Hacking the Mind (Not the Emails) of Aaron Sorkin

Last night was the end of our beloved The Newsroom, the great HBO drama which explored the lives of news writers who never have to write news. The series finale happened to come on the same day that Aaron Sorkin wrote an op-ed about the media’s collusion with criminal hackers in The Sony Hack, which Sorkin […]

Last night was the end of our beloved The Newsroom, the great HBO drama which explored the lives of news writers who never have to write news. The series finale happened to come on the same day that Aaron Sorkin wrote an op-ed about the media’s collusion with criminal hackers in The Sony Hack, which Sorkin does not like because it is not newsworthy. In our final act of fearless journalism about journalism-based cable dramas, we discuss Sorkin’s ethics, his op-ed, and the failures of The Newsroom.

Natasha Vargas-Cooper: Let’s first begin with the real life journalism issue Aaron Sorkin directly addressed on Sunday after his emails — in all their snippy glory — were revealed in The Sony Hack. Sorkin said he is shocked, SHOCKED that journalists would use data unearthed by criminal hackers. Micah, do you consider yourself a hacker or a criminal or both? Which do you list on your J-date profile?

Micah Lee: I am a hacker. I try not to break laws.  I don’t have a J-date profile for privacy reasons.

Peter Maass: Daniel Ellsberg was a hacker/criminal, according to the government at the time. Sources often have mixed motives, not all angels, some are disgruntled. That’s fine by me. It’s the leak not the source that’s most important. The amazing ICIJ series on banking and tax avoidance were based on leak/s of confidential corporate documents. If someone leaked Exxon’s emails, or Halliburton’s, we shouldn’t take a look?

NVC: What if those emails were just squabbling between an executive and his wife? Just playing Sorkin here, *polishes Oscar* *flips flirty blonde hair.*

PM: But the Sony emails are more than that, right? Possibly racist chatter between senior executives? Gender imbalance in pay?

ML: Weren’t something like 50% of the breaking news stories in 2011 based on the documents Chelsea Manning leaked to Wikileaks?

PM: Sony is a powerful corporation, and like other corporations, we can’t FOIA them. We live in an era when corporations seem to have more power than ever, and are less transparent than ever. The leak of Sony emails has already turned up interesting stuff, there could be more. Let’s not condemn a leak before we know what it’s revealed, okay?

ML: The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an FBI field office in 1971 and (illegally) stole a bunch of documents. It ultimately led to exposing COINTELPRO and the formation of the Church Committee.

NVC: But there’s a privacy issue, says Sorkin. If we indulge in reading the Rudin and Pascals emails then we are violating their privacy and journalists are violating their privacy.

PM: When senior corporate executives chat about the president of the United States in what many people regard as derogatory ways, I think there’s a good argument for a public interest in that. Though I also realize that might be debated and disagreed with.

Margot Williams: The hackers should have leaked it to a RESPONSIBLE journalism organization like XXXX.

PM: And they are major donors to Obama/Democrats (Pascal, right?). So they are not just studio execs–they have their financial thumbs on the political system.

ML: Breaking into Sony and stealing massive amounts of data is definitely criminal. And making threats against peoples’ families is criminal. But now that the hackers have published all of the information online (read: they’ve already published ALL of the information) then it doesn’t make any sense for journalists not to dig through it and find stories in it.

NVC: Micah, can you tell us a little bit about where the archive exists? Like, um, is it on Dropbox?

MW: It’s in Memphis. It’s a stand-in for wherever you are right now

ML: The best I can tell, it’s mostly in a scattered series of bit torrent swarms, and there’s a sort of back-and-forth between people posting to Github, Pastebin, and Reddit with links to the torrents, plus uploading torrents to file-sharing sites, and those getting taken down almost as fast. But if you can find the torrents, you can ultimately download the data.

PM: What can you tell us about the level of sleuthiness required to actually get the docs? Easy for you, hard for others, or easy for all of us? 10 minutes of effort?

ML: Oh it’s far more than 10 minutes of effort. It’s probably more like 20 minutes of Googling, and understanding how to use bit torrent, and being able to extract encrypted RAR files.

PM: I feel like Maggie on the airplane. Please lean over and tell us more!

ML: But there’s a LOT of data, and it’s spread across a LOT of bit torrent swarms, so it takes quite a bit of time and it’s quite disorganized.

NVC: I feel like the overarching theme of The Newsroom and of Sorkin’s work in general is a defense of elite institutions. That are filled with smart and noble people or, if you will, A Few Good Men.

MW: Whose religion is decency.

NVC:  Right, I watched “A Few Good Men” on the plane ride over here because if I don’t consume Sorkin every two hours I get dizzy and faint. Anywhoodle: it was the same play of ideas, that there is a code or an ethic that people in institutions live by. Be they lawyers or Marines or judges or journalists. But it feels as though Sorkin has never met a Marine or even a real working journalist but he likes their ideals. And that becomes the lens through which he judges everyone’s character, by how well they live up to the code or how they bastardize it.

