Deconstructing the Jeff Daniels “Newsroom” Rant

Written By: Paul Toth - Apr• 07•14

In the pilot of HBO’s The Newsroom, Will McAvoy—a character played by Jeff Daniels—embarks a wide-ranging rant. The monologue is triggered by a doe eyed twenty-something’s assumption that America is the greatest country in the world. McAvoy tears into her in front of a packed lecture hall, making it clear that he considers her a naïve idiot whose adherence to jingoist patriotism is emblematic of the American public as a whole, who prefer to spout kneejerk feel-good sound bites rather than of embark on critical examination of their homeland’s faults.

The monologue is significant in that it introduces the viewer to several aspects of McAvoy’s persona, and because the furor raised by his rant makes it one of the key events defining the show’s overarching milieu. In my opinion, most of the claims made by McAvoy are either poorly reasoned or provably wrong, and I’ll be taking a look at them one by one.

Why Bother?

Who cares whether or not some tirade by a fictional character makes sense?

Glad you asked. I suppose most people don’t care, but for those of us interested in writing as a craft, I think there are lessons to be learned. And the Daniels rant is of particular interest to me—and others, perhaps—because it’s an example of a particularly successful, talented pro (Alan Sorkin, who created the series) diving down a rabbit hole and bringing back a goodly pile of bunny turds. To my mind, the fact that someone like Sorkin can fall victim to the sort of fuzzy thinking that pollutes the Daniels monologue makes the scene that includes it a cautionary tale. If Sorkin can screw up in this manner, so can anyone who writes professionally, or aspires to do so.

Says Who?

Even if McAvoy is wrong, who’s to say that constitutes bad writing? Characters are wrong about things all the time, just like real people. There’s no reason for characters to be right about everything.

Good point! It often makes sense for a character to be irrational or express poorly supported opinions.

In this case, however, it doesn’t make sense, and the monologue is so blatantly at odds with the way McAvoy is otherwise portrayed that it serves to water down the character. McAvoy becomes less believable, less human, and less vivid. It weakens the character, and thereby weakens the show. And it’s not just the rant per se that’s problematic, it’s the reaction of other characters to the rant, which is as thoroughly inconsistent with their personalities as the rant itself is with McAvoy’s.

Don’t Be Hatin’

I’m actually a fan of Sorkin’s. While I never cared for The West Wing, I thought Sports Night was a great little show, and consider his Oscar for The Social Network to be well-deserved. I even liked Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and was befuddled when it was cancelled while the similar and vastly inferior 30 Rock soldiered on. But a harvest as vast as Sorkin’s is bound to contain a few wormy turnips, and I contend that the monologue in question is one of them.

Apparently Jeff Daniels contributed a lot of the material in the monologue, so I’d like to make it clear I’m not a Daniels hater either. I think most of his work is excellent, and believe he was pretty much born to play McAvoy.

For the most impart, I enjoy The Newsroom. It has its faults, some of which plague Sorkin’s work in general and others which are specific to the series, but I consider it a consistently outstanding show in most respects. If you haven’t tried it, I urge you to do so.

Who is Will McAvoy?

Since I’m claiming McAvoy’s rant is grossly out of character, it’s important to understand what kind of guy he is. He’s a complex character, so I’m going to stick to those facets relevant to my thesis:

  1. He’s well-informed. The character is a long-time news anchor, and is portrayed as being a dedicated journalist with in-depth knowledge of history, politics, and current affairs.
  2. He’s highly intelligent. We, as viewers, know this not just because McAvoy is portrayed doing and saying intelligent things, but because of the way other characters treat him. They’re clearly very smart people who consider McAvoy to be one of the smartest among them. And while (like many of the show’s characters) he’s a complete idiot when it comes to his personal life, he’s repeatedly shown to be astute and perceptive when it comes to appraising world at large.
  3. He’s a big fan of reason. When the character explain his take on an issue, or argues in favor of a particular course of action, there’s almost always a logical thread binding his beliefs to a well-understood set of facts.

Deconstruction Junction

Okay, I’ve established myself as a slanderous wretch, intent on maligning the work of my betters. Time to get on with it.

Assertion #1: “It’s not the greatest country in the world…”

McAvoy is responding to the question: “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?” He’s beginning to get his rant on.

His response, that America isn’t the greatest in the world, is perfectly reasonable. Remember, though, McAvoy is all about facts and reason, so if he’s going to make a sweeping statement like this, we should expect him to back it up. And, as we’ll see, McAvoy’s attempts to do so fail miserably—both in terms of drawing on supporting facts and stitching together underlying assertions in a coherent manner.

