Aaron Sorkin on ‘The Newsroom’

The creator of HBO’s TV news media drama faced real journalists in a lively discussion about his latest series.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

You might assume a group of reporters would love “The Newsroom,” Aaron Sorkin’s show about the glory of news media. It turns out quite a few of the Television Critics Association have issues with Sorkin’s take on their job.

When Sorkin met the TCA for the first time, during the show’s inaugural season, it became a lively, sometimes contentious discussion. Sorkin held strong with his articulate verbiage, and fed off the pushback.

Q: What do you think of the press now that you've been the subject of these tough articles and have had to correct one article that had many inaccuracies?
Aaron Sorkin: You know what, someone sent me an article from China. Incredibly, the show is a big hit in China. I'll be honest with you, I didn't know that they got HBO in China, but somehow they do, and there's a Twitter frenzy about the show in China that's entirely different than the Twitter frenzy here because what they can't get over when they see the show is the free press.

That's all they are seeing. They're seeing what a free press looks like, and it's not like this is the first show that's shown a free press. It's just that it's really only been in the last five, ten years that stuff from the west has been making it to China and I guess this was the first thing about a free press. They can't believe it. So, when I read that and remember the press and a free press, if I can answer the question that was asked of Will in the first scene, is maybe what makes America the greatest country.
Q: Do you think part of the polarized reaction to the show is endemic to part of what's going on in America currently that you're commenting on, how people feel about the news and everything else?
Aaron Sorkin: Well, I do, and we're talking about things that we were all taught growing up, that there are certain things that you don't talk about the dinner table. The television in your home is kind of an extension of the dinner table. It's in your home. You didn't go to a theater to see it, and we're bringing up subjects that are sort of impolite to talk about with strangers.

So, there was bound to be that kind of division. Like I said, I don't wish to be a rabble rouser. I prefer to be liked, but I think that these are really important subjects and if on Monday morning people are talking about them then that's a good thing, as long as they come back the next Sunday night and watch the show.
Q: Does that inform your writing going forward?
Aaron Sorkin: I have to be very, very careful because I'm easily kind of knocked around by other voices. I said up there that luckily the first season is done and there's nothing I can do about it, and I have to, when I start writing the second season, work in the same way. I have to write the way that I write and not write in order to change people's minds. If 999 people like the show and one doesn't, I will [not] abandon those 999 people and try to get the one person.
Q: In the episode when Will compares John Hinckley and Mark David Chapman to Mohammed Atta and the other terrorists, are those your thoughts and is it a fair comparison?
Aaron Sorkin: I want to make a clear distinction between me and the characters that are in the show. I, most of the time, write about things I actually don't know very much about. Last year, I had Moneyball, and because of Michael Lewis and Billy Beane himself and Bill James and a lot of other people pumping me full of information, I was able to create the sound of somebody who knew how to run a baseball team.

But I certainly don't have any idea how to beat the New York Yankees with the second lowest payroll in baseball and, likewise, political opinions that I have are at the level of sophistication of someone who has a BFA in musical theater. I use the same system. I get pumped full of information by people who do know what they are talking about so that I can find the point of friction and write an episode.

In this case, the scene that you are talking about was the interview that Will had about the Ground Zero mosque? Well, he was saying that John Hinckley, Jr., was a Christian. There were a number of examples of things in there that were of atrocities that were committed in the name of Christianity and then things that were simply committed by Christians.  And the point that Will was making, not me, but Will, was that if we are going to make this generality about Islam, isn't it possible to say, for instance, that al Qaeda is to Islam what the Klan is to Christianity?

Q: When you got some of the rough reviews early on, did you think any of the critics had some valid points?
Aaron Sorkin: Well, for sure, we all know that there were critics who did not enjoy watching the first four episodes, and there were critics that did. Obviously, you'd prefer that the praise for the show be unanimous, but I think that anytime people are talking this much about a television show, it's good for television. 

It's good for people who watch television.  It's good for the people who work in television.  That's everybody in this room.  One of the lucky things, one of the nice, sort of, unintended consequences of working for HBO is that the entire season is written, shot, and locked in the can before the first episode airs.  So even if you are tempted to try to write a little bit differently to please the people or change someone's mind, you can't do it.  The season is done. 


Photo Credit: FilmMagic/Getty images

Q: One of the criticisms was that female characters aren’t treated as well, and even characters described as smart act in not so smart ways. Do you feel there’s anything to that?
Aaron Sorkin: Unfortunately, I can only speak a little to it just because there isn't time to speak as much as I would like to. I completely respect that opinion, but I 100% disagree with it. I think that the female characters on the show are, first of all, every bit the equals of the men. I think that they are not just talked about as being good at their job. We plainly see them being good at their job beginning with the first episode.

