Cardella: In search of Don Quixote

THE NEWSROOM (HBO) is one of my favorite TV series ever. Recently, I watched it again. I love the work of Aaron Sorkin and Jeff Daniels. Sorkin, who created and wrote THE WEST WING and SPORTS NIGHT, calls his work “romantic idealism.” Some critics call it “corny.” There’s nothing wrong with corny done well, especially during these stressful times. And THE NEWSROOM does it very, very well.

The series unfolds over a three-year span beginning in 2012. The time of Barack Obama. What we found disturbing back then seems a bit quaint today. No Donald Trump. No impeachment hearings. No coronavirus pandemic. It was easier to believe in romantic idealism back then. It’s fun to see the fictional TV staff of cable network ACN argue ethics and standards. Watch the tension between ratings and profits play out.

The cast is marvelous. Sam Waterston is terrific as Charlie Skinner — who runs the network’s news department. Skinner’s the one who fights to keep what might be called the “old school” approach to news coverage. In this context, the “old school” approach meant covering the news as Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow once did. Back when the quality of TV news was not defined only by the number of viewers they attracted. Old school. Charlie Skinner is the last line of defense against the encroachment by social media. Against the era of the citizen “reporter” — where today the importance of news is gauged by popularity, not seriousness. Where the name of Kim Kardashian’s baby, and not the bombing of a train in Madrid, gains the most time on a news segment. Where facts are not confirmed by a second or third source because facts are not as important as the number of “likes.” These are the kinds of things Charlie Skinner battled against. From our present-day perspective, we know which side decisively won the news battle.

THE NEWSROOM envisioned the corruption of news as being TMZ or ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT or the person behind the network anchor desk being David Muir, not David Brinkley. Or Fox News, an entire network dedicated to right wing (read: pro-Trump) propaganda. The Left has its own network, MSNBC – not as extreme as Fox, more factual — but clearly partisan. Places where viewers can get “their” news filtered through the prism of their own biases. Safe havens where viewers are rarely exposed to opposing viewpoints. If there’s a news story we don’t agree with, we call it “Fake news.” Facts are no longer facts unless they agree with our pre-formed views. Does a Charlie Skinner type even exist in today’s reality?

After one of Skinner’s epic fights with members of his staff (SPOILER ALERT), he has a fatal heart attack. In delivering an impromptu eulogy, Will McAvoy/Jeff Daniels compares Skinner to literature’s Don Quixote. Why? Because, McAvoy explains, both fought for the restoration of civility.

“The restoration of civility.” I love the idea of it. An idea that resonates more with me today during the terrible age we live in. I realize that yearning for civility in public life might seem trivial at a time when we are being ravaged by a virulent virus. But as tragic and impactful as COVID-19, the coronavirus, is at the moment, it will eventually leave. And we will still be left with a partisan coarseness that defines contemporary American life, a coarseness that deadens our souls. An evil as deadly in its own way as any virus.

Trump didn’t invent incivility. It was part of our lives before him. It will be here after he’s gone. Special Counsel Joseph Welch once asked this question to Senator Joseph McCarthy — “Sir, have you no sense of decency?” If Donald Trump were asked that same question today, he wouldn’t even understand the question. And his mob would scream, “Lock him (the judge) up!,” proudly enshrining incivility as a natural virtue. The norm. Verbal cruelty that knows no bounds. Trump perpetuates the practice of verbal cruelty even now, when the nation cries out for unity and generosity of heart.

Expecting Trump’s followers to abandon support for him over anything he says or does is the present-day equivalent of tilting at windmills. And the more we respond in kind, the more debased our public dialogue. Michelle Obama was not wrong when she said, “When they go low, we go high.” She wasn’t simply being high-minded or naïve. Her statement might even be considered good political strategy. Answering incivility with incivility leads to moral equivalence. Anyway, no one’s quite as good at verbal cruelty as Donald Trump.

We need our own Don Quixote. Where will we find him or her? Joe Biden is the presumptive nominee of the Democrats. You may disagree with Biden on some things. Maybe many things. But his history is that he is not uncivil. John Kasich is proof that one political party doesn’t have exclusivity to decency. We don’t have to look toward politicians to uplift us. Michelle Obama has already been mentioned. Dr. Anthony Fauci comes to mind here. So does columnist Peggy Noonan.

I’m reminded of Gerald Ford, who became president when Richard Nixon was forced to resign. Ford is not considered one of our great presidents. He was defeated when he ran to become elected in his own right. He was loudly criticized for pardoning Nixon. But this very decent man helped unify the country at a dire moment in our history.

We would do well to look to Ford’s example if we wish to restore a divided America. America hungers for a better time. We are a nation that needs to find civility before we can heal. We need to find our Don Quixote.

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