'The Newsroom' Season 2: The Huge Industry Aaron Sorkin Doesn't Understand


Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom is a show that divides critics. The fast paced, walk-and-talk dialogue that is a hallmark of Sorkin's work drives the show in the same way it did in The West Wing, and the grandstanding monologues that Sorkin so often is criticized for are prevalent as ever. However, another pet peeve ripe for internet finger-pointing is Sorkin's permeating obsession with lawyers and the law, and how it manifests itself frequently in unlikely legal language and scenarios. Instead of making the show smarter, it unnecessarily detracts from otherwise decent writing.

The protagonist of the show is Will McAvoy (wonderfully played by Jeff Daniels), a prosecutor-turned-news anchor, who is Sorkin's mouthpiece for witty commentary on everything from the Trayvon Martin case to the dangers of pleated pants. On the show within the show, McAvoy frequently puts on a legal clinic in which he cross-examines his guests and responds to questions on the fly with the razor-sharp tongue of a seasoned trial attorney. 

Unfortunately, Sorkin's view of the legal profession is romanticized, perhaps even fetishized, beyond recognition. Sorkin has a long history of framing his projects within the confines of legal proceedings while vastly misrepresenting how they work. Of course, A Few Good Men is, on its face, a legal drama. Tom Cruise's infamous examination of Jack Nicholson is the furthest thing from an accurate courtroom depiction one could find. Sorkin also tells the story in The Social Network through a series of flashbacks triggered in a deposition for a lawsuit. This same formula is used in Season Two of The Newsroom, setting the stage for as much smug legal bantering as Sorkin could possibly hope for. 

In the depositions in both The Newsroom and The Social Network, the lawyers are smarmy, tactile creatures going blow for blow with Sorkin's carefully crafted (and equally witty) protagonists. However, in reality, a deposition is not so much an attempt to catch a deponent in a web of contradiction as it is simply an opportunity to ask questions and get answers. Lawyers generally are not out to get the deponent, at least at this stage. Instead, they need to know what you know, and how you know it. 

Sorkin demonstrates his misunderstanding of the legal practice in many instances on The Newsroom. In episode seven of Season Two, Mackenzie Mchale, producer of the fictional news program, asks Will whether the statement "you didn't think he was lying" was a leading question. Will says it is not, citing his years of objecting to leading questions as a prosecutor as his basis. That is absolutely a leading question.

Earlier in Season Two, Jim Harper, idealistic heartthrob and Mchale's right-hand man, gives away an interview to a competing reporter. He justifies this through what he calls a "quick calculation," details of which he spits out at lightspeed. The calculation he does is really a bastardized version of what is known as "The Hand Formula," coined after the aptly named Judge Learned Hand articulated it over 60 years ago. It is usually used to decide whether an action was negligent. The usually diligent Harper, and therefore Sorkin, don't seem to realize it would never apply to an intentional action.

Perhaps most infuriating is how often characters just drop legal phrases into their everyday office chat. Simple plot points, like Jim's dating decisions, are advanced through dialogue using classic legalese such as "but for x, then y." This is the concept of proximate cause, sometimes called But For causation, and it refers to a necessary catalyst to a known outcome. It does not fittingly describe the way that a competing reporter finds about Jim's crush, as it's used on the show.

It's plausible that Charlie, the grizzled old vet of a corporate executive, knows what an injunction is. It is isn't likely that Maggie, the intern turned African crusader turned alcoholic, is an expert in copyright law. Perhaps more to the point, the entire show is that much less believable when she takes on that role. 

Aaron Sorkin thinks he's being witty by sprinkling legalese into his writing or flaunting that he knows what a deposition is. Ultimately he just demonstrates his lack of knowledge and, more importantly, his lack of due diligence before throwing it into a script.