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posted: 7.27.12 by Donna Winchell

HBO’s new show Newsroom asks some hard questions about who controls the content of television news. In the first episode, popular anchor Will McAvoy, (played by Jeff Daniels), returns from a very public breakdown during which he had the audacity to question whether America really is the best nation it can be. Upon his return he finds that the president of the news division, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), is set to go back to the “old” way of reporting the news—telling the truth. The situation is complicated by the fact that Skinner has hired McAvoy’s former love interest, Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), to produce the revised show.

It would be nice to think that the nightly news is the truth. It would be nice to think that ratings are not relevant to how the news is reported. Skinner will not let McAvoy even speak to the network’s ratings expert. Additionally, he tries to protect Will from the opinions of “the 44th floor.” (The 44th floor in this case is represented by Jane Fonda, whose character owns the network.) Why? Telling the truth in the news may, for example, make certain senators look foolish, but if the network will be affected financially by decisions pending before a committee on which those senators serve, reporting the truth could cost McAvoy his job.

Networks shape the news constantly as they decide how much of the news to tell. The show’s third episode offered a striking example of how a network decides when to go public with breaking news. The story was built around the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Gifford and others in Colorado. As stories tumbled in, one source came out with a report that Giffords was dead. McAvoy and his production crew listened as each of the other networks went public with the same story, based on that single source. The ratings analyst was shouting that thousands of  viewers were changing their channel to those other networks as McAvoy delayed, appropriately of course, until other sources confirmed that the Congresswoman was indeed alive.

The show promises to teach us much about the slanting of news and how it can be avoided. Concerns about who controls the content of our news are not merely matters of fiction. Exactly the sorts of issues raised by this televised drama have been raised in the real world. It’s hardly news that we can already start to make assumptions about viewers according to the news they tune in to.


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