The only reason the show is happening is because MacKenzie comes along, grabs everyone by the throat, and says, "We are going to do better."  And then we see her thrust into a breaking news situation, which she handles beautifully. When we meet Maggie, she's one of the few people staying behind. Why? Loyalty to Will. 

When we meet Sloan, we are told that she could be making a lot more money working on Wall Street, but we see her get offered a job in primetime, which is a great career step up, and her first reaction isn't, "Yippy, I get to be in primetime." It's "I think this is fantastic that we are going to be doing more in‑depth economic coverage in primetime. Let me give you a list of my teachers who are better qualified to do this."

These and many, many other qualities of caring about things other than yourself, of reaching high, of being thoughtful, curious, plainly smart, of being great team players, those, to me, are what define these characters. And by the way, I'd say the same thing about the actresses playing them, and that once you've nailed those down, you can have them slip on as many banana peels as you want.  That's just comedy. 

If you don't mind, I wanted to say this at the beginning because I want to make absolutely sure that it doesn't go unsaid. A couple of weeks ago, an unsourced and untrue story appeared on the Internet. That then got repeated all over the place. So I want to be as clear as I can possibly be about this. The writing staff was not fired. Just seeing that in print is scaring the hell out of the writing staff. They are acting very strange. They are coming to work early. They are being polite to me, and I want the old gang back.

I love the writing staff. I thought that we did great this year, and it's a fantastic group of men and women to come to work with. We have a ball. With series television, at the end of each season, you get together with the producers and with the department heads, and you talk about ways that you can get better.

So a couple of staffing changes were made that included promoting our two writers' assistants, Dana Ledoux Miller and Michael Gunn, from writer's assistant to story editors, skipping over the rung of staff writer. Even more important, other than that, the writing staff was not fired. I'm looking forward to coming back to work with them in a few weeks.
Even more important than them, I want to stand up for Corinne Kingsbury, and it's K‑i‑n‑g. In this same unsourced, untrue story that came out a couple days ago, she was incorrectly identified as my ex‑girlfriend. She is not. I don't have an ex‑girlfriend in the writers' room or anywhere on the show. I don't have a current girlfriend in the writers' room or anywhere else on the show. I think she's at the beginning of a very exciting career, and I would hate for this rumor or implication that she somehow got where she was for any reason other than merit to have to follow her around for the rest of her life.

So, to sum up, the writing staff hasn't been fired. Corinne Kingsbury is spelled with a "g," and she is on the staff for the same reason everyone else is on the staff, because she's extremely talented. She brings a sensibility to the room that is different from my own and yet is right for the show, and she's an incredibly hard worker.
I'll tell you at this time too, really the major change that we are making to the staff is that this year, we'll have paid consultants on the staff. For the first season, it was on kind of a voluntary basis and they did great. But I am hiring a range of paid consultants from television, print and online media representing every part of the ideological and political spectrum that you can imagine, and I think it's going to be a big bonus for the show.
Q: To get back to the banana peel, it seems MacKenzie is doing nothing but slipping on banana peels after her strong introduction, and she’s always apologizing to Will. How do you strike that balance where you're going for comedy without necessarily selling out a character?
Aaron Sorkin: Again, I think I do it by first nailing down the things that are important about the character. For instance, in Episode 2, Will is still nervous about this. He's got cold feet. "No, we're not opening with the BP spill. The BP spill is going second because there's a bigger story today. I understand that there's good film on it," and she says, "We don't do good TV. We do the news."

And she's got the whole meeting with the staff in which she's extremely deft and a great leader, and then once you nail that down, it's, for me, permissible to have her hit "send all" instead of just "send" and make a mistake that I know I've made and other people have made a million times with an email. I disagree that all she does is apologize to Will. I think Jeff [Daniels] would disagree too.

In that same episode, even when she blew the broadcast, or at least takes responsibility for blowing the broadcast ‑ and I have to say, another admirable thing about these characters is they don't let a single lash of the whip fall on anyone else. They take full responsibility. Even when she's done that, she rips Will apart at the end for what she sees as pandering, and she gives the whole, "Are you in or are you out?" speech and be the moral center of the show and be the integrity and does the same thing in roughly every episode. She doesn't apologize to Will in Episode 4 that's with Gabby Giffords. She says ‑‑
Q: Yes, she does. In the Gabby Giffords scene, she apologizes to Will. 
Aaron Sorkin: Hang on. Before she does that, she goes to Will and says, "Look, go and have revenge sex with every woman in the Tri-state area. Just keep it out of the goddamn papers. Some of us have moved on and we're trying to do something here." At the very end, when everyone is extremely emotional because of what's happened with Gabby Giffords, she says, "I'm sorry. I screwed up." She's talking about cheating on Will.

Not "I'm sorry I did something bad in the newsroom." She's talking about something that's worth apologizing for. She's not apologizing for nothing. Will, for his part, says, "It's all right.  It's gonna be all right. That's not slipping on a banana peel. That's something a lot more serious than that. 

Q: Why bring in the consultants? What can they bring to the show?
Aaron Sorkin: Well, I think there are a few things. They're going to bring real experiences that they've had working in a newsroom. “There was this one time when all the electricity went out and we had to do this.” Wow, that's the beginning of a great story. They're also going to bring a political perspective that I don't have. I'm hiring some really bright, interesting, conservative minds who've worked in conservative politics who will help me bolster some conservative arguments at those moments we're talking about politics.

Like I said, I don't know yet exactly what the timeline of season two would be, but I would be extremely surprised if it didn't include the election and the conventions that are coming up. So, there are going to be those kinds of arguments and I just want to make sure that generally when I'm asking someone, a consultant or an advisor, someone the staff for an opinion, I'll say, “Tell me what you think and then tell me what the really smart person in the room who disagrees with you is going to say to that?” Now I have the really smart person in the room.
Q: Do you feel the show was weaker this season because it lacked those conservative voices?
Aaron Sorkin: I don't. I don't.
Q: Is all the discussion and debate what you were going for with this show? Are you happy that everyone has opinions about what's going on?
Aaron Sorkin: I don't like riling people up. That's not what I'm going for, but i think that when people are talking this much and this loudly about a TV show it's good for television.
Q: Why did you feel strongly about coming to talk to the TCA?
Aaron Sorkin: Because I wanted to be able to talk to the press. If what you’re saying that you heard that HBO had canceled my appearance and I said, “No, reinstate it,” you're right. I don't want to have an adversarial relationship with the press. I get that there are people that don't like the show and are writing, honestly, about the show, but I don't want to have that adversarial feeling. I've always had a great relationship with the TCA and I want to continue that.
Q: Why did you decide to reference real events, when in “The West Wing” you famously fictionalized certain Arab countries?
Aaron Sorkin: The reason I did that was simply because I didn't want to make up fake news. I didn't feel like we would be able to relate to that world in which not only wasn't the news that we're all experiencing together being presented, but a whole different world was being presented, one in which we just invaded Japan or something. I would need to be making up these fake news stories.

So I set it in the past so that I could use real news. I'll tell you what reason I did not do it. I didn't do it so that I could leverage hindsight into making our characters smarter at stuff. Just with the BP oil spill, no one in the episode says, "Boy, these other guys are so dumb. I wonder why they aren't as smart as we are." In real life it would be about 48 hours before the news would begin reporting that they were having trouble figuring out how to cap the well.

That's not what's happening in the episode at all. A big light is shined on the fact that an incredible coincidence happens. Jim, this new guy who has just walked in, gets two phone calls within five minutes of each other. Nobody else at any news network had that coincidence happen to him, and that is there. The whole BP thing is there to force Will to take a risk and to show the excitement of breaking news and to show how competent MacKenzie is at doing all of this.

When the thing is over, nobody is saying, "We got them. We're two days ahead of everybody else." Will's reaction, when Will asks Tom Sadoski's character, Don, "What did everybody else run?", and when he's told that they didn't cover the story the way he did, he's terrified. He thinks that they've blown it. This is a risk averse guy, and they think that he's blown it. There's never a moment on the show where, if our guys do something right ‑ like Gabby Giffords, for instance –  there is never a time when somebody else didn't do it right too. We may point out MSNBC saying that she was dead, making that mistake, but there will always be other networks that got it right too.
Q: Going forward, when the news starts to catch up with the show, are you going to start making up news? 
Aaron Sorkin: No. We'll never make up news. We'll always be roughly the same distance behind. Season 2 will be back on the air again in June, and I'm just now beginning to map out in my head where we're going to be. We'll always be anywhere between 9 and 18 months behind. 
Q: There's a seven or eight minute mash-up video of your work on YouTube. I'm sure you've seen it. What do you think about that?
Aaron Sorkin: Yeah. I really like it, and what I even like more is that I got a wonderful letter from the young man, his name is Kevin, who put it together. He was mortified. He told me in this letter that he meant it as a tribute and just the timing of it with “The Newsroom” and the press about “The Newsroom” it had been used in a different way. So, he and I have been emailing back and forth. I think he's an incredibly talented guy. He's a terrific editor, and I enjoy it a lot.
Q: Do you realize your tendency to do that in the moment?
Aaron Sorkin: I do, and the reason is that I have a limited imagination. Thank you all very much, and I particularly want to thank the people who are not necessarily fans of the show for being as respectful as you've been. It can be a very cordial conversation.