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The Newsroom, Episode 3. 'Main Justice': Journalism Principles Have A Price

Episode 3 of The Newsroom deals with a Snowden-like leak to a TV journalist. I wonder: How would a mainstream TV network actually handle a story like this?
The Newsroom, Episode 3. 'Main Justice': Journalism Principles Have A Price
ACN newsroom is raided by the FBI looking for the source of a leak to an ACN journalist. Image from: HBO The Newsroom

The big issues "The Newsroom" dealt with in Ep. 3 include:

  • US Government possibly charging a journalist with espionage
  • Snowden-like revelations about the government's role in riot deaths
  • Protecting the Snowden-like source's identity
  • A Bezos-like billionaires possibly buying a TV news network

This episode also had multiply eye rolling moments:

  • Awkward relationship conversations between several men and women.
  • An awkward business conversation between a rich nerd and old school news executive

Sorkin is criticized for how he writes women, but I'm going to say most of his relationship conversations in The Newsroom suck. I see those scenes as filler between the interesting issues and monologues, kind of like bad commercials for dating sites.

Of the interesting parts, the Snowden-like revelations all seemed familiar. Then I figured out why. I had recently watched Citizenfour, by Laura Poitras about the revelations of Snowden and the process. Go see the movie. It really is watching history unfold in real time. Plus, you can see how the mainstream media really handled the Snowden story.

Watching the story unfold in Citzenfour makes it clear Snowden made the right choice going to Poitras, Greenwald and the Guardian. Even if he had a team like the ACN people backing him, you can see how they could get convinced to turn it all over to the government.

Sorkin is trying to show how a TV network might act if they got a Snowden-like story. It has all the components:

  • Idealistic young journalist who does the right thing
  • Cynical famous news anchor tried to reclaim his young idealistic self
  • Hyper-competent producer with integrity
  • Network news management backing the news--until the bill comes due
  • Corporate Lawyers lawyering.
  • A government bully who waves the "national security" flag at every turn
  • Snowden-like character pushing the timetable

At one point the network president talks about how scared the kid who ran was. When people with guns show up in a newsroom with warrants to take away your hard drives, that's scary. Threatening you with serious jail time is even scarier. I get a nosebleed just thinking about the stress the kid is under.

Eventually the high-powered lawyers at the network negotiate a "ceasefire" with the deputy US Attorney General.


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Would any of the TV networks have stood up to the government in this scenario? And if they did, what would be the consequences?

The last part of the episode points out the problem of not having the kind of funding that enables you to do the right thing. If a principled Parent corp can't protect you, then you need a rich backer who can.

But the entire concept of the TV newsrooms needing to make a profit, is also a big point I think Sorkin is making. To make a profit, do you have to change your news or change your views on what is news?

The rich nerd backer they bring in to be the White Knight is clearly designed to bring up all the fears serious journalism people worry about. "How about a disaster channel? or a "Stalking Danny Glover" channel?" the Bezo-like character suggests to the network president.

But the current reality is that those crazy ideas are already being implemented, but the craziest idea is no longer even brought up. It's now the standard. News needs to make money. But what if the news division wasn't a profit center? Would removing the need to make money mean the advertisers and government can't push them around when it comes to news? What would/could networks do with that freedom that they aren't doing now?

ACN currently has a dream deal for good journalism. But in the real world, those kind of dream deals exist for non-good. For example, the one News Corp gives The New York Post, They get to lose 110 million dollars a year EVERY YEAR. What kind of journalism are they doing there?

As part of a bigger company, the network news division can be used as a money-losing strategic asset to accomplish other corporate goals. It is not a given that no money pressures lead to the freedom to do the right thing. But if that freedom is combined with some principles, then the power can be directed.

What are those principles? A responsibility to tell the truth? Or a responsibility to increase quarterly profits? Sorkin's fantasy network reminds us what pressures the TV networks face, what principles they say they believe in and explores how they might act when those principles are tested.

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