Aaron Sorkin gave America a reality check last month with the release of the critically acclaimed HBO drama The Newsroom.
A clip from the show, which Sorkin wrote and produced, got more than two million hits on YouTube in a little over three weeks. You can see the clip at the bottom of this post. In it, a news anchor (played by the actor Jeff Daniels) is taking part in a panel discussion when he’s asked, “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?” His answer: “It’s not the greatest country in the world.”
That stuns the audience, which is the whole point.
Daniels then goes on a rant — a pretty good one. Along the way, he points out that we’re currently seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, 4th in the productivity of the labor force, 4th in exports, and so on. I don’t know where Sorkin got any of those figures, but they sound about right. Even if the numbers aren’t accurate, the rant is: We are in a sad, sad state as a country right now … compared to where we imagine ourselves to be.
Daniels then makes The Newsroom’s big point: America’s not number one … but “it sure used to be.”
Is he right? Maybe so. I think we all owe Aaron Sorkin a big thank-you for that moment. So this is me, saying thank you … but I also have to question the way Sorkin chose to end his scene.
He has Daniels’ character wrap up that amazing rant by saying that the big reason the USA stopped being great is that we no longer place enough value, as a society, on good journalism. That’s where this great scene lands: We don’t have greatness in America because we don’t have Walter Cronkite anymore.
With all respect, I don’t buy it.
If I had to pick one reason for our biggest problems, that reason wouldn’t have anything to do with journalists. It would be that, as a country, we have let our educational system fall apart. Most of us are too damn distracted to stop and think about how badly our own kids are being taught. Most of us have lost touch with how important an issue education is to our national survival. Most of us don’t connect emotionally with what our educational system’s failure costs a single kid, or the nation as a whole.
I didn’t used to believe this, but I now think our educational system needs to be fixed starting at the Federal level, by setting up an Education Czar. There should be mandatory national benchmark standards, and the states should be free to advance the level of education beyond those benchmarks … but they should never, ever be allowed to drop below those benchmarks. That’s how serious this is.
That’s how I would have ended that speech.
It’s my blog, but your voice. I want to hear you.
This video contains explicit language: