America is in deep trouble -- economic, political, cultural, moral. Yet few public figures are speaking honestly to us about our fallen state, much less pointing the way upward.
Leave it to a fictional character to do the job -- brilliantly.
In the opening sequence of the new HBO series The Newsroom, a world-beaten (as opposed to world-beating) TV news anchor finds himself on a journalism panel, seated between -- in a reflection of today's stark partisan divide -- a bleeding-heart liberal and a bombastic conservative.
When a student in the audience asks, "Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?", initially the anchor ducks and says, "The New York Jets." Then, fantasizing a woman in the audience holding up cue cards responding to the question that say "It isn't" followed by "But it can be" (we'll learn she's his former executive producer and lover), and forced by the moderator who demands a "human moment" from him, the anchor snaps, "America isn't the greatest country, Professor," and goes on to deliver a speech, a cry from the heart, about why.
After ticking off the metrics of decline ("We're seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math... forty-ninth in life expectancy," etc.), the anchor gets to the heart of the matter -- the moral heart -- which heart bears quoting in full:
We stood up for what was right, we fought for moral reasons, we passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured disease, and we cultivated the world's greatest artists and the world's greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence, we didn't belittle it, it didn't make us feel inferior. We didn't identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn't scare so easy.
Wrapping up but running out of steam, the anchor reverts to his newsman role and, in a nod to Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, says: "We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered." Pausing, he concludes: "First step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore." (See clip of full sequence here).
Hearing this speech, experiencing it, the viewer (or at least this viewer) can't help but think that, yes, America would be sounder, healthier, could reverse its decline and head upward, if we did things for moral and not expedient reasons, stopped beating our chest, aspired to intelligence, etc. The list resonates.
Pursuing the moral point, in Episode 2 the now-reinstated executive producer challenges the anchor, who'd just given a pass on-air to one of Sarah Palin's inanities, to be the show's "moral center." Pleading, she says flat out: "Be the integrity." Their conflict is reflected by the cue cards she held up in the opening: He's the "It isn't" and she's "But it can be" -- her through-line being moral argument.
For those of us heartsick over the moral state of things in this country, this is pure catnip. "Be the integrity" had me tearing up. In that opening speech, the anchor, played by Jeff Daniels in a skillfully calibrated performance, is himself nearly in tears at one point, the point about how once upon a time we Americans aspired to intelligence.
Not unexpectedly, many reviews have castigated the show for its braininess, its moral rectitude, its righteous objective of "speaking truth to stupid" (here, here, and here). Several call the opening speech a "rant" and the series' creator, Aaron Sorkin, a "romantic" and "idealist" (not as a compliment). In its depiction of news gathering, TV newsman Jake Tapper basically calls The Newsroom a fantasy. The New Yorker's TV critic complains that the America evoked in the opening speech never existed (a critique later disputed by one of the magazine's movie critics). True, perhaps that America never did exist in all its actuality, but those ideals did, and a nation's ideals say everything about that nation.
What's inspiring to me is that this series, at least in its opening episodes, comes with serious purpose: It both acknowledges America's fallen state, and the fallen state of the news media, and it seeks to work on repair -- moral repair -- rather than traffic in more irony, decadence, or (a current "fave" theme) vampires. Moreover, it's notable that this repair operation comes out of "ultra-liberal," "America-hating" Hollywood. (First step toward redemption is recognizing your own excess.) It's all trademark Aaron Sorkin: intelligent argument about the rightness and wrongness of things, the kind of argument that propelled his excellent earlier series, The West Wing.
In this series, with this opening speech, Sorkin seems to say our fallen state is the result of liberal excess, conservative bombast, and the cacophonous brawling flowing therefrom. Presumably the series, which has just been renewed for a second season, will examine how the news media and, more grandly, America itself might get a grip and retrieve its former greatness.
Retrieving America's greatness: Finally, a fit dramatic subject. Irony, decadence, and vampires haven't gotten us there, let's see what intelligence and moral fire can do. I will stay tuned to the "romantic idealist": In truth he's a sober and penetrating realist who understands that America is itself founded on ideals and that their repair could not only make compelling drama but, more importantly, save the nation.
Carla Seaquist, a playwright, is author of "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks," included in the forthcoming volume "Two Plays of Life and Death," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal." Also a commentator, she is author of a book titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character."