The Newsroom “Bullies”

If you have read my post on The Newsroom episode about the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, then you should be familiar with most of the characters I am about to mention. In this episode, Don Keefer asks financial news reporter, Sloan Sabbith to fill in for 10:00 anchor, Elliot Hirsch. The main topic on that nights show is the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. Sloan is a good friend of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) spokesman, Daisuke Tanaka. She interviews him before the show and gets him to admit off the record that the radiation level is likely to increase from a level 5 (Three-Mile Island level) to a level 7 (Chernobyl level).

Sloan asks Will for advice on how to get Tanaka to admit that level is increasing on the air. He then criticizes her for letting her guests off the hook on her show when she knows they are lying:

Sloan: “So I’m hosting Elliot’s show tonight.”

Will: “I know, I’m the one who suggested you.”

Sloan: “You really think I can do it?”

Will: “No, I have no idea. So we’re gonna find out.”

Sloan: “All right. Well, your exuberant confidence notwithstanding, I have the spokesperson…”

Will: “[interrupts] from TEPCO, I know.”

Sloan: “He just told me off the record, that reactor three is causing what is a level seven, not a level five radiation leak. What’s the trick to getting him to say it on the record?”

Will: “There is no trick. You just don’t stop until he tells the truth.”

Sloan: “What do you mean you don’t stop?”

Will: “I mean you don’t stop. Sloan, I watch your show at 4:00 and you’re brilliant. But you let guests say things that I know you know aren’t true. And then you just move on. Ask the damn follow-up and then demonstrate with facts how the guest is lying. You can’t just sit there and be a facilitator for whatever bullshit the guest wants to feed your viewers. They’re not coming on to plug a move. It’s not Jimmy Kimmel. You knowingly, passively, allow someone to lie on your air, and maybe you’re not a drug deal, but you’re sure as hell the guy who drives the dealer around in your car. Maybe you’ll get it, maybe you won’t. Show me something.”

Sloan tries to follow Will’s advice, which causes her to accuse the company translator of misrepresenting her words and release the information that Tanaka told her off the record:

 

 

Sloan: “What’s the condition of each reactor?”

Translator: “[translates question into Japanese]”

Tanaka: “[Responds in Japanese]”

Translator: “All six reactors are in stable condition.”

Don [watching from control room]: “Great, let’s wrap up.”

Sloan: “What about the partial meltdown at reactor three?”

Translator: “[translates into Japanese]”

Don: “Wrap up for me.”

Sloan: “[Interrupts Tanaka] Excuse me, that’s not what I asked. I’m asking him specifically about the core damage at reactor three.”

Don: “What’s happening?”

Translator: “[Translates into Japanese].”

Tanaka: “[Responds in Japanese].”

Translator: “We know of no core damage at any of the reactors.”

Sloan: “That’s not what Mr. Tanaka just said. He said our engineers can’t get close enough to confirm that. Please translate exactly what I’m asking and exactly what Mr. Tanaka is answering, including what I’m saying now, because I want him to be aware that he’s being misrepresented.”

Translator: “Miss Sabbith, I am translating. He is not being misrepresented.”

Sloan: “Ask him if he believed the radiation levels are going to a seven.”

Translator: “[translates question into Japanese].”

Don: “Please, please don’t go rogue.”

Tanaka: “[Responds in Japanese]”

Translator: “The radiation was categorized at level four and then recategorized at level five. And that’s where it should remain.”

Sloan: “Ma’am, he didn’t say that’s where it should remain. You did. Furthermore, he told me…you know what? I’m just gonna…Tanaka-san [speaks Japanese].”

Don: “And now we’re doing the broadcast in Japanese…We’ll be right back after this. Just say that. Say it in English.”

Sloan: “[rips out ear piece] [continues conversing with Tanaka in Japanese].”

Don: “[screams] Put me back!]”

Sloan: “Mr. Tanaka, your company had this incident rated at level four, then adjusted to level five. How confident are you that that’ll be the highest level we see?”

Don: “At least we’re back to English.”

Tanaka: “[responds in Japanese]”

Translator: “At this point we see no reason that that level will need future escalation.”

Sloan: “Well, that’s simply not what Mr. Tanaka told me on the phone earlier today.”

Don: “No, no.”

Sloan: “When I spoke with him earlier, he said there’s enough evidence to raise the level to seven…”

Don: “Go back to Japanese.”

Sloan: “And now he’s not saying it, so I am.”

Don: “Oh, my God!”

Sloan: “So there it is. The Fukushima nuclear power plant is saying that the level four radiation leak that was raised to level five has a chance at being raised to level seven, which is the difference between life and gruesome death. We’ll be back after this with Sarah Bernhardt.”

Don: “Sandra Bernhard, you idiot! Oh, what the hell does it matter?!”

