The Media is Broken and Aaron Sorkin Wants To Fix It – Part Two

Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy in The News Room
Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy in The News Room

Check out Part One of this series here.

The Propaganda Model

No good story is complete without an arch villain who has made it a point to stop the protagonist from accomplishing his or her undoubtedly virtuous mission. Without this adversary, the story would be a little bit more boring (or vastly, depending on the narrative). For our merry band of noble reporters who have set out to report the news the way it should be –objectively, and above all else with a blind eye to anything but the truth- the arch villain appears as real life arch villain to conservatives: Jane Fonda.

“Hanoi Jane” is cast as Leona Lansing, a shark in a pantsuit that lords over the ACN news team as head of the network’s parent company Atlantis Media Group.  As president, she has considerable influence over ACN’s content and also in Washington, and while she avoids specific censorship in terms of what Will and crew are allowed to say, she attempts to silence Will by dragging his name through the mud: slamming him in her other media outlets (a gossip magazine poignantly named TMI) and then promoting the smear through the morning show on ACN itself.

Leona’s feelings about the flagship program’s shift in gears are well known, and while Leona isn’t breathing down the necks of Charlie, Will, and the rest, she has her son Reese (played fantastically by The Mindy Project’s Chris Messina) do it for her. He is constantly attempting to steer the direction of both Will’s and Elliot’s shows with an emphasis on numbers: ratings and advertising to be more specific. In a lot of ways the duo is eerily similar to Rupert Murdoch and son James, a comparison that comes into sharper focus with a season one storyline that must be based on the News International phone hacking scandal of 2011 (though here the targets were reporters rather than their sources. One is lead to wonder if they will address the NSA scandal of the same nature in Season 3).

She (and in some ways Reese as well) rule in absentia, her perceived wishes influencing decisions made throughout her organization. This is aptly portrayed in the first several episodes as we SEE Leona but don’t hear her thoughts on the new direction that Newsnight has taken.  She is a business woman first and groundbreaking, honest, broad-scoped journalism isn’t important when there are far more urgent matters like ratings and advertising revenues to concern oneself with.  When Will begins targeting the Tea Party, Leona makes it explicitly known that walking down that path would adversely affect her business as well as that of her associates (specifically the billionaire Koch brothers, who are to the conservative movement what George Soros is to the liberal one). If Leona has an agenda, it has nothing to do with advancing liberal OR conservative causes –unless those causes facilitate her ability to expand her business and wealth which in itself isn’t a bad thing.  Using ones business to silence the voices of those trying to educate the populace about the truth in terms of the various influences on elections and our legislative process in general IS.

Leona and Reese appear to be an illustrative example (possibly a warning) from Sorkin about the increasing concentration of media ownership, something that most Americans aren’t even aware of, and the first filter in Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s model of media behavior known as “The Propaganda Model.”

Originally published in 1988 as part of the book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of The Mass Media, The Propaganda Model aims to show (successfully in my opinion) that because the news media is an industry consisting of outlets owned by much larger and diverse corporations that list selling ALL of their products atop their list of priorities (including themselves to investors and audience to corporations by), any other aims fall secondary to that primary goal. Herman and Chomsky insist that because of its very nature as a business along with its institutional structure and the manner it gets it source information, what is ultimately reported as news has to pass through five filters that “clean” the television newscasts of anything that could possibly diminish the parent corporations wealth and influence. The filters include media ownership; the media’s source of funding, its sources of information and funding; the “flak”or negative impact a news organization could possibly receive from running a story; and an ideology of Fear (Terrorism, Communism, Crime, etc).

Dismissed by some as “conspiratorial,” Herman and Chomsky maintain that the model doesn’t describe the media as all powerful and that despite the appearance of an increasingly more diverse chorus of different voices, the model is even more relevant now-especially as regulations that aimed to keep media outlets out of fewer and fewer hand have been (and may be again) loosened by the FCC.

The model doesn’t say that all decisions are made at the top with orders sent down to cover stories a particular way, or even that there is a ridiculous but instead sticks with the assertion that bias occurs through a systemic pervasiveness: market forces guiding the hands of reporters and editors to pursue stories that have minimum negative effects on advertisers (from whom their funding comes from), while also not doing too much to bring heat upon those that the media has come to rely on as sources of information and “expert” analysis. Even the hiring of staff is a decision that contributes to a news culture that expects an adherence to a particular mindset normally at odds with the type of journalism that most Americans WISH our media would pursue…and the kind many journalists thought they would be doing. It doesn’t require an ounce of maliciousness on the part of anyone really, and its choices are made purely in the business “cost/benefit” sense. At some point it just starts to make sense not to piss off the people who pay your bills and give you the interviews and quotes you need to effectively do your job.

That access to politicians and policy makers is something that has to be sought after and curated is a relatively new concept in the grand scheme of things but is something that is a result of the broadening of the news business and the increasing need for content in the 24 hour news-cycle that makes up the current media landscape. In the beginning of Television as a medium, politicians had to TRY to get on TV to get their message out to their constituents and possible voters. In modern times, it’s the other way around.  Desperate to legitimize their broadcasts and fill vast amounts of airtime, cable news channels (like ACN in Sorkin’s utopia) seek out politicians and “experts” from various think-tanks to comment on and provide “balanced” arguments about the various issues deemed news worthy that week.

This was a central theme in Season Two, as the fallout from Will’s “American Taliban” accusation led to some difficulties for both reporters and executives to gain access to political candidates and the ability to help to craft legislation (wealth and privilege also lead to access to the legislative process that is difficult for average citizens to gain….even when organized).  We see Senior Producer Jim Harper initially denied entry onto the press bus due to Will’s remarks after taking to the campaign trail to cover Mitt Romney as he stumps throughout New Hampshire. Later, as he covers the morning briefings he attempts to ask questions about inconsistencies with the candidates messaging vs his prior statements and record, but of course is given the same regurgitated statement that sticks to the “message” that campaigns desperately want to control. He is ridiculed for even trying, campaign spokespeople acting like it’s a privilege to be able to cover it at all. Even other “reporters” riding the bus get frustrated with the daily attempts at actual journalism happening because they have accepted the reality of their situation.

In the same episode, Reese Lansing is shut out of Senate committee meeting that was writing the SOPA bill, also because of Will’s Taliban statement.  If you play the way that politicians and other political elites want you to play, then they will talk. If the questions get too hard and actually seek to force real answers, then they shut you out. They don’t need YOUR exposure when there are plenty of others who will give the same exposure but without the hassle.

One also sees this filter aptly illustrated if they go back to the end of the first season. ACN, vying to host a Republican Primary debate, is shot down because their questioning goes beyond the standard lobs that primary candidates have come to expect. I’m sure every citizen would be thrilled to see ALL debates challenge the claims, promises, and rehearsed soundbites of candidates; but we will never get that as long as access is granted as a reward for not digging too deep –because most political hopefuls are all surface.

Access to political and corporate elite is essential because that’s where all the news content comes from (including anonymous sources) as well as the “expert” analysis that fuels the debates making up most of cable news seemingly endless (yet repetitive) programming. It also allows the more partisan (read as overtly biased) cable news channels to frame their point of view without their staff actually stating opinion. This is especially true of the shows that occur during the daytime hours when the channels are supposed to be opinion free (prime time is a completely different story.

But who is an expert? What qualifies someone? Oliver North sure knows a lot about our military and security policies, but should a man who actually testified that he funneled money to Nicaraguan Contras AND weapons to Iran be considered an acceptable expert? Granted, the irony of him discussing a cover up of the Benghazi scandal will never stop making me laugh, because it’s a subject that he is most qualified to talk about…yet Fox will never acknowledge how the connection. The same goes for former UN ambassador John Bolton, who is regularly on air to discuss diplomacy despite being staunchly OPPOSED to the very existence of the world body in which he represented his nation. Al Sharpton has made a living out of stoking the coals of race relations and somehow is able to do that while hosting a program on MSNBC, while a certain former governor of sparsely populated state appears on Fox as expert of…well, I can’t even figure that one out, but I think that her prowess on national and foreign affairs has been shown to less than what most would consider “expert” level.

As important as where the information comes from, is where the funding comes from. Far and away it is advertising dollars that keep the news industry running and expanding, something that journalists have to consider when pursuing that which is “newsworthy.”  And while probably not coerced, officials are still placed in a position of ensuring that precious advertising money isn’t lost due to the companies that are spending it making the decision that a particular segment doesn’t represent their company or product.  Put simply, McDonald’s isn’t going pay to run a spot on a news program that examines the contribution that processed food plays in the American obesity epidemic (which contributes to much of our healthcare costs). Likewise, negative coverage of oil industry safety might lead to an Exxon-Mobil or a Shell from taking their cash elsewhere, perhaps to a channel that won’t even bring those types of topics to the surface. Banking industry lobbyists helping to write laws meant to bridle the banking industry in some way is something that many who watched their 401K’s shrink in the fall of 2008 would probably want to know about. How would Bank of America and Morgan Stanley feel about this though, and more importantly, how would they react? Someone at some point in the corporate hierarchy of either a news organization itself, or the vast and tangled corporation that it is a part of will decide that it is in the best interests of everyone involved to not probe too deeply.  A Marquette University survey in 1992 showed 90 percent of news editors admitting to feeling pressured from advertisers about story content. One wonders if it would be any better today?

Kalle Lasn (author, activist, and founder of Adbusters) even highlights the effects that advertising has on accessibility for other people and corporations who want to purchase spots during news television, particularly when the message is in opposition to the messages to other, more consistent advertisers.  In his book Culture Jam, he describes the trouble he and other activists have had in getting the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (and later the major television networks including CNN) to let him purchase 30 second spots to run his advertisements that promoted anti-consumer ideas like spending less, watching less and driving less. Each of the networks refused on the grounds that it went against their business interests. This makes sense when examining the decisions from a corporate standpoint, but as a citizen who realizes that bought airtime is the true way to reach others with one’s message, especially when the news won’t cover it), the refusal to take money for ad time is chilling. We look to our media to explain the various viewpoints surrounding the issues of our day, but it becomes painfully obvious that they aren’t interested in elucidating the population, instead elevating one world view over others based solely on the financial interests of the organization. One could make the argument that in an age where the Internet provides many of us with our daily news, television matters less and this bellyaching over some commercial is moot, but TV news still plays a huge role in shaping public discourse and ignoring perspectives and shutting them out of the broader conversation seems like the antithesis of the media’s function in what we call a democratic society.

Fear

The media’s adherence to perpetuating a culture of “Fear” is something that anyone who has seen the nightly news (local or national) can probably concede. “If it bleeds, it leads” has long been a motto of television news, and one that explains the rationale behind robberies, car crashes, and murders opening most newscasts. In the absence of any of the above, stories of societies’ monsters take precedence; maybe a local teacher accused of molestation, or the arraignment of someone accused of a violent crime (an almost consistently uneventful event).  The media is built on the public’s fear of the world outside of their home’s and all the possible evil contained within in it.

As a proto- Will McAvoy (sort of) Howard Beale, from Network ranted prophetically about the way fear has isolated the average American, relegating our lives to smaller and smaller spaces in a desire to be left to ourselves with our things and our lives. It was true in 1976 and is even more so in 2013, although somehow the threat of life altering terrorist attacks are a scarier prospect than a communist invasion or nuclear winter. So scary in fact that Americans fear being involved in a terrorist attack more than being victims of violent crimes or being hospitalized –things that one has a far better chance of experiencing. It’s hard NOT to make the correlation between these public sentiments and the saturation coverage of such events. The same goes for mass shootings, an increasing yet still overblown danger that has seen massive amounts of coverage for both the events surrounding the acts themselves and the political aftermath.  Americans think about terrorism and violence because no one is telling them NOT to fear it –because then they might not support policies that aim to “protect” them from relatively (read generally) infrequent occurrences.  Fear is good for business.

All Business…

Understandably, some might think the Propaganda Model to be too conspiratorial, which as stated above is the most popular criticism of the theory. And I wouldn’t fault you. However, it is hard to deny that market forces are going to lead to many of the problems that the media has had, something Sorkin’s Newsroom exemplifies in its first two seasons.  Early on we see that pressure to keep up with other networks affects the way that ACN reports on major stories, whether it be to pronounce Congresswoman Gabbie Giffords dead on air following the shooting that paralyzed her just because others already have, or to lead with The Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill despite that the story wasn’t “supposed” to be a lead story.  Even the night of the killing of Osama Bin Laden, when Geraldo was speculating about EXACTLY what the big news could be (not shy at all about saying Bin Laden quite some time before the President actually spoke), Will is unwilling to say anything until he gets confirmation.  Sorkin always has them take the high road, which for the most part was the opposite of what happened in real life.

While still reliant on the 20/20 hindsight of season one, his characters makes mistakes this year- a ton of them. Mistakes -and in a broader sense the specter of consequences- are the central antagonists facing Sorkin’s heroic band of journalists in the sophomore season. Still, many of these errors (no matter how severe and glaring) result from human error, many times because of the race to break the story first (such was the case with ACN “doctoring” the George Zimmerman 911 tape, standing in here for NBC). In today’s news environment there is desperation to keep up and that leads to a lot of speculation as well as the reporting of falsehoods. This was easily seen by the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings as well as the recent Navy Yard shootings, with most networks reporting facts that weren’t facts. It’s the Gabbie Giffords debacle over and over and over again. Instead of waiting patiently for news to unfold (the nerve of the journalists having to wait for reality to catch up to them!), they talk incessantly about what they DO know while waiting for “word from officials” which usually is preceded by “sources telling us.” Even the coverage surrounding 9/11 was ripe with speculation (misinformation from that (still lingers in the mind of some) that accomplished nothing but misinforming a population turning to their TVs in order to make sense of the tragedy that was unfolding.

All of this isn’t some grand strategy to all but slander conservatives while giving a pass to liberals. No, it is the result of people trying to “win a game” so to speak. Sure, some reporters might have agendas, but those agendas are still fueled by an overarching desire to break a big story.  Those are the things that define journalists careers, not political allegiance. The most villainous character of season two resorts to dishonest means to save a story that he feels strongly about, but what he really wants is to expose things that he feels citizens’ should be made aware of. He is pretty liberal it seems, but the story involves the current US Administration (one of few fictional news events covered by the ACN team).

Sorkin also hints that the media’s way of operating prevents it from covering stories outside of its normal narrative structure, which almost always is boiled down to only two viewpoints and also framed within an accepted spectrum of discourse.  Occupy Wall Street (another story highlighted this past season) may have been hurt by its own inability to stick to a cohesive message (this fact a good case against the direct democracy approach the movement took), but instead of addressing the issues that the movement aimed to raise awareness about (getting private money out electoral politics), the media covered the spectacle that was the protests; which is the way they cover most protests that aren’t large gatherings on the National Mall.  Granted, the OWS movement did it to itself by letting EVERYONE control the message, but it also raised some important points in the wake of the 2008’s economic meltdown.  Consider the fact that the media covered the Tea Party (which gained legitimacy in the media’s eyes by being bankrolled by already established elites like the Koch’s) in a way that emphasized the content of the movement’s message, and one wonders if OWS was marginalized because it rallied AGAINST elites without rallying behind other elites. In real life we see this voluntary inclusion/exclusion of viewpoints  every election cycle, and many would argue that the tendency to marginalize that which falls outside of the arbitrary lines dictate the scope of  debate is what prevents the US from being able to break out of its two party system.

Simplification of facts and a penchant for sensationalism led to what may have been the most glaring example of our broken media: the coverage of the Travyon Martin shooting and the subsequent trial of George Zimmerman. The media thrust the issue of race to the story’s forefront early on, and didn’t let up with talking about the race of the two men involved, even until after the trial. It divided America in a lot of ways…but it also gave pundits and experts of all kinds of things to talk about for over a year and four months. Even though Zimmerman was technically Hispanic, the entire ordeal was portrayed as racially motivated, literally as “Black and White.” First it was simply the tragic shooting itself. Then it was the fact that Zimmerman had been released without charges (something that must have happened because of both parties’ ethnicity). Next it was The President’s remarks (something derided by conservatives) followed by NBC’s edited tape. And that was just the first few months. By the time it was all said and done, the media had covered it to a point where even the average person started to see that much of the division and outrage was at least partly the fault of the media. There were accusations that it was trying to provoke race riots, and while I don’t think they were actively pursuing that type of end I think that many in cable news would not have complained about the arresting images that cameras could have caught and of course the boost in ratings that would have coincided if riots had actually happened. It was a disgusting sight to behold (and I am one who actually thought that race played SOME role in the tragedy, even if it wasn’t malicious).  It also highlighted one of the most alarming truths:the media which bases a great deal of success on ratings will eventually come to view tragedies like Newtown, Aurora, The Boston Marathon and countless others as banner days.

The only thing that can discipline the media is the “flak” it receives in the form of angry phone calls, letters and emails… or the threat of it. If someone or some organization takes offense with the content of an article or segment, they can hit those that made the content where it hurts most: their wallet. Much of the flak the media faces comes in the form of boycotts both of the outlet producing the content and also the advertisers associated.  The advertisers then threaten to take their money elsewhere. The ONLY reason flak works is because of the industrial nature of the media, specifically the power that those holding the purse strings have over newsrooms. Unfortunately and ironically it only affects content and not the root of the problem; the result can actually be a chilling one that leads to certain stories being buried and news agencies being gun shy in the future. The Newsroom showed the possible repercussions of this when the team sticks with the herd in reporting the Benghazi terror attacks stemming from the Youtube video ”Innocence of Muslims” rather than as the planned act of Terror they saw it as because they were under so much scrutiny from another story that proved to not be true. I’m not sure of the frequency of such instances but it is frustrating to think about it happening at all because while we want the media to always get it right, we don’t want them to not do their job at all because they  risk  offending specific groups (some who find offense in most things).

Hope and Change?  Probably not.

So if the media is broken, which is most certainly is in the sense that it has long ago stopped serving the interests of the people it is supposed to be informing, then how do we as a society fix it?

The obvious answer would be to separate the news media from the industry in which it currently is a part of, and possibly make it an official part of the system of checks and balances we already have. That, of course, will never happen. Corporations -and people- own the various media outlets whether it be print, television, radio, or web; and forcibly detaching the news portions would amount to government seizure of private property, because where else would the money to fund the media come from other than government. Plus that is a slippery slope that would have the potential of leading to actual propaganda, and would require amending the Constitution.

Some might look to the Internet and the diversity in voices that it brings, but if one pokes around for news on there they end up realizing that although it could potentially be liberating (it really is the only place to go for the least biased sources), the Internet is turning into an echo chamber where people go to get news from sources that mirror their own beliefs. Not to mention that many stories that one finds are culled from biased sources like Fox News and MSNBC. Many voices saying the same things helps no one and only adds to the din of noise already present.

It seems hopeless and bleak and in a way it is.  Media watchdog groups like Media Matters for America, FAIR, Media Research Center (which explicitly aims to expose liberal bias),  and Accuracy In Media do excellent jobs of pointing out inaccuracy in reporting, but their message is lost or never reported because who would report it? The people they expose? Not very likely. And like the mainstream media, they are discredited using the same logic that Taylor Warren used against Will: they are uncapable of objectivity and ANY story exposing inaccuracy by Conservatives media elites (which makes up most of talk radio) somehow proves that.

The Newsroom itself is Aaron Sorkin’s attempt at showing viewers what journalists with integrity are up against and the roadblocks they face, but it also simplifies the solutions. Its vision of a news anchor and producer finding the passion and courage to change course and swim against the current of media habits certainly is inspiring but it hinges on a groundswell of change that frankly doesn’t seem possible in the real world. He paints a utopia where the good guys get it right and even when they don’t we forgive them because they were trying REALLY hard.

At times it comes across as a quaint idealism. Season two ends in a laughably unfeasible manner: Leona and Reese as heads of Atlantis Media Group decide to back Will, Charlie and Mac in their journalistic mission WHILE admitting it to be a bad business decision. This would never EVER happen. Corporatists don’t make decisions that would be bad for the bottom line because it goes against the primary goals of business. Business is the only thing that matters, and losing money, influence and in turn power is the exact opposite of what Leona, Reese or anyone in their position would ever set out to do.

We need Sorkin’s idealism though, and we need The Newsroom. Even if the show isn’t anything special, we still need it to some degree because we need to see what our news should look like. It’s the only template that I can think of that depicts both the reality and the ideal so precisely and without it we won’t know how far or close we are to obtaining a media that functions the way that we imagined it used to.  I’m not sure I’ll ever see it get better and I imagine the landscape becoming more clouded with falsities, leading to more polarization and more shouting; But I’m thankful for Aaron Sorkin for at least addressing the problem in a way that doesn’t reduce it to simply “liberals vs. conservatives.” Maybe, in season three he will expand on his idealized vision and maybe even show how we might achieve this in reality. Probably not, but at least he is trying REALLY hard to do the right thing. And that’s a start.

Author: Josh Richer

Josh lives in NYC (OK OK! Staten Island) and would love it if you employed him. Send Josh an email