HBO’s “The Newsroom” aims to show the flaws of the mainstream media, by reporting the news in a different way. Yet, in examining the Occupy movement, it operated exactly like the media it is trying to critique.
Let it be known that everything humans have learned in centuries of people fighting for social justice is wrong. Tell Martin Luther King, Eugene Debs, Howard Zinn, the Founding Fathers, Ghandi and anyone else who has wrestled the with daunting task challenging injustice in the face of immense power to turn on HBO and take some detailed notes. It turns out that Aaron Sorkin, creator and writer of “The Newsroom,” a drama now halfway through its second season, has it all figured out. The key to making the world a better place? You must secure a meeting with Max Baucus.
That is essentially the lesson that Sorkin gave to the Occupy movement through his mouthpiece, the stubborn, but well-intentioned news anchor Will McAvoy. If this sounds ridiculous, that is because it is. But it was the central theme of Sorkin’s critique of the Occupy movement, which was made crystal clear in the recent ”Unintended Consequences” episode. The show’s protagonist, McAvoy, engaged in what his hero-worshiping colleagues called a major “takedown” of an Occupy Wall Street organizer who was advancing one of the key ideals of the Occupy movement: the absence of chosen “leaders” to represent the movement. Indeed, a cornerstone of the Occupy strategy was the idea that a strong movement does not need to speak through a chosen leader but rather builds strength through the sum of its parts: a broad coalition of activists, organizers and citizens. Everyone has a voice, and every voice matters.
Disgusted with this idea of a people’s movement that lacks sanctioned leaders, McAvoy makes the following exchange with Shelly Wexler, a fictional Occupy organizer. As the executive producer, MacKenzie McHale, prepares the segment, she says of the Occupy organizer, “here comes dinner,” implying that she doesn’t stand a chance against McAvoy. It is worth noting that Sorkin has the luxury of being able to write both sides of the argument and therefore easily turns the Occupy organizer into a bumbling fool. The exchange grossly misrepresented the movement and its goals. If this is dinner, it must be remembered that it was cooked up by Aaron Sorkin, and not a member of Occupy Wall Street.
The argument that Occupy is a failure because it would not easily be able to arrange a meeting with members of Congress is laughable. Any legislation that would make meaningful reform to finance or banking likely would be spearheaded by the Senate Finance Committee or the Senate Banking Committee (because the House was controlled by the GOP in 2011, when this is set). This means McAvoy’s primary argument is that Occupy is fundamentally flawed because its members will not be able to meet with the likes of then-Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, who has been accurately described as “K Street’s Favorite Democrat” and is certainly not going to advance meaningful legislation that hampers the profits of his friends in finance. The Senate Banking Committee chairman at the time was Tim Johnson, a conservative Democrat in a red state who, likewise, serves the interests of the Wall Street, not actual people.
For those who have been avoiding the show, the basics are as follows. In “The Newsroom” universe, it is late September 2011, not long after protesters turned Zuccotti Park into a tent city and the hub of a massive global protest movement that brought attention to myriad injustices perpetrated by Wall Street and a government that regularly does its bidding. The young and idealistic web editor of “News Night,” the flagship show of the fictional cable news channel Atlantic Cable News, has been urging his bosses to cover the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The show’s executive producer dismisses the idea at first, derisively calling Occupy “the pajama party,” among other insults. She eventually relents and gives a member of the Occupy movement five minutes with the great Will McAvoy, who is portrayed in the show as a sort of superhuman newsman – a moderate Republican who is angered by the influence of the Tea Party and the uninspired media coverage of current events. He is shown to be a man of intense principles and a shrewd intellect.
In the television universes created by Sorkin, who also created the NBC hit political drama “The West Wing,” there is almost always a “Great Man,” – emphasis on the word man – who has the unique ability to recognize and fix the world’s problems. In the West Wing, the Great Man was Jed Bartlett, the president with endless compassion and nerves of steel. McAvoy is essentially a version of Jed Bartlett; the key difference is that instead of being armed with the powers of the presidency, he hosts a prime-time cable news show.
Given Sorkin’s pattern of basing his entire show on the power of Great Men, it should come as no surprise that he would critique Occupy’s lack of leadership. But one still has to be taken aback at just how dismissive and inaccurate his portrayal of the Occupy movement is in season two of this much-maligned drama. Ironically, for a show that alleges to be about a man (and his show) who seeks to remedy the flaws of the contemporary mainstream media, the portrayal of the Occupy movement as being nothing but a group of misguided slackers is virtually identical to the way the actual mainstream media covered the movement.
