance.

  10. Nick

    I have to second Bruce’s comments above. Sorkin has a proven ability to inspire with his writing, and corners need be cut. West Wing was around long enough to address the nuances of many procedural realities–but inevitably many topics were treated superficially in order to accommodate plots.

    That said, if the rest of Season 1 fails to capture the grueling nature of (some) modern journalism (including science journalism), maybe he’ll take criticisms like this to heart when writing Season 2.

  11. Nick

    Bruce? I meant Brian. Where did Bruce come from, I wonder…?

  12. Greg Peterson

    Yeah, I’m not going to spend my time watching this, but I have to side with those who aren’t Sorkin-haters. I don’t expect much in the way of reality from him, but for witty banter and worthwhile sentiments, I give him high marks, comparitively. I know who to go to for accurate science journalism (why I’m here), but I sense that your script, Carl, if you wrote one, would be a little–ponderous?

  13. Jon C. Jensen

    To paraphrase Albert Brooks: It’s television, it’s not real!

    [CZ: To which I reply, The Wire, season five. It can be done.]

  14. Phillip Moon

    If you’re writing a movie, you have 2 hours to expand your story over several months or even years and it works. When you’re writing a television episode, you have 42 minutes (on broadcast T.V. and an hour ten on HBO) to create a compelling story that moves quickly enough to get the personal stories and topic of the week in and keep the viewers watching. Sorkin can do this, and yes it means that license is taken with reality, but that is why it’s not called reality T.V. and is called drama. Are the characters too good to be true; can they do amazing things with scraps of information? You betcha. With out them, it would be like watching paint dry.

    I get that real science journalism is hard work and takes real time and training to get it right, but on a 1 hour T.V. show, I want entertaining characters and stories. When I want reality, I come to the Loom. I’m glad both options are available.

  15. Swift Loris

    That TV shows and movies need to compress events to fit their timeframes is irrelevant to what Sorkin did with the Deepwater Horizon disaster sequence.

    The whole point of the sequence was that the heroic “Newsroom” team was able to get the whole story in all its details while the other media outlets exploited the human drama of the search for the missing crew members, when they could instead have been doing the same research and getting the same details. It was supposed to show us how the story *should* have been reported but wasn’t.

    The problem is that in reality, *the details weren’t known* at that point, by anybody, including BP and Halliburton. Most weren’t known for days and weeks, even months.

    Sorkin wants us to believe the media sacrificed the facts for drama; but you could cut his hypocrisy with a knife, because that’s precisely what *he* did in the pilot.

  16. evodevo

    I’m afraid I agree with Phillip Moon – the whole point of this series is to highlight in a short hour what TV journalism has become today – a Breitbartian porridge of inane, out-of-context soundbites, misleading headlines, and shallow research purporting to elucidate “reality”, when in fact all it is designed to do is enrich its corporate masters and make sure the hoi polloi don’t ask too many probing questions/are distracted by shiny objects.
    In order to engage the average TV consumer today it requires a fast-moving plotline – I know how DNA/PCR analysis is done, and that the CSI parts of many police/detective shows are entirely unrealistic, but your average American just barely knows what the initials stand for, much less anything about science or research of ANY kind (hence the latest dismal poll numbers on belief in creationism).
    Maybe this drama will allow a little doubt to leak into some stultified brains

  17. Jon C. Jensen

    CZ: Okay. One of these day’s I’ll break down and watch. What about BBC’s State of Play? (It was tremendous fun to watch.)

    For the record I really enjoyed The West Wing, knowing full well it was an exercise in wish fulfillment.

  18. Alan Cutler

    I haven’t seen the show, but I did a double-take when I read the following quote by the Jeff Daniels character in some of the coverage. “I’m a registered Republican, I only seem liberal because I believe that hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage.” High barometric pressure? That should be LOW barometric pressure. As you said: “exquisitely sanctimonious and clueless at the same time.” I think I’ll find some other way to spend my 44:55.

  19. Mike

    What annoyed me was the entire “America isn’t great speech” which pointed out that the USA isn’t, in fact, the only country in the world that is “free” but was eventually followed with:

    “… America is the only country on the planet, that since its birth has said over and over and over that we can do better. It’s part of our DNA.”

    Yeah, right. America is the only country on the planet that tries to improve itself. Like America is the only country in the world with free and ‘fair’ elections? Tell it to the poor in Florida.

    They tried to be edgy but then blew it by trying to suck up to the “we’re #1 crowd”.

  20. Nick

    Through Episode 3. I tried. No more for me. Despite my earlier comment, I think CZ had the better intuition on this…

  21. Chris

    Its what star trek had become.

    “How will we move this planet and save its inhabitants from the exploding star.”

    “Captain, what if we phase-shift the whatever, blah, blah, blah.”

    “Excellent, Lieutenant. Make it so.”


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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