For starters, naysaying anyone’s claim that country X is the greatest in the world seems like a tricky affair. If someone told me they thought Belgium (or Zimbabwe, or Chile, or whatever) was the greatest country in the world, I’d politely ask them why and mull the response. Perhaps the fellow touting Belgium (we’ll call him Zack) thinks that linguistic diversity and great chocolate are the measures of greatness. So be it. I might have different criteria than Zack, and come to a different conclusion, but I’m certainly not going to crap all over his opinion, because greatness is in the eye of the beholder. Who’s to say chocolate and languages aren’t the proper criteria?

As we’ll see, though, crapping all over people—in particular, the young lady who asked the question—is exactly what McAvoy does here:

“You, sorority girl, just in case you ever wander into a voting booth one day, there’s some things you should know. One of them is, there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world.”

McAvoy doesn’t just declare a difference of opinion, he says the young lady is flat-out wrong, and implies she’s foolish for believing as she does. Remember, McAvoy is all about facts and reason, so if he’s going to claim someone is full of it, he ought to be able to back that up. If he doesn’t, then its patently out of character for him to make the claim in the first case.

So, how would someone go about demonstrating that when Zack makes Belgium #1 on his “greatest countries” list, he’s barking up the wrong tree? I can think of two ways. First, you could point out that some other country is a better fit for the criteria Zack’s established. You could also declare that some other country is best (any will do). If a country other than Belgium is the greatest, then clearly Belgium cannot be the greatest.

McAvoy never does this. He never tells the audience which country is the greatest, and he never calls out what criteria a country ought to meet to be considered great. He just barks a list of complaints—things he doesn’t like about the direction the U.S. has taken. Since every nation has flaws, the greatest nation (whichever one it is) will naturally have flaws, and pointing them out does nothing to support McAvoy’s claim regarding America’s greatness or lack thereof.

 

Assertion #2: “We lead the world in only three categories. Number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults to believe angels are real, and defense spending.”

False. The U.S. leads the world in a number of categories. Here are a few:

  1. GDP. The U.S. has the largest economy in the world.
  2. Military capability. As McAvoy points out, the U.S. spends a lot of money on its military. What he fails to mention is that those dollars haven’t been completed wasted, and that the country does possess considerable military might. One can easily argue that this isn’t a measure of a nation’s greatness (it’s obviously not on Zack’s list of criteria) but this isn’t what McAvoy is claiming. He’s asserting that the U.S. is only number one in those categories he lists. Now, if Sorkin wanted us to look upon McAvoy as a moron, it would be fine for the character to make a claim that’s so obviously false, but this doesn’t seem to be the intent.
  3. Nobel laureates. The U.S. has the greatest number of Nobel laureates by far (350). Only a few countries mage to break the 100 mark.
  4. Number of patents. At nearly 160,000, the U.S. leads the pack. It has almost as many patents as the #2 and #3 countries (Japan and Germany) put together.
  5. Number of immigrants. At 46 million, the U.S. has almost four times as many foreign-born citizens as the next country on the list (Russia).
  6. Number of Olympic medals. The U.S. has twice as many (about 2700) as the runner-up (Russia).
  7. Foreign aid donations. The U.S. gives $24 billion, almost twice as much as the runner-up (the UK).

I could go on. And on. And on.

Now, you could argue that none of this stuff matters—that the measure of a nation’s greatness lies elsewhere—but this is beside the point. McAvoy, a supposedly well-informed, intelligent character is making a claim, and that claim is false. He, like Zack, might establish criteria for greatness that don’t involve economic might, scientific achievements, etc. but this simply isn’t what the character is doing.

 

Assertion #3: We No Longer Build Great Big Things

I’m paraphrasing here. McAvoy says “We used to be (great). We used to build great big things.” His next few claims are all in this vein. He’s listing things that supposedly used to be great about America, but no longer are. By “build great things,” the character seems to be referring to megaprojects like the Hoover Dam and bemoaning the fact that such accomplishments are in our collective rear window.

Except they aren’t. Not even close.

Here are a few megaprojects that have either been completed in recent decades, or are in progress:

  • The Freedom Tower
  • The Tevatron 2 TeV particle accelerator
  • The Very Large Array massive radio astronomy observatory
  • The Global Positioning System
  • The Hubble Space Telescope
  • The Alaska Way Viaduct replacement tunnel
  • Boston’s “Big Dig”
  • Birmingham’s Big City Plan
  • Tesla’s planned “gigafactory”
  • The 350,000 mirror Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station

All of these projects are huge in scope, and several of them required or led to engineering breakthroughs, scientific breakthroughs, or some mixture of the two. The notion that the U.S. no longer embraces ambitious projects that produce tangible results is just wrong.

 

Assertion #4: We No Longer Explore the Universe

This part of McAvoy’s rant is perhaps the most nonsensical. The character seems to hearkening to the day when millions of Americans spent the evening glued to their TV sets, watching U.S. astronauts set foot on terrain never before traversed by humankind. While it’s true that those days are gone—for the time being, anyway—the country continues to explore the universe as aggressively as ever. A few examples:

  • Mars. Of the nine successful Mars missions this century, seven were launched by the U.S. Several are ongoing.
  • The Solar System. The NEAR spacecraft explored the asteroid Eros. The Cassini-Huygens mission has performed over one hundred flybys of Saturn and Titan, returning specular photos and massive amounts of data.
  • The Universe. The James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor, will be able to observe the formation of the first galaxies.

The fact that the general public knows little of these accomplishments makes them no less remarkable, and the notion of McAvoy being ignorant of them—given the manner in which the character is otherwise portrayed—simply makes no sense. He’s behaving like an ignoramus, which is insulting to the viewer, insulting to the character, or both.

 

Assertion #5: We No Longer Make Extraordinary Technological Advances

 

McAvoy’s specific wording is “ungodly” technological advances, but you get the idea. And while quite a few countries are now capable of making technological leaps (a good thing, to be sure) it’s not like the U.S. is standing still. Anyone who’s been to Silicon Valley recently can tell you the region is booming—and not just in terms of real estate prices. It’s as dynamic today as it was back in the nineties, when I lived and worked there, and some of the world’s most famous tech companies were born.

In the last twenty years, American companies have taken the lead in e-commerce (Amazon, eBay), online advertising and search (Google), and social media (Facebook, Twitter). In the Enterprise space—computing systems for large companies—U.S. companies lead the way in esoteric but critical areas like virtualization, SOA, and cloud computing. A U.S. company revolutionized both the smartphone and tablet categories (Apple). All three popular smartphone operating systems were invented, and continue to be honed, in this country.

IT isn’t the only domain in which American tech companies continue to make major strides. In the world of aerospace, the Boeing 787 and the Lockheed f-35 both faced (and continue to face) major teething problems, but this does nothing to change the fact that both platforms are technological tour-de-forces. Talk all you want about the gross mismanagement of the f-35 program—I’ll probably agree with you on most counts—the tech is extraordinary.

A few other areas in which U.S. companies have made huge technological strides: 3-D printing (Stratasys), private space exploration (Bigelow, Orbital Sciences, Virgin Galactic, XCOR, SpaceX), and automotive engineering (Tesla).

Assertion #6: We No longer Cure Diseases

In recent years, U.S. pharma has created treatments for Hepatitis-C that are so effective they essentially cure the. And while the costs can be prohibitive, this does nothing to change the fact that major breakthroughs have been made. I could present additional examples, only one is required to demonstrate that McAvoy’s implicit assertion is wrong.

The Aftermath

McAvoy is generally portrayed as smart and well-informed, and so are his co-workers. The various producers, assistants, and anchors are—almost without exception—nearly as savvy as he is. And this is what makes their reaction to The Rant so perplexing. He’s chastised, but only for being a big meanie and telling America the hard truths it doesn’t want to hear. No one bothers to point out that he’s—you know—wrong.

It would have been great to see at least one character come up McAvoy and challenge him on the facts. This happens in many other episodes, for many other reasons, but in the pilot McAvoy gets a pass. This is not at all in keeping with the bold, intelligent nature of at least a half dozen characters on the show, and the lack of such a confrontation gives the episode a trite, phony feel.

In Conclusion

Toward the end of his diatribe, McAvoy compares modern America to the country as it existed in some golden age of yore. He says stuff like, “We weren’t scared so easily,” presumably in reference to the outsize influence of 9/11 on public policy.

Not scared so easily? Really? Has he forgotten about the Red Scare, the Domino Theory, Reefer Madness, Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast imbroglio, and World War II Japanese-American internment camps?

Please.

“The rant” led me to believe that Jeff Daniels was playing an egotistical moron who had somehow weaseled his way into a major news organizations (not that major news organizations don’t habitually employ such individuals). Not quite sure whether I wanted to watch such a series, I considered knocking it off my DVR’s to-do list—which would have been a shame, because the show is so good, in so many ways.

As a writer, my takeaway is this: It’s easy to have a passionate, well-acted character say things that have the feel of rightness about them, but statements that feel true don’t necessarily hold up under scrutiny. Sometimes it doesn’t matter, because characters are allowed to be wrong, but sometimes it’s important to have a character say things that actually make sense. I try to make sure I get my work in front of as many beta readers as possible, and review their input with the dangers of “truthiness” (to crib from Steven Colbert) in mind.

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