I'm discussing Sorkin's The Newsroom to illustrate some network and cable TV news issues. Sorkin's fantasy newsroom touches on real pressures and situations our media face, and gives me a way to suggest how we can get the media do a better job and stop hurting America.
There was a scene in The Newsroom episode "Run" last week where ACN's news division president, Charlie Skinner explains to the two rich kids planning a hostile takeover what the news division of ACN does and why it's important.
He points out that CNN and NBC Nightly News represents a small fraction of Time Warner's and Comcast's revenue but they have an oversize role in people's perceptions of the parent company because they act as the face and voice of their parent. In the case of ACN, he goes on to say that the parent corporation wants the news division to do their job well. He passionately exclaims
"As a public service as a patriotic sacrifice, as a moral imperative. They do not require that ACN make money, Why? Because they can afford it. Isn't that something you want to be a part of?"
That really struck me. I liked what Charlie was saying. Suddenly I was Fox Mulder quoting the poster above my desk, "I want to believe."
The rich kids didn't care. If they could make more more money selling the cameras than showing the images in the news, why wouldn't they?
Concurrently in the show, we see Will, The Anchor With Integrity, stand on the side of journalism in a Whistleblower/Snowden like case because he wants to help tell the truth.
Then we see what gets in the way of telling the truth that Charlie and Will believe in. ACN lawyers, federal espionage laws and accountants' focusing on the financial bottom line all work to block ACN journalism as "a public service"
Sorkin sets us up for conflicts and confrontations with lawyers, the federal government and investors. These issues and pressures come up in the real world of network and cable news. The people who experience them might not walk and talk as fast as Sorkin writes, but real people do think, talk and act on all these topics.
Corporate Values' Statements. Are They Worth The Pixels They are Written With?
While watching a gripping TV show I often feel like a passenger in the back of a taxicab. I feel like I have no control and no say about anything that is happening. I actually do have some control, but only if i speak up at the right time, I'm heard and the driver responds to my comments.
In this episode Sorkin shows us one of the things a network news listens to people about and cares about, their reputation. To illustrate this he turns to a Twitter explosion.
One of the junior staffer writes a callous tweet about the Republicans after the Boston Marathon bombing. It clearly doesn't match anyone's idea of "The Voice" of the network. As Charlie questions the staffer we see how quickly other media are to connect this hateful comment to the Anchor With Integerity. Then we see what the network does to protect their brand.
The tweet clashed so significantly with what Charlie and others see as The Brand Voice, he did damage control by apologizing for the comment, fired the staffer and disassociating the network from the comment.
You will also note that the tweet was not attributed to the Junior staffer at ACN but to the face of the news division. He didn't tweet it, but he takes the heat.
Corporations have all sorts of methods they use to protect their brand. The brand has value and actions that taint the brand, have consequences.
Because the staffer's tweet said the GOP was happy that the Boston bombing didn't involve guns. The GOP guests were upset and said they wouldn't appear on ACN now.
Losing GOP guests shows who has the power in the relationship, ACN needed them more than they needed ACN.
This whole set up made me wonder, "Are the news divisions of networks really the "voice of the parent company" these days? Or are they just one voice of many? These news divisions have their own internal value statements, brand documents, and ethical and journalism guidelines.
Sorkin has Charlie saying something like, "This is who we, TV journalists, are and this is how we act. If we fail to act this way there will be consequences, both for us and our parent company."
But in the Corporate Boardroom does anyone want the news division voice to represent them anymore? What if the news division values are at cross purposes with another value, Earnings Per Share?
When push comes to shove, who wins that fight? Who loses? Does Earnings Per Share always win? What if you can point to a damaged brand as a bigger problem?
In this season, it appears that when ACN acts on its stated values of good journalism and "doing the news well." it goes down in the ratings. They might be rewarded with good feelings in the newsroom but that might all go away if the boardroom value of EPS is all that matters.
Sorkin shows us what can happen if you do play by the rules, are ethical and don't just do the right thing when it's easy. During a train ride a producer walks away from a potentially big story and does the right thing. Her actions gets her an instant karma pay off, (after all it is a 60 minute show.) Sorkin hammers home the point that doing the right thing pays off, but that isn't the only reason you should do it.
The parent companies of the TV and cable companies know that the revenue from the news is tiny, yet it appears that the people working there still believe in certain values. What happens when those values get in the way of the parent companies' revenues?
In The Newsroom Charlie says that he fights with the executives in the parent company and usually wins, because they do still believe that the news division isn't just any other profit center, it's a public service, a patriotic sacrifice and a moral imperative.
The real networks news divisions are required to make money. Does that mean the network news division presidents lose most of the fights with the parent company about doing good journalism? On one hand I would say yes,
When networks news divisions aren't living up to their own stated values, what's the point of even listing them? Is there still any ability for the public to pressure them to do a better job?
What if, instead of firing the junior staffer for her dig at the GOP, the network president rewarded her because they knew that this network gets most of its money from Democrats?
What if the retweets actually are a real value and the network didn't care about having GOP guests on the show anyway?