The series begins with McAvoy’s conversion from cynical hack to truth-telling idealist. We first meet him as part of a Northwestern University panel where he’s pilloried for his passionless impartiality. “You’re the Jay Leno of news anchors,” he’s told. “You’re popular because you don’t offend anyone.” Further goaded by his old-school, bourbon-soaked boss at the (fictional) ACN cable network, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), and his new executive producer, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer)—with whom he has a messy romantic past—McAvoy experiences an epiphany. He goes on air and apologizes to the public for having pursued unimportant stories in pursuit of ratings. He will now only report on what is serious and real. He will dedicate himself to protecting civic virtue.
But that prompts the question: protect it from what? This is where Sorkin’s high-minded critique falls flat. 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. This is done through the oldest trick in the book for a Hollywood liberal: by having McAvoy be a “sane Republican” who looks at his party with sadness and anger.
The fact, then, that the show begins in 2010—at the height of the Tea Party’s fervor—is no accident; it’s what enables the show’s didacticism. Sorkin’s intent is to show how events of recent memory could have been covered better by the media if journalists had only had the courage. Some of Sorkin’s lessons are well-taken. We see McAvoy under pressure from his bosses to confirm, or at least repeat, the false NPR report that Representative Gabrielle Giffords had been killed. Those scenes ring true, as do others in which ratings pressures are discussed.