What’s The Price Paid For Truth? Analysis of The Newsroom, Episode 4: Contempt
Daniel Ellsberg once said that he got the Pentagon Papers out to impress a woman. In his book Secrets Duncan Campbell at the Guardian said this about Ellsberg’s story.
“It is also, in a way, a love story about how he fell for his wife, Patricia Marx, and her pivotal role in ensuring that the papers were leaked.”
In the forth Episode of The Newsroom, Reese, the president of the company that owns the network ACN, is explaining to the female producer MacKenzie, why they can’t run a big story. The new network owner’s lawyers had advised him that the Justice department would hit ACN with “crippling criminal fines.”
MacKenzie calls this horseshit and starts shouting about what everyone gave up for this story. Will, the anchor, might go to jail to protect the source. If the story doesn’t get out she feels that it was all for nothing. Reese tells her why he thinks Will has been so willing to stand up for journalism for this story.
Reese: “Since the day you got here Will has been having a battle with himself, is he a real journalist or is he just good on TV? Did you ever think he might be doing this for you?”
Mac: “I’ve got his ring on my finger he’s not doing this to win my approval.”
Reese: “Then it would be the first thing I’ve seen him do that wasn’t. “
All this season I’ve been watching The Newsroom to see what Sorkin can tell me about some of the pressures that real people might feel in his fantasy network newsroom.
I then compare what I see that meshes with the experiences of myself and others in the corporate world, the world of media and in our personal lives. My goal is to figure out how we might use those same pressures on the real network news to our benefit.
The Will/ MacKenzie dynamic is something that might be hard to replicate with the journalists at the cable and network news. Lots of people assume that the network news people have no values. But I don’t think that is correct. I think that they are constantly trying to balance competing values and looking for excuses or reasons to follow one over the other. They tell themselves things like ‘live to fight another day” when they back away from a story.
I wonder, do any of the Sunday show hosts or network news anchors have a MacKenzie in their lives? Do they care what anyone thinks about their journalism? Are they looking for an excuse to not do the best they can, or a reason to do it?
In this episode the broadcast version of the Snowden-like story is squashed because of nervous lawyers’ opinion and the phrase, “crippling criminal fines.”
Of course they could be wrong, but it is a standard acceptable excuse to a corporation to not run a story. Blame the government! It will cost us too much! They have internalized their duty is to the shareholders, not to the public. (Go ahead and say it’s all about money, money, money, but remember, MSNBC didn’t care about the money when it canceled the highly rated and profitable Donahue show. News Corp kept the money losing Glenn Beck Show on the air with no advertisers. )
Sorkin has shown us that money, “crippling fines,” have the biggest impact on the network’s ultimately behavior.
If the parent corporation really wanted to make money on Sunday mornings shows they wouldn’t have Chuck Todd talking to President McCain every week. They have other reasons for keeping those shows on.
Sure we can beg Chris Matthews, George Stephanopolis or Chuck Todd to honor their inner MacKenzie, but they might not have one. Instead, why don’t we push the institutional investors, AKA, “The Almighty Shareholders” on how unprofitable the Sunday shows and the news divisions are?
Then the parent corp will start talking about its duty and quoting from the ignored FCC charters about “serving the public.” They would be making long speeches about how essential the news is and how it doesn’t have to make money.
When the TV networks decided that serving the public came after serving the shareholder, they became vulnerable to the same whims of advertisers as a sitcom. When they saw being “the press” as a way to make money from the access privileges and didn’t feel the need to fulfill their other press duties, they became vulnerable to Wall Street’s demand for quarterly profits.
In the end of the episode we see how people who try to hang onto their values in the network TV world do it. MacKenzie gets the story to a principled journalist, a 71 year old woman at the AP. The network that should have benefited from the scoop, ACN, won’t. No guts, no glory.
Charlie, the network news president, thinks he has found someone who shares his values who will buy the network. But it turns out he was suckered by another rich person using the upcoming sale of the network as leverage for her own purposes.
I think this is Sorkin’s way of reminding us that money people always have their own agenda that is only tangentially related to what a company actually does. They will say they are on the side of quality or schlock, as long as they get what they want at that time.
If “The Almighty Stockholders” don’t buy into the fundamental difference of owning a “press entity” vs owning a Content Creator, they will let “The most trusted name in news” become a slogan and nothing more.
Network News Brands and their value.
Is the news network brand damaged when they fail to identify who is paying retired generals pushing drone strikes and bombings? Is their paid compensation from Raytheon or General Dynamics relevant? Or doesn’t it matter if “everyone is doing it?” Does that mean failing to identify the drug companies behind doctors is next? Would that hurt their brand? Why identify one funding source and not the other?
Sorkin is also showing us that individuals can maintain their values in an organization that says it can’t afford to have them. Right now the individuals pay the price. At one point in this episode MacKenzie challenges the source to flee to Venezuelan or face a grand jury instead the ACN staff. The source responds,
“Do you really think the price for telling the truth should be that high?”
MacKenzie shakes her head, “No I don’t.”
Who is paying the price for the failure of our network news? We know who benefits.
To quote John Stewart to the hosts of Crossfire, “Stop. Stop, stop, stop, stop. Stop hurting America.”