News & Politics

B.J. Novak’s Character on "The Newsroom" Is a Lot Like New Republic Owner Chris Hughes

There are a lot of similarities between the HBO show and what just went down at the New Republic, and it's probably not a coincidence.

B.J. Novak on The Newsroom. Photograph courtesy of HBO.

There’s always been a lot of overlap between Journalism Twitter—sometimes pithy, but mostly navel-gazing tweets about the news industry from its practicioners—and people who watch (or hate-watch) HBO’s The Newsroom. But for the past four days, the Aaron Sorkin series’s plot about its fictional cable news channel’s new owner, a young tech billionaire played by B.J. Novak, turned startlingly realistic with the unraveling of the New Republic over owner Chris Hughes‘s plans to turn the magazine into a “vertically integrated digital media company.”

Sunday’s episode showed us life at ACN under the regime of Novak’s Lucas Pruitt, who has turned technophobic ACN into a vertically integreated digital media company now dominated by a group of recently hired bloggers who developed a celebrity-stalking app reminiscent of Gawker, circa 2007. (It also includes another unfortunately timed subplot about college-campus rape in which a news producer dismisses the word of a rape victim on the grounds her attacker was never formally charged.)

Sorkin’s reference might be hoary for the digital age, but the similarities between his villain and Hughes are easy to spot. In his first appearance, Pruitt tells network president Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) he’s “into disruption” and wants to turn ACN from a hard-news television network into a company that depends on crowd-sourcing and citizen journalism for its content. Hughes, upon buying the New Republic in 2012, invested part of his considerable Facebook fortune in building the magazine a new website, a new Penn Quarter office, and a bulked-up editorial staff to fulfill “the demand for long-form quality journalism,” he said at the time.

Just two and a half years later, though, Hughes is charting this new course. In a Washington Post op-ed today, Hughes writes that the new New Republic—which won’t come out in print again until February—will try to ape digital-native enterprises like Politico and Vox. These changes will be overseen by incoming editor Gabriel Snyder and chief executive officer Guy Vidra, who reportedly doesn’t like to read anything longer than 500 words. Vidra also announced after his September hiring that his plan was to “break shit,” a Silicon Valley refrain not unsurprising to hear from the Yahoo! News veteran. With last week’s defenestrations of editor Franklin Foer and literary editor Leon Wieseltier, followed by a staff exodus, Vidra’s pledge appears to have manifested itself.

But the onscreen disintegration of a fictional news channel aligning with the New Republic’s upheaval might not be that coincidental, considering Wieseltier is one of Sorkin’s paid consultants from the real-life journalism world. Wieseltier did not respond to an e-mail inquiry about whether Novak’s character is inspired by his dealings with Hughes or Vidra, but the timing can’t be written off. For as much as Hughes and Vidra have said they respect the New Republic’s existing brand of deep-diving, essayistic journalism, their statements in the past few days drip with tech-company jargon.

“The bottom line is it’s impossible to scale print to grow our audience in order to be successful,” Vidra told the New Republic’s remaining staff on Friday. “It means a print piece, a piece that is long-form, travels across all sorts of platforms. We have the ability and the resources to create meaningful engagement that stems from that, so if you’re creating a long-form piece you create data visualizations that go alongside with that, create video pieces that travel with it.”

For his part, Hughes has been likening the coming overhaul to a “fight” for the New Republic’s soul. “We will build, we will grow, and we will succeed,” he told his thinned-out staff on Friday via a Skype video link from New York. “It will only happen with your help. And I need it, but more importantly, this institution that’s been around for 100 fucking years needs it.”

Novak’s character is a more blatant villain who would twirl his moustache if he had any facial hair—last night’s Newsroom episode ends with him killing Charlie with a heart attack-inducing tirade—than the baby-faced Hughes. Hughes hasn’t racked up an actual body count, but he shares that pugilistic thirst for disruption.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.