HBO Faces Big Risks as It Enters the News Business (Guest Column)

HBO Big Risks News - H 2015
Courtesy of HBO

HBO Big Risks News - H 2015

On trial for libel even as it expands video journalism with Vice and John Oliver, the network must tread carefully or be sued.

This story first appeared in the May 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

HBO has announced a nightly newscast produced by Vice, its gonzo global newsgathering partner. Bill Maher already has established his Real Time as HBO's politically incorrect version of a Sunday morning politics show. This month, Alex Gibney showcased HBO's long-form documentary chops with accomplished productions on the Church of Scientology and Frank Sinatra. And John Oliver's April 5 Last Week Tonight interview with Edward Snowden was a genuine newsmaker.

So in a way, it is appropriate that this month should see HBO's true initiation into the journalistic establishment, as its Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel goes on trial for libel for a 2008 story on child-labor violations in India by Mitre, the soccer ball maker. Depending on the verdict in a case seeking millions of dollars, HBO could find itself a paid-up member of the cynical mainstream media, willing to distort and manipulate in search of a scoop.

One allegation in opening arguments was especially resonant in the current world of video journalism. Lloyd Constantine, arguing on Mitre's behalf, separated his accusations of HBO's wrongdoing into two categories. The first was one that would apply to a libelous story appearing in any medium, namely that Real Sports' accusations were untrue and that Mitre does not exploit child labor. The second was medium-specific, that for a television story merely saying that the underlying exploitation existed is insufficient, that it had to show video of the practice as well.

Thus Constantine emphasized an internal HBO memo, by associate producer Zehra Mamdani, noting that obtaining such video was "doable, if it's done in a clever way." Constantine claimed that the footage of children making soccer balls that ended up in the report by correspondent Bernard Goldberg did not show them working for Mitre, but privately for their own parents instead. Quite apart from the merits — or lack of them — of this particular case, here is an example of the state of the medium into which HBO is venturing. Traditionally, TV news consisted of news that any other medium — newspapers, magazines, radio — would deliver. The nightly newscasts and the morning programs would apply their own medium's audiovisual techniques to the same agenda that other news media would follow.

TV networks no longer have a monopoly on recording equipment; digital video now is in the hands of everyone. Decisions about recording nonfiction footage are no longer the province of journalists. Consider the two major national news stories of mid-April: Prosecutors relied on CCTV surveillance video to obtain the conviction of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston; and the cellphone video recorded by Feidin Santana was indispensable to filing murder charges in the death of Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C.

So, as HBO expands its programming to include more television news, it finds the definition of that medium simultaneously contracting and expanding. Contracting in the sense that video reportage needs to confine itself to those things that it can do uniquely well — showing the otherwise unseen, delivering the revelatory sound bite. Expanding in the sense that television news should now properly be called nonfiction video. Journalism is no longer the discipline that decides how nonfiction content gets produced. Vice is dismantling the line between activism and reporting. Maher collapses the line between commentary and comedy. The dividing line between documentary and reality TV is impossible to demarcate.

HBO and all news outlets have a greater opportunity to make nonfiction video than ever before and, at the same time, less control than ever. There is so much video available whose provenance is unknown, whose production followed no journalistic ethics, and so much temptation to treat footage as newsworthy, even though the story is trivial, just because the video happens to exist. So much more programming to make — and so many more lawsuits to be exposed to.

Andrew Tyndall is an independent news analyst and author of The Tyndall Report.