As Seen On TV: What Would You Do In This Situation?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 17, 2014 – 3:42 am

The season finale of HBO’s Veep, which aired earlier this month, featured a hilarious moment that made me wonder what I would do in the same situation.

If you’re not familiar with the program, Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer, the nation’s first female vice president. The show revolves around Ms. Meyer and her rather colorful staff.

The moment occurred just after the vice president concludes an in-person interview with an obnoxious Boston newspaper reporter. After the reporter walks away, Meyer and her staff begin discussing a couple of their small-money campaign donors and insulting their thriftiness. They even give their low-money donors a derogatory name—GUMMIs—an acronym for “Give us more money, idiots.”

Just as they finish their conversation, they realize that the Boston reporter accidentally left his phone behind, on which he had been recording his interview with the vice president (it was still recording). The reporter, who realizes his mistake, is on his way back to the office to collect his phone.

Veep

The staff quickly realizes how much trouble the campaign will be in if the recording of their conversation gets out—small-money donors will pull their contributions, and the campaign will be seen as elitist. They weigh their options: We should destroy the phone with a lamp! We should say it accidentally fell into the toilet!

The reporter enters the office and collects his phone before they can execute their plan (and, spoiler alert, the “GUMMIs” conversation does cause unflattering headlines).

That made me wonder: What would I do in that situation? The choices boil down to these three:

1. Do nothing and hope the reporter doesn’t use that material

This is the option Meyer’s staff took—and it didn’t pay off.

2. Destroy the evidence

This would kill the negative story about the GUMMIs—but it might lead to even more damaging headlines about destroying a reporter’s phone and speculation about what Ms. Meyer said on the destroyed tape. (The phone was password protected, so simply deleting the file wasn’t an option.)

3. Negotiate with the reporter

This is the strategy I would have chosen. When the reporter came back for his phone, I would have asked him to consider all of the material included on the tape after he left the room “off the record.” The reporter would have had no obligation to honor my request—such requests are typically made prior to the interview and agreed upon in advance by both parties—but in this case, the material was gathered without the consent of the taped party (which might even constitute an illegal recording in some states).  His leaving the tape recorder behind might have even been an intentional trick, although the show didn’t address that question.

If the conversation with the reporter doesn’t go well, there could be an either implicit or explicit threat regarding future access—publish that material, and you’ll never speak with the vice president again.  (That’s the “stick” approach; the “carrot” approach of offering increased access could also work.)

What Would You Do?

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HBO’s The Newsroom: A Cable Newser’s Take

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 18, 2012 – 6:04 am

I suppose it isn’t fair to criticize Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO program, “The Newsroom,” for being unrealistic. After all, we don’t expect “Law and Order” to be a perfect reflection of American jurisprudence, or “NCIS” to capture the nuances of military investigations, or “Mad Men” to nail 1960s advertising culture with precision.

But I’m having a difficult time suspending my disbelief when it comes to “The Newsroom.” The show’s central assertion rings false, the premise seems contradictory, and the program removes the true drama that often occurs in a newsroom.

If you haven’t seen it, “The Newroom” centers around a cable news program called News Night and its anchor, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels). The series begins when Mr. McAvoy, a well-regarded objective journalist, explodes during a public event by blasting a questioner’s assertion that America is the greatest country on the planet. His rare lapse into “opinion journalism” ultimately convinces McAvoy that he should abandon his objectivity to tell “the truth” every night instead.

Here are three reasons “The Newsroom” is off:

1. The Concept Isn’t Even Remotely Shocking: The show’s creators seem to believe that it would be “shocking” for a formerly objective anchor to suddenly abandon his neutrality and deliver a personal viewpoint. But that story dates back almost to the beginning of television news, when broadcasting legends Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, among many others, delivered strong personal views.

McAvoy protests the ideological nature of his cable competitors, but he’s actually not that much different. Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity and Chris Matthews all deliver strong personal views every weeknight. They, like the fictional McAvoy, believe that their interpretation of the facts is right. It’s not exactly a novel concept.

2. The “Center” Isn’t The Center: In one of the show’s better moments, ACN’s news division president Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) insists that “facts are the center.” I agree. So why, in an episode about the rise of the Tea Party, did the show present two sides: the heroic people who opposed the Tea Party, and the buffoonish and ignorant characters who were part of it?

Here’s an alternative view of the center: Most Americans want our nation’s most vulnerable citizens—the impoverished, the sick, the elderly—to benefit from a safety net that allows them access to basic health care, safe housing, and nutritious food. Most of us want basic regulations that prevent businesses from abusing the law and endangering public safety, but don’t want those regulations to squelch innovation and unnecessarily cost jobs. But most people also recognize that The United States is almost $16 trillion in debt, meaning we’re going to have to make tough choices. That is the struggle that defines our times.

But you won’t find that fundamental question about “the center” anywhere on the show. Why present a truly challenging intellectual argument when you can show old video of failed Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle saying something stupid instead?

3. The Show Removes The Real Drama of a Newsroom: The show’s premiere episode is set on the first day of the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill. Within minutes—yes, minutes—the program’s staff already knows the cause, the amount of oil that’s gushing from the seafloor, and how long it could last.

The show’s most knowledgeable staffer on spill-related matters? Yup, it’s the program’s blogger, Neal Sampat (Dev Patel), who implausibly says he learned everything he needed to about deep water geology from a grade school assignment.

Drama in a newsroom rarely comes in the form of all-knowing characters who almost instantaneously have all of the answers. It comes in the form of teams of smart people working together—through a combination of contacting the right sources, doing the right research, and asking the right questions—to nail a story. When that unfolds before your eyes, it’s a whole lot more dramatic than watching people who seem to magically have all of the answers. (The show improved on that score in its fourth episode regarding the Gabrielle Giffords story; hopefully, more of the same will follow.)

What do you think of “The Newsroom?” Do you find my review unnecessarily harsh? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

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