The Newsroom: A Fantasy Network Reality Show

Aaron Sorkin writes more fantasy than George R.R. Martin. The Newsroom is Sorkin’s latest. I watch SF and fantasy for entertainment first and if I get some some insights into human nature and into a different world that’s a bonus.  The season three opener of The Newsroom was useful in both these ways and also gave me some ideas for media activism.

These things happened in last night’s episode of The Newsroom:

  • A TV news network  learned from a major mistake made last season. They changed their behavior to maintain a higher professional standard and are trying to do better.
  • People in the news division have values and responsibilities in their lives and profession other than the bottom line. They will act on these even at the cost of their ratings or job.
  • The president of the network states that the news division’s autonomy can only be protected if they have good ratings.  Rating are not separated from quality or ethical work. Ratings equals money. If they don’t maintain high ratings they will lose autonomy.
  • It appears the news division’s recent failure impacted the parent companies’ financial projections.  The parent company is now under some kind of attack from outside entities with unknown goals.

Which of these are fantasies, which are likely real life situations? It’s tempting to say one and two are fantasies and three and four are realities. But I think they can all be realities.

Emergency “Boston Bombing” Reporting vs. Regular Reporting

 In this episode they deal with the Boston Bombing reporting and mention how Reddit members, Twitter and “Citizen Journalists” are covering the news. Of course there are digs at all including other networks, “We don’t go in based on tweets from witnesses we can’t talk to. What kind of credible news agency would do that?”  cut to Fox News.

But this is Emergency Reporting where mistakes are often made.  So they can blame the fog of breaking news, but getting it right does matter. Especially when someone’s life is put in danger because of a failure of the people working as journalists.  People might forgive some mistakes in a breaking story, but what if it’s a regular occurrence?

What kind of mechanisms are in place for people at news organizations to do the right thing? Can we help them? Get other interested third parties to help?  Can we get others to punish them for failing to do the right thing?

Who cares about Regulatory Violations and Journalism Ethical Failures?

Remember Lee Fang’s report: Who’s Paying the Pro-War Pundits?  He showed how the TV networks weren’t identifying the weapons makers who were actually paying the retired generals and pundits  on the news and discussion shows.

Depending on the situation, these failures could be violations of the FCC, FTC and SEC regulations.  They could also be violations of the networks’ own journalistic guidelines.

When the retired generals and pro-war pundits went on it wasn’t an emergency with no time to check details.  The producers and hosts failed to do their job, not only the ones in Fangs’ story, but also in 2013 based on a Public Accountability Inititive report.

Unlike the cast in The Newsroom, we have not seen any of the networks changing their behavior around their failure to identify people.  Is it because no regulatory or employment lawyers were involved? No public pressure? Is it because no revenue was threatened? Because all the cool kids are doing it? (Except for that stuck up suck up News Hour on PBS.)

When people in TV news divisions got busted in 2008 in New York Times story for using the Pentagon officials working for military contractors, the issue was one of identification AND financial conflict of interest.  The TV networks acted. They fixed the problem as they saw it by taking the financial conflict of interest out of the equation and firing retired General they were paying. They now bring new retired generals back as guests.  But the identification problem still exists.

Why did TV networks change their behavior around retired generals talking on the news in 2008 but not in 2014?  Again, we might get some ideas from The Newsroom.

In this episode you can see which types of pressures appear to take priority over others.  Some are internal to the person, some to the division, others to the company and then still others to a higher power, or for some the highest power, The Shareholders.

In a scene with the president of the company:

I want you to do the news well, but your power comes from your ratings and the autonomy of the news division comes from your power.

You are not going to be able to do the stories you want. You are not going to be able to say what you want. And frankly are not going to be able to stay on the air because my mother and I can only protect you from the board if you are making money.”

If the parent companies only see their news divisions as a profit center, like any other, then they will use the standard club, “Make money or we cut you loose.”

In the episode, Will, the ACN anchor laments. “But we did everything right!”  when they didn’t get good ratings, as if quality and ratings were tightly linked.  He thinks the news is special, that they have a responsibility to the public and viewers, not just The Shareholders.

However, as we have seen in the case of MSNBC,  a parent company will cancel a highly rated, money making show to serve another goal.

  • Were The Shareholders served by canceling the highest rated show?  The executives needed to make a case to someone for losing ad revenue when they canceled that show.
  • Did they use a larger picture revenue goal?  Did they articulate to The Shareholders that the brand image might become anti-war, and that would be a bad thing?   (MSNBC was partly owned by military contractor GE at the time.)
 The issue of which of the many pressures the ACN team are under and which they will prioritize was still in flux at the end of the episode.In the real world all these same pressures are going on at the TV networks, but assuming that it’s always about the money is incorrect.

At different times, certain groups within a company will respond to and act for reasons that aren’t always directly tied to The Bottom Line.  And, if you are clever enough, you can even give them reasons that doing the right thing is good for the bottom line.

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