I worked as a reporter for several years, so I am familiar with what happens when you present information that you have received off the record. In fact in many cases you can get fired for such an action, which is almost what happened to Sloan. However, in this case, I think exposing what Tanaka said off the record is the right thing. Though the show implies that the reason Sloan did this is because she wanted to impress Will, I think that reporters have a duty to report danger even if they do not get it on the record. However, reporters typically find ways around reporting off-the-record information by talking to other sources or using logic to show that the source is not describing the whole pictures and these options are not really portrayed in the show. Ultimately, though, Sloan did the right thing. While TEPCO does releases the information that reactor three reached radiation level seven later in the episode, Sloan’s exposing of that information may have saved some people from danger, especially since in reality, some of the radiation levels in villages surrounding the Fukushima plant have been confirmed to be greater than those caused by Chernobyl.

 

Energy narrative characteristics found in this episode: life=energy, environmental degradation, corporate ruthlessness, convenient racism.

The Newsroom: Trying to Toss a Hat on a Fire Hose

The first episode of the TV series, The Newsroom, follows the story of the British Petroleum (BP) Deepwater Horizon explosion and resulting oil spill off the coast of Venice, Louisiana, which took place on April 20, 2010. The episode describes the event from the perspective of journalists who put out a national news show. The journalists discover information about the explosion and the spill and relay that information to their audience .

Senior producer Jim Harper reads an associated press (AP) alert that there has been an explosion on a BP oil rig about 50 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana. The AP reporter claimed that coastguard evacuated 7 people all of them critically injured, and they are searching for 11 confirmed missing, and that flames from the rig had reached 150 feet in the air. Journalist, Neal Sampat reads the report and determines that there might be a bigger problem than the missing crew members. He claims that since the rig was drilling at 18,000 feet below sea level that the explosion could have caused a massive oil spill and that fixing it would be like “trying to toss a hat on a fire hose.”

Sampat and Harper experience some resistance from outgoing executive producer, Don Keefer, but are able to convince their bosses, incoming executive producer, Mackenzie McHale and news anchor Will McAvoy, that the story is worth pursuing. Harper receives two phone calls from anonymous sources, one at BP and one at Halliburton, a company that was used to supply the cement mix for the oil rig. Harper’s source from BP claims that BP does not know how to cap the well, and Harper’s source from Halliburton said that Halliburton performed tests on the cement mix and the tests showed that it was going to fail.

Neal: “After an explosion like that, the first thing that’s supposed to happen is the underwater blowout prevent should automatically close.”

Jim: “The flames are still 150 feet high, so that obviously didn’t happen. Now when they get the fire out, they’re gonna send a submersible ROV down there to turn the preventer on manually, but my source says ‘at that depth with that much pressure, it has to be the mechanics that failed and not the electronics.’ In other words, trying it manually isn’t gonna work either.”

Neal: “So they’re gonna have to build relief wells and that’s gonna take months.”

Jim: “Months of oil spilling into the Gulf at a rate of 4.2 million gallons a day.”

Don: “And just for the record, the Gulf of Mexico contains 643 quadrillion gallons of water. I think you may be overreacting.”

Jim: “You are dramatically underreacting.”

Don: “I’m the only one who isn’t dramatically doing anything.”

Jim: “In four days, it’ll have spilled as much oil as the Exxon Valdez. It’s a week before the oil reaches Louisiana shores, three days if the wind shifts.”

Mac: “Is the wind gonna shift?”

Jim: “Only if Louisiana’s luck stays exactly the same.”

Don warns Jim that if he takes Halliburton’s name through the muck and is incorrect, that they will destroy his career and his livelihood: “If you’re wrong about Halliburton, that’s the first line of your bio forever: ‘Isn’t this the same guy who said that Halliburton caused that spill?’ And, by the way, you publicly accuse them of negligent homicide and you’re wrong, they will take you to court. They will win and they will end up owning AWM. They will have their own record label. They will have theme parks.”

Despite all of this McAvoy agrees to not only run the story but to make that their primary focus for the show. The team continues to investigate during the broadcast to make sure that they cover every angle. Associate producer Margaret Jordan discovers that there was a lack of government oversight from the Minerals Management Service in inspecting the well.

Maggie: “It’s the Minerals Management Service (MMS) and they have 56 inspectors overseeing 3,500 production facilities that operate 35,591 wells in the Gulf region. That’s according to the Interior Department, not Wikipedia.”

Mac: “56 inspectors for 35,000 wells?”

Jim: “It gets better.”

Maggie: “Inspections for drilling rigs are required monthly, but Deepwater Horizon was only inspected nine times in 2009 and six times in 2008. The last inspection was done 20 days ago by Eric Neal, who was sent by himself even though he had only just started his training as a government inspector of drilling rigs.”

 

The point of this energy narrative is to expose how when corporations and government work together that serious negative consequences occur for the weaker force, in this case the environment. These two corporations were trying to make money and save money and in so doing they cut corners and pursued dangerous options. The point of government is to ensure a citizen’s right to safety and therefore regulate the unsafe practices of businesses, but since oil is needed by both the business world and the government, the government shirked its duty.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this episode: life=energy, environmental degradation, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities.