ABC’s Jake Tapper takes on The Newsroom

Actually, he took it on over a month ago, but I somehow missed it until just now. In the pages of The New Republic, Tapper took Sorkin to task:

There’s much to criticize in the media—and TV news in particular. But though “The Newsroom” intends to lecture its viewers on the higher virtues of capital-J journalism, Professor Sorkin soon reveals he isn’t much of an expert on the subject.

So far, so good. But what bothers me about Tapper’s critique is that he dislikes The Newsroom for all the wrong reasons. Here’s the crux of the problem with the show for Tapper:

McAvoy sanctimoniously laments the deterioration of public discourse and the news media’s complicity in it. But if that is the problem, his subsequent actions reveal a commitment to a uniformly partisan solution. McAvoy—and, by extension, Sorkin—preach political selflessness, but they practice pure partisanship; they extol the Fourth Estate’s democratic duty, but they believe that responsibility consists mostly of criticizing Republicans.

See, this is the crux of my problem with Tapper. I have a whole laundry list of complaints about The Newsroom — from the excessively preachy tone of all the dialogue to the half-baked and subpar romantic suplots to the improbably lucky connections the newsroom stuff was able to milk for details following the Gulf oil spill, and a million other things besides.

But if there’s one thing Sorkin doesn’t get wrong, it’s also the one thing that rubs Jake Tapper the wrong way. This is unfortunate, because — as someone who, admittedly, is not as familiar with Tapper’s journalism as I should be — I nevertheless have some unexplained fondness for the guy. But it appears something about Sorkin’s critique struck a little too close to home.

But before I get into that, Tapper’s not finished:

And when McAvoy goes after a National Rifle Association campaign to portray Obama as anti-gun, he insists on depicting it as a moral crusade in defense of the public good. But he never feels the need to question whether—in the midst of crises in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the international economy—it’s really so noble after all to devote one’s limited resources to fact-checking relatively unimportant political attacks. As such, it’s hard not to judge the resulting segment as falling short of McAvoy’s newly idealistic raison d’être—though Sorkin clearly seems to think otherwise.

Tapper goes on to say that McAvoy, much like other cable news stars, is blind to his own ideology. There may be a crumb of truth in that. But aside from the anchor’s comically atrocious disdain for the common people (“we are the media elite,” McAvoy declares on-air, without a smidgen of irony), it seems that the NewsNight anchor’s worst crime in Tapper’s eyes is assigning the truth any relevance at all. There are wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he says, and an economy in crisis. Why not discuss that?

But to those of us who would like to see something more from the news than a mere dash-to-the-bottom for the juiciest new storyline (another suicide bombing in Baghdad! stocks fall 2% in an afternoon!), it really does matter whether the NRA lied about Obama’s alleged anti-gun record. And it really does matter that Michele Bachmann falsely claimed the Obamas’ trip to India cost American taxpayers $200 million per day. (It would appear that even Tapper would agree with this last assessment: he filed a short report about the White House’s rebuttal of Bachmann’s claims.)

Tapper treats the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as completely separate entities from the “relatively unimportant political attacks” to which Sorkin’s Will McAvoy devotes so much of his time. But the aggregate effect of lie after lie being spouted by many vocal Republicans at the time, without any fear of being held accountable by the media, helped to fuel the popular discontent that has rendered Obama a much less effective president on both domestic and foreign policy issues. Political capital is a very real thing.

But that’s not actually the biggest mistake Tapper makes. Indeed, he believes some stories are irrelevant, and yet he and his organization, ABC News, continue to cover them indiscriminately. But the one thing they’ve forgotten to do right — and practically the only thing Aaron Sorkin actually got right — was to nail the coffin definitively on the constant stream of baseless attacks emanating daily from right-wing circles. (Tapper’s tepid report on the India misinformation story, especially given the update he tacked on at the end, leaves the impression this was just another political squabble between perpetually lying politicians. It wasn’t: one side was lying. The other side wasn’t. This matters.)

This isn’t about being ideological. It’s about doing the very thing Jake Tapper thinks he’s doing by focusing on the “moderates and liberals wielding [power]:” holding our elected officials accountable. This is not to say that liberals or Democrats or Obama himself shouldn’t be held to account either. But to simply assume that pointing out one side’s deliberate falsehoods is somehow partisan — without even bothering to evaluate whether the other side is actually guilty of the same crimes and to the same extent — is actually taking sides. It’s taking the side of those who choose to distort and disguise and deny the truth, at the expense of those whose attachment to facts is at least somewhat stronger. (These are all politicians, so we can safely assume no one’s that sentimental about honesty.)

Jake Tapper may be a good reporter, but his attack on Sorkin’s “moral crusade” smacks of New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane’s prejudicial term “truth vigilante.” Sorkin is a lot of things: preachy is one of them, for instance. But being evenhanded — as in a real balance based on facts, not the faux balance based on the terror of appearing partisan advocated by Tapper — is not something Sorkin got wrong. It’s something Tapper didn’t get right.

2 thoughts on “ABC’s Jake Tapper takes on The Newsroom

  1. Pingback: Journalism done right, and writing done wrong | the first casualty

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