Aaron Sorkin’s America, masterful take on politics and media



Jack LeBlanc

Modern television has become homogenized. TV shows and their plots are now more similar than many folks might realize. Crime dramas, medical shows and quirky family comedies dominate the lineups for a multitude of major networks. Other historically successful  programming portrays government and the media. The reflections of these institutions in our entertainment has, undoubtedly, been romanticized by writers and directors; but this does not mean that these shows provide no useful commentary regarding these instrumental societal pillars. Of all the depictions of media and government on television, the work of Aaron Sorkin stands alone. 

His writing has graced NBC and HBO with two certifiable gems in “The West Wing” and “The Newsroom.” The former is a witty political drama that tells the story of the Bartlett Administration. The latter is a riveting and heartfelt tale of a major network news team. Both shows, dramatized for public consumption, have much more to offer than a mere means of entertainment. Underneath the glimmer of show business, Sorkin’s writing provides an insightful commentary on politics, media and the government. Public attitudes regarding these societal fixtures has never been more divided—making it all the more important for us to consider Sorkin’s language. 

Though both shows are wrought with idealistic rhetoric, they are not fantastical visions of the way a White House or Newsroom operate. These shows, in many ways, represent exactly what these institutions should strive to be. In “The West Wing,” we see a White House with a deep conviction for public service and doing the most good it possibly can for the country. And in “The Newsroom,” Sorkin creates an ensemble of anchors and producers hell bent on reinvigorating the promise of the fourth estate. This is the promise of producing content that is truly unbiased and judged as important to the public. This is more important now than ever, with faith in these bodies at a seemingly all time low. 

These associations are the best case scenario for the government and media institutions, that the public more widely associates with dysfunction and dishonesty. Sorkin, as well as others hopeful citizens, share a vision of reform for these bodies. This vision manifests itself in entertainment, as a model for the kind of fundamental change our country so desperately needs. 

One of the most important themes in Sorkin’s writing is triumph in maintaining honor and authenticity. This theme spills across the pages of “The West Wing” scripts. During the seven seasons of President Bartlett and his senior staff, they were constantly confronted with difficult decisions. Sometimes, officials need to make a choice between doing the right thing versus the politically advantageous thing. Often times, as is the case in the real world, those two can be starkly different. But, in “The West Wing,” Sorkin makes his opinion heard loud and clear. The Federal Government should always do what it believes is right for the American people. The president, played by the brilliant Martin Sheen, realized that retaining power means nothing if he doesn’t stand up for what he believes is right, even if it costs him an election. And in that simple character trait, we see the essence of public service. The notion that public service is tied to our politics has long been overshadowed by the association of politics with dysfunction and partisanship. In a testament to how to combat this, “The West Wing” shows us a politics where evidence supports our beliefs and discourse is centered on really trying to solve the issues that Americans face. 

As for “The Newsroom,” the choice portrayed is not unlike the one on “The West Wing.” The corporatized media landscape in our country is a confusing one. Balancing the pursuit of maximizing profits and providing important information to the citizenry is a worrisome dilemma that these companies have. The path to achieving those ends are not always in tandem with each other. And, on “West Wing,” Sorkin shows that committing to the latter goal represents the public service that the news media is tasked with carrying out. Pursuing better ratings can taint their ability to properly inform the electorate. Distrust and criticism plague news teams across the media spectrum. A more conscious effort to put the public over profits would lead to a more wholesome perception of the institution. 

Amidst these shows, the writing favors progressive takes on the fictional but based-in-reality subject matter. I am certain that if you asked Sorkin some of the pressing questions about today’s arena of politics and media, you could find many of his answers and policy prescriptions throughout the scripts of these shows. Sorkin’s portrayal of these worlds is masterful and may be the best symbol that progressives should look to going forward, in what is shaping up to be a decidedly regressive near future in America.