Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Aaron Sorkin's Great Expectations: A news media that could never live up to our highest standards

I love Aaron Sorkin's new drama on HBO "The Newsroom."

But I am warning my conservative friends to not get so upset by Aaron Sorkin's opinions that they end up not watching the show. Truthfully, like so many "progressives" Sorkin is a conservative in the sense that he defends a fictional past as the time when American's were better, in this case because the press was so much better.

Sorkin's views were clearly stated at the beginning of the pilot which you can read here where Sorkin explains how to write effectively. While I got all teary-eyed because it was effective writing, this is Sorkin's fantasy. As with all fantasies it's a view based on fiction and even while I was taken in by the emotion I knew rationally that the monologue was like all propaganda, using some elements of fact mixed with fiction to persuade the listener to believe the fantasy.

History is a continuous line of cause and effect. So it's pretty easy to pick the monologue apart. First Sorkin sprinkles in some facts:
We're seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies.
Then he adds the argumentative fiction:
We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world's greatest artists and the world's greatest economy.
Finally, he concludes with a statement about some newsmen who flourished in the period from 1948-72:
And we were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered.
The problem is statistically and anecdotally the facts don't support this view of history.

Sure, we built a huge economy doing the many things he lists. But we beat our collective chests continuously from 1945 on. And we created many of our current problems with the best of selfish intentions even though the problems were foreseeable and, therefore, avoidable if only we had been informed by the great men of Sorkin's mythical newsrooms, newsmen who were revered.

While inventing many great things after the WWII, we built ourselves hundreds of thousands of suburban homes in thousands of Levittown's across the nation by leveraging government credit through the FHA and VA programs. And by using government debt we built streets and highways to commute to work in obviously fuel wasting, polluting automobiles we purchased using private debt. And we beat our chests about these accomplishments and learned to feel good about being in debt.

Beginning in the 1960's, we stopped putting our money where our mouths were when the Kennedy Administration began reducing the marginal tax rate. And the Johnson Administration invented the let's-don't-sacrifice-anything-collectively "Guns and Butter" economy, not George W. Bush. And so we felt even better about being more in debt.

What Sorkin doesn't say is that me and my generation and he and his generation created a mess for our grandchildren by "living off the fat of the land" partly because we, in fact, weren't informed.

In his second episode, Sorkin uses the Arizona immigration law to emphasize how a really good news show might deal with the subject. While the folks in the newsroom screwed up, if they had succeeded the implication was we would have been a much better informed America. But would we have?

Let's look at a longer view of American history and Mexico, which is ignored in the whole somewhat-silly-picture of the Arizona immigration law Sorkin presented.

Mexicans aren't a people in some country across an ocean like Italians or Koreans. While we want to define this as a legal issue about immigration, in fact it is a traditional human population "migration" pattern across some invisible lines on the ground, creating a controversy that based in part on the difference between these two historical maps:

It is a controversy that stems from the Mexican-American War about which Wikipedia notes in phrasing reminiscent of discussions over many of our much more recent wars:
American territorial expansion to the Pacific coast had been the goal of President James K. Polk, the leader of the Democratic Party. However, the war was highly controversial in the U.S., with the Whig Party and anti-slavery elements strongly opposed. Heavy American casualties and high monetary cost were also criticized. The political aftermath of the war raised the slavery issue in the U.S., leading to intense debates that pointed to civil war; the Compromise of 1850 provided a brief respite.
When you take a long view of history, it's not surprising that Arizonan's 160 years after the Mexican-American War find themselves in the middle of a controversy. It's one a historian could easily provide comparable scenarios in Europe and Asia dating back thousands of years.

While "progressives" and "conservatives" argue about a law in Arizona, over periods of decades and centuries people will migrate to wherever they can find a better life, whether its towards access to more food and other "stuff" or away from civil wars (such as the one going on in Mexico today). And most assuredly they will do so when it can be done "on foot."

I'm emotionally susceptible to Sorkin's monologues. Sorkin's fantasy - about an America being informed by a wise and knowledgeable free press so we can somehow make better decisions - is my fantasy.

But unlike Sorkin, I would assert we've not had that in my lifetime. In my opinion, one of the worst failures of the American press occurred between 1945-55.

Walter Cronkite, one of those "great men who were revered" was a journalist I greatly respected. But, I know that the time for Cronkite to take a hard look at American policy on Vietnam was in 1945, not in 1968, - when Cronkite belatedly went out to take a look, changed his view on the Vietnam War, and then told us about it .

It's always the history that we don't know that causes us problems.

Consider the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. Most Americans still don't know that from 1911-13, he lived in the United States.

Most Americans still don't know that following World War I, under the name Nguyễn Ái Quốc he petitioned for recognition of the civil rights of the Vietnamese people in French Indochina to the Western powers at the Versailles peace talks, but was ignored. Citing the language and the spirit of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Quốc petitioned U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to help remove the French from Vietnam and replace them with a new, nationalist government. It is said that his failure further radicalized Nguyễn, while also making him a national hero of the anti-colonial movement at home in Vietnam.

Following the fall of the Japanese-controlled Empire of Vietnam in August 1945, the Viet Minh occupied Hanoi and proclaimed a provisional government, which asserted national independence on September 2, 1945. This could happen because America's "Greatest Generation" fought a war in France so people of all nations could determine their own future ... at least that's what we were told.

But the Provisional French Republic sent the French Far East Expeditionary Corps – originally created to fight the Japanese occupation forces – to restore French colonial rule.

This could have been prevented by the United States at the time. But there was no Murrow or Cronkite telling us about it. They were focused on Europe. And they simply did not know that their ignorance could end up in the death of thousands of young Americans.

After all the lofty language about self-determination that came out of our collective mouths after WWII, did our failure to stop the French in the aftermath of WWII make this Vietnamese national hero more than jaded and angry? Could an informed press told us about it? Might he not have turned to the Soviet Union for support if we actually did support the idea that people of all nations could determine their own future?

We'll never really know because Aaron Sorkin's heroic news team failed to inform us at a critical moment.

Perhaps this is true because while at times individual reporters and photographers can be heroic, but otherwise we expect too much of the press and too little of ourselves when it comes to being informed.

And that's the way it is in my humble opinion, July 3, 2012.

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