Newsroom episode laden with revenge

I wasn't in America on the evening Osama bin Laden was killed. I have no real sense of what it must have been like to see almost every major television network interrupt its normal Sunday evening programming to broadcast Barack Obama's announcement delivering the news.

I can only imagine it must have been one of those eerily epic moments when, in the relative silence of a lone voice speaking, you become aware that just about every set of eyeballs in the country is looking at the same thing, struggling to come to grips with the full force of the message at the same time.

It is with this announcement, in all its accompanying silence, that Aaron Sorkin ends this week's episode of drama series The Newsroom. As the credits roll under the President's voice, the genius of this production technique becomes clear, for it reveals the moment's inherent drama; a drama only diminished by any embellishment. Sorkin allows Obama's words, and thus the event he's describing, to reverberate.

That reverberation has a meaning obvious to Americans, but that is thrown into sharp relief for the rest of us by the events that lead up to this moment in Sorkin's constructed universe.

Yes, there's the usual treatment of ethical journalistic dilemmas – do you break news of this magnitude ahead of the competition when you're only 95 per cent sure of its accuracy? – but there are better episodes of The Newsroom for exploring that sort of terrain.

This episode isn't really about broadcast journalism at all. It's about America's relationship with bin Laden and the September 11 attacks. It's an artefact of our age that helps us define September 11 as a social, cultural and psychological landmark.

And if Sorkin's world is as accurate on that score as I think it is, the take-home message is this: that for Americans, or at least the American mainstream reflected here, September 11 was deeply personal. These characters are scarcely interested in bin Laden's death as some kind of strategic gain. They barely discuss anything that approximates the consequences of bin Laden's killing. But they very clearly exude a spirit of revenge finally being secured.

The newsroom cheers raucously when the news editor announces the news; news anchors jostle for the right to share the triumph with the American people in a manner that seems about more than professional ego; a peripheral character whose father was killed in the Twin Towers withdraws from the celebrations feeling hollow rather than elated, but even she agrees this is a moment for festivity.

And in perhaps the episode's cheesiest moment of patriotic triumph, a producer trapped frustratingly on a United Airlines plane stalled on the tarmac while his colleagues enjoy the exhilaration of going to air, looks the captain in the eye, then fixes on his badges and stripes, and declares solemnly that "our armed forces killed Osama bin Laden for you tonight".

Sure, United pilots must have a special relationship to September 11, but the sense here is very much that they did it for all of us. In the process bin Laden is revealed as something more than a political foe.

Indeed, he's not political at all. He's just evil. A bully who targeted each of us individually. He has no politics, no cause, no existence beyond hatred and violence. In this way, his terrorism is itself stripped of any political content. Which is all very well until you consider that terrorism is, by its very definition, political. That's what makes it different from other forms of violence.

This is not a deliberate process. One sight gag aside, Sorkin doesn't employ the explicit good-versus-evil terms that, say, George W. Bush did. There's no need. It's simply assumed. It's not in the content of the script because it's in the underlying grammar of American public culture. The Newsroom's treatment is an artefact because it does nothing more than faithfully reproduce the mythology of bin Laden that prevails amongst its audience.

That is to say, Sorkin treats bin Laden as an icon. Almost in the religious sense. As the show's star anchor Will McAvoy takes to the air to break the story, the production staff rise to their feet and look on in solemn reverence. Hereabouts it is clear this is not a news broadcast. It's a rite. A sacrament.

"For the first time in almost three decades the world has no reason to fear Osama bin Laden," begins McAvoy's eloquent monologue. It's powerful. It's moving. It's also wrong.

Bin Laden remains potent in death. He is more powerful as a symbol than a field commander, and as such lives longer than himself. That's the nature of icons.

The Newsroom's final, unintended irony is that those who treat him as such fail to recognise what that means.

The Newsroom airs on SoHo on Foxtel.

Waleed Aly hosts the Drive Program on Radio National and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University.

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop