What's The Value Of TV Journalism? Analysis Of Episode Two Of The Newsroom
A tweet sent by a staffer doesn't fit the network's brand image so the network president acts to protect the brand.Credit: HBO The Newsroom
November 19, 2014

There was a scene in The Newsroom's second episode where Charlie, the network president, explains to the two rich kids working on a hostile takeover that what the news division of ACN does and says is important. ACN, he explains, is like NBC and CNN, they are the face and voice of the parent corporation.

That really struck me. I liked it. Suddenly I was Fox Mulder quoting from the poster above my desk. "I want to believe."

The rich kids didn't care. If they could make more more money showing Foxy Boxing than the news, then why not?

Concurrently in the show, we see Will, The Anchor With Integrity, stand on the side of journalism, and telling the truth.

Then we see all the people and pressures that get in the way of the truth that Charlie believes in: other TV news divisions, lawyers, federal law enforcement and the people focusing on the financial bottom line.

Sorkin sets us up for conflicts and confrontations with each group. Do these issues and pressures come up in the real world? Is this really what people think, or do we just hope people think and act like this in the real world?.

While watching a gripping TV show I often feel like a passenger in the back of a cab. I feel like I have no control and no say about anything that is happening. In a cab I actually do have some control, if i speak up at the right time, am heard and the driver responds to my comments. Does the same feeling extend to watching the news? Can I have a say?

In this episode Sorkin shows us a potent way that we can have a say in the network news. He shows us what they care about, how it is pointed out to them and what they do in response.

One of the junior staffers says something about the Republicans after the Boston Marathon bombing being happy this tragedy didn't involve guns. That comment clearly doesn't match anyone's idea of "The Voice" of the network or corporate parent. The people who point out the brand mismatch are other media. They see this as news. The network has to act to right the mismatch.

Interestingly in the other media the tweet is not attributed to the junior staffer at ACN, but to the face of the news division. This is a standard way people look at corporations, attributing to a person, often the CEO, actions or statements made by others on behalf of the company.

Because this comment clashes so significantly with what Charlie and others see as The Brand Voice, he does damage control by apologizing for the comment, firing the staffer then working to disassociate the network with the comment.

When asked what she was thinking she would get out of the twitter post her answer was simple. "Retweets." This is an important comment.

To her, retweets are valuable. She didn't see how the value of a highly rated retweet could translate to damage and a hit to other kinds of values, like journalistic values, the value of a corporate brand or the value of the stock price of the parent company.

Because her tweet made a nasty remark about the GOP, GOP guests said they wouldn't appear on ACN because it looked to them like ACN was saying Republicans are horrible people who would celebrate the death of other people.

This episode shows us three different pressures the news division and its parent company are under. It also shows us how they respond.... on a fantasy TV show.

News Voice vs. Corporate Parent Voice.

Are the news divisions of networks really "The Voice" of the company these days? Do news divisions still feel that they are? In their own internal documents do they say,"This who we are and how we act?" If they fail to act on the values they say the believe in, what are the consequences? Does someone apologize and get fired or do they add weasel words to their stated values?

Do network parent companies want the newsroom Voice to represent them all the time, or only when it is profitable? Are the two mutually exclusive? Can they be profitable with a division whose values might be at cross purposes with other values such as Earnings Per Share?

Does a Network News Brand Failure Impact the Parent Company Brand?

I think Sorkin wants to show us what can happen if a TV network tries to play by ethical journalism rules. They are trying to be journalists doing stories because it's their duty and responsibility. They will get interviews not for a quid pro quo, but because they have integrity.

As an example, during a train ride back from the Boston bombing a producer walks away from a potentially big story because she does the right thing. Her integrity gets an instant karma pay off.

On the other hand Sorkin seems to say that integrity doesn't translate to ratings. What happens when maintaining your brand image gets in the way of quarterly profits? And what if the parent company only listens to shareholders who don't care unless it hurts the larger company?

What Is To Be Done?

When a company doesn't live up to the values they proclaim via their website we ask why. We point it out to them. "Hey, we didn't say this value was important, YOU did. If you don't choose to follow your stated values why not? Is there a bigger value that is more important? If so, why even bother to state your values?

Many people will instantly say, of course they are following a bigger value, money! But as we see, not all the pressures in TV news can be reduced to X makes more money than Y. If you can get big ratings this week on a hot tweet, or a quid pro quo blackmailed interview, but it destroys your brand image, is that a good thing to do?

We can alert people when all the networks news divisions aren't living up to their own stated values. They will act to correct the mismatch, but first they will have all the usual excuses, including the big ones, "We won't/can't change if all the other networks won't/can't change."
Or "This will cut into our ad revenue." or "We will lose access to guests we want." We'll need to answer those excuses, but pointing out the brand mismatch is first.

I've talked before about the failure of the TV networks to disclose who is paying the retired generals going on the network TV shows. This is a clear mismatch in what the news divisions believe about themselves. It's been pointed out to them by other media, most recently by Lee Fang at the Nation, So, taking a page from The Newsroom, the next step is to point it out to them when it happens again via Twitter, Facebook, blog posts, phone calls, email and faxes.

Can we make an impact? Can we get them to live up to their own stated journalism values? I want to believe we can.

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