For instance, Sorkin’s lead protagonists often talk about how the Tea Party is the more successful movement because it influences Congress. But Occupy deliberately chose not to try to create change solely by pushing the Democrats to pass neutered financial reforms through a shamefully timorous Congress. The movement rightly recognized that Congress largely serves the finance sector and instead chose to raise class-consciousness by engaging in grass-roots organizing and civil disobedience. Surely, the Occupy movement had its flaws, but the decision to avoid allowing the movement to be co-opted by Congress was one of the strengths of Occupy, not its fatal flaw as McAvoy alleges.
Occupy was largely successful in this mission to raise class-consciousness, prompting the creation of Occupy camps in some 900 cities or municipalities across the world and bringing the issue of income inequality into center stage. “The Newsroom, ” however, never mentioned how Occupy blossomed into a global movement, and covered it as if it were just a few lonely people in Manhattan. It seemed plausible that in a future episode McAvoy and MacKenzie would recognize how big the movement became and be forced to concede that that Occupy was in fact an important news story. But, the next week’s episode jumped six months into the future and moved on to other issues. The Occupy arc was over; McAvoy’s disgraceful interview was indeed the show’s final word on Occupy.
McAvoy also said that the thing the “banks fear the most is legislation such as Dodd-Frank [the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act].” But this is a pretty big leap in logic, and I have a hard time imagining that any dedicated member of Occupy would agree with that statement, as Wexler did on “The Newsroom” (another benefit to writing both sides of an argument). The banks might not like Dodd-Frank, but are they truly frightened by a piece of legislation that has barely dented the practices of Wall Street? Despite the new law, the finance industry is still “dominated by a handful of institutions that are too large, too interconnected and too politically powerful to be allowed to go bankrupt if they make unwise decisions or make huge wrong-way bets,” observed Gretchen Morgenson in The New York Times. On the issue of Too Big to Fail – one of the primary factors that led to the 2008 economic crisis – “the bill fails completely.” This critique of the bill was recently echoed by Roberta Karmel, former commissioner of the SEC, among many others.
While the financial industry is not likely to be cowering in fear over Congress and tweaks they may make within the existing structures of power, they are absolutely afraid of a population that dares to dream of a different structure entirely. The game is rigged – “we are like those little bitches (pawns) on the chess board,” as David Simon observed in another HBO show, “The Wire.” Moving a pawn forward one space, as Dodd-Frank did, does not threaten the kings of the financial industry. They are, however, rightly concerned about organized, working-class discontent. They are afraid of the people noticing that the game is fixed, and breaking the chess board in a million pieces to start anew. This is obvious from internal documents that have been leaked, such as the “plutonomy memos” from CitiGroup, which celebrates that America is a “plutonomy” – which means “rule by the wealthy.” The reports candidly note that this dynamic would be less likely to persist if the American population at large wakes up and realizes that we are not likely to benefit from a society where all the wealth is controlled by a very small group of people.
A section of that memo makes the following observation:
“Perhaps one reason that societies allow plutonomy is because enough of the electorate believes they have a chance of becoming a Plutoparticipant. Why kill it off, if you can join it? In a sense this is the embodiment of the ‘American dream.’ But if voters feel they cannot participate, they are more likely to divide up the wealth pie, rather than aspire to being truly rich.”
And, although it is in its infancy, the Occupy movement is helping to shatter these very illusions. The goal of Occupy is not merely to push for some legislative reforms in the short term; the goal is to educate the public on the true nature of the economic system. In many ways, Occupy succeeded in educating the public on these issues. When it popularized the phrase, “We are the 99 percent,” it educated many about how our economic system operates to benefit the top 1 percent only. It advanced the idea that the 99 percent is one class with the same interests and that this is the key point of division in America – not race, political party or views on social issues. That is the very essence of the left’s primary critique of capitalism and, for the first time since the early 20th century, it is now understood by anyone who heard and understood the simple phrase: “We are the 99 percent.”
Sorkin does not seem to understand such an idea – a world that is not dependent on the genius of a few brilliant men. He worships power like few before him. Change is possible, he suggests, only by improving our ability to play an unfair game. To argue, as Sorkin does through his mouthpiece Will, that Occupy fails unless it has some pointless meeting with Max Baucus, is so stupid as to be comical.
The truth is that the things banks fear the most is exactly the kind of movement Occupy seeks to become. Maybe the movement will flounder; perhaps it may grow. But whatever the future holds, it is clear that Aaron Sorkin loses this argument – even though he got to write both sides of the dialogue.