PM: Natasha, I didn’t know until you mentioned it–one of the more well-known lines of movie-dom in the past quarter century, “You can’t handle the truth,” was written by Sorkin. Is this what he’s trying to tell us about journalism, too–that we can’t take the truth that everything is shit except what’s produced in a cable news show by men and women in bow ties?


NVC: Here’s Sorkin’s hot take on journalism from 2011: “The upside of web-based journalism is that everybody gets a chance. The downside is that everybody gets a chance. I can’t really get on board with the demonization of credentials with phrases like ‘the media elite’ (just like doctors, airline pilots and presidents, I prefer reporters and commentators to be elite) and the glamorization of inexperience with phrases like ‘citizen journalist.”

ML: Will told three-years-ago Neal: “It’s a website, it doesn’t have integrity.” But then Neal comes back and is all like “I’m taking down our website so I can make one that has integrity!”

MW: Neal, the only person of color and he doesn’t get a girlfriend.

PM: The problem isn’t that Sorkin doesn’t like journalists. It’s that he doesn’t understand journalism.

MW:  No one is ever WRITING on his show.

PM: Tables turned, I don’t think Sorkin can handle the truth of how problematic old-school journalism was (I know, I was part of it), and how strong much of digital journalism is (though yes, there are the Carnivores we have to deal with today).

NVC: Tell us more, Peter, about the Long Ago.

PM: First I need to put another log on the fire, children.

NVC: *hands out ration cards for flour*

MW: Back when we had to use a PICA POLE and the union typesetters wouldn’t allow us to touch the pages.

PM: There was a book written by a Newsweek writer in the 1980s that was called “Anybody Here Been Raped and Speaks English?” Offensive title and all, but it got at a huge problem of how the world was covered–by a lot of guys who didn’t speak the language of the country they were in, and had perhaps just landed there. That was troubling. And they all stayed at the same hotel, got together for dinner at night. Don’t get me wrong, lots of great and brave journalism was committed, but lots of shallow stuff with insufficient divergence of viewpoints presented to the reading or viewing public, too.

MW: The NYT trick of flying reporters to touch ground at an airport so they could insert a dateline.

PM: True story: when I was a twenty-something stringer for the Times in Brussels, I raced 90 minutes out of town with Judy Miller (Paris correspondent at the time) so she could get a dateline she needed. We spent about 15 minutes there, she had to catch a plane.

MW: And Bob Woodward — did he know all this time about the secret prisons & torture because his friends in the White House told him? My friend and I ex-Post were wondering last night.

ML: I don’t think Sorkin got the nerd thing down very accurately, either. Like, I find it very unlikely that Bree, the silly social media editor, sits there brainstorming and dictating about overrated movies for publishing on their integrity-less blog. And the Matrix is certainly not overrated.

NVC: More from Sorkin on what he reads and believes:  “When I read the Times or the Wall Street Journal, I know those reporters had to have cleared a very high bar to get the jobs they have. When I read a blog piece from ‘BobsThoughts.com,’ Bob could be the most qualified guy in the world but I have no way of knowing that because all he had to do to get his job was set up a website–something my 10-year-old daughter has been doing for 3 years. When The Times or The Journal get it wrong they have a lot of people to answer to. When Bob gets it wrong there are no immediate consequences for Bob except his wrong information is in the water supply now so there are consequences for us.”

PM: Aaron Sorkin, I’d like to introduce you to Rolling Stone.

NVC: Was the Newsroom a success or a failure?

PM: Sorkin, when he gets it right, IS brilliant. He just needs an editor (very old school of me, but I think Sorkin would appreciate). As a TV writer, he’s like a blogger without an editor. He has so much power that noone can force him to not write a scene or character in a particular way (e.g. the rape storyline of last week).

MW: He showed what the consequences are for journalists exercising our First Amendment rights. And the strength of journalists’ and news organizations’ convictions about that.

ML: I think Sorkin gets a B- on the security stuff. I mean it was pretty far from reality, but he did give props to air gapped computers, and used terms like AES. Maybe a C+?

MW: Is he a constructionist or a constitutionalist? I always get confused, just a girl who doesn’t know how to use birth control or pregnancy tests technology.

PM: The problem with the series is that all the characters have ethics, they all have romances (except Neal), they all have speeches. They are all Sorkin. And this is where this series was similar to the West Wing–weren’t all those characters noble and brave and not sleazy? Sorkin needs to spend some quality time with Lena Dunham.


ML: I mean, I was thoroughly entertained for a lot of it, and got excited about the beginning of the season and the leak story, but then it all kind of went to shit


ML: Her suicide was for nothing.

MW: Agree that it fell apart. The leak was meant to be arc of the season but they dropped it. Why?

NVC: People needed boyfriends, Margot.

PM: Yes, it fell apart about halfway through the season, which (not coincidentally?) is when Homeland started kicking ass. But I think this series can redeem itself, or Sorkin can redeem himself, by realizing his weaknesses and getting over them. The dude has a certain kind of rare writing talent but he’s got huge blind spots. I want Sorkin 2.0.

MW: I think Don is depressed and maybe suicidal.

PM: A moment of silence for the bowtie, please.

Top image: HBO

Join The Conversation