Breaking the news

Live cross … Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer in <em>The Newsroom</em>.
Live cross … Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer in The Newsroom.

If you've seen enough of Aaron Sorkin's film and television work, you know that when he prefaces his remarks on a subject by saying that he has no background or education in it, isn't a pundit and doesn't have fully formed ideas about it, he is winding up to deliver an opinionated speech on that very matter.

One of those topics is journalism. ''The commoditisation of news has created an environment in which we're told that certain things are important that simply aren't,'' he says from the Hollywood studio that was his second home while he worked on his new HBO series, The Newsroom.

From his dimly lit and sumptuously appointed office, furnished not with journalism degrees but six Emmy Awards from his tenure on The West Wing and his Academy Award for writing The Social Network, Sorkin recites the sins of the news-gathering business, whether trumpeting ''what happened last night on Dancing with the Stars or, more tragically and much more harmful, turning the Casey Anthony trial into a reality show, which just makes us meaner and dumber''.

Believing that a crucial institution has lost direction, Sorkin has responded the only way he knows how: by creating a TV show about it.

The Newsroom, his first new series in nearly six years, allows him once again to ply his signature style - brainy, verbose, idealistic - on a weekly, hour-long basis and to right wrongs big and small. But it also embodies all the risks inherent in his wilfully highbrow approach and polarising subject matter, and it illustrates how a brand-name writer known for his prolific output can be his own greatest obstacle.

In the opening episode of The Newsroom, a cable news anchor named Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels), known for his down-the-middle broadcasts, suffers a crisis of conscience and unleashes a frustrated tirade on an audience of college students.

After a corporate-ordered recuperation, McAvoy returns to work inspired to do better and, with a producing team that includes an old flame (Emily Mortimer) and some novices (such as Alison Pill, John Gallagher jnr, Olivia Munn and Dev Patel), he sets out to deliver a news program that demands accountability and doesn't hesitate to express opinions or call out lies.

Just as The West Wing glamorised the American presidency, Sorkin, 51, understands that The Newsroom offers a romanticised depiction of a world he does not inhabit.

''I just thought it would be fun to write about a hyper-competent group of people,'' he says. ''And I think that nowadays the news is held in at least as much contempt as our leaders in government.''

Sorkin visited real-world cable news shows and was embedded with a current affairs program during the BP oil spill in 2010 when he realised he could structure episodes around events of the recent past. (That disaster plays a prominent role in the pilot.)

HBO built a replica of a TV newsroom, with glass-walled offices, a studio and a control room - all before a full-series order had been given. For the actors, filming The Newsroom was a crash course in Sorkin-ese: dialogue delivered in pages-long bursts, at maximum speed or volume, and sometimes without the benefit of a character biography, which the author is filling in on the fly.

Mortimer, who plays a hard-charging producer recently returned from Afghanistan, says it was like ''getting inducted into this world of everything being so fast and there not being time to ask a question about what happened three years before, let alone what's happening right now in the scene''.

Sorkin says his famous work ethic will not cause a repeat of a notorious 2001 incident, when The West Wing was at full boil and he was arrested in possession of several illegal drugs - his strongest vice these days is cigarettes - and that he is unlikely to walk away from The Newsroom as he did after four seasons on The West Wing.

''Whether it's this show or a movie or play, I'm really just an on-off switch,'' Sorkin says.

''If writing is going well, I'm happy. If writing isn't going well, there is nothing that is going to make me happy.'' (Except, he says, his 11-year-old daughter, Roxy.)

Sorkin's switch is very much stuck in the ''on'' position these days. He recently signed on to write a screenplay adapted from Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs and he is collaborating with Stephen Schwartz on a musical about Houdini. He has also optioned Andrew Young's book The Politician, about the downfall of John Edwards, for a possible film and is contemplating a play about the Chicago Seven trial. ''When I pass on something, it's gut-wrenching for me,'' Sorkin says.

The Newsroom begins at 8.30pm tomorrow on Foxtel's SoHo channel.

The New York Times

This story Breaking the news first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.