‘House of Cards’ has a lady journo problem

Caution that there are some spoilers here, up to about the last 2-3 episodes of the third season. I don’t think it’s anything drastic but use your discretion.

The first thing a lot of people would ask me, when I told them I watched “House of Cards,” is what I thought of Zoe Barnes.

I’m a female journalist, she was a female journalist and most of my non-journalist friends and family apparently assumed that I’d root for her or find her to be some kindred spirit.

I did not.

I actually found her to be an entitled, unethical brat. At some point in the social media age, journalists became aware of themselves as a “brand” apart from the outlet for which they worked. The best reporters and editors brought their own followings along no matter where they worked. In that sense, Zoe’s aggressive self-promotion seemed like a response to this trend of “personal branding.”

But it will never be a trend to become sexually and emotionally involved with a source. So rather than root for Zoe when she began sleeping with Frank Underwood and launching her career off the manipulated intel he gave her (she more or less acted as his one-woman PR firm), I felt no camaraderie, only disgust. And when Janine Gorsky, who had been set up as a more experienced, more hard-nosed alternative to Zoe, confided to Zoe that she had in the past been “sucking, screwing, and jerking anything that moved just to get a story,” my confidence that “Cards” would ever get female journalists right plummeted. It was not just an issue with Zoe; it was lady journos in general, it seemed.

There was a brief flicker of hope near the end of Season 2 and through the early part of Season 3 when Ayla Sayyad replaced Zoe as the series’ journalism focus. She seemed to ask decent questions and managed to avoid sleeping with a source (that we saw) throughout her duration. Her reward for appearing to meet the bare competency threshold? Being dismissed from the White House press corps, sold out by a fellow journalist in exchange for access to information that had been under a moratorium. (And also, that is absolutely not how White House press credentials work.)

Kate Baldwin, Ayla’s successor, showed up with a lot of promise. She vowed to ask tougher questions and had hallmarks of being a grizzled veteran. That promise took a swan dive as soon as she began an affair with Thomas Yates, who was on the president’s payroll as, let’s call a spade a spade, a propagandist. That Thomas started out as an (uncooperative) source wasn’t a deterrent, nor did Kate seem particularly bothered by not covering scheduled events (aka the job for which she was getting paid) in order to have a tryst in a hotel room on the trail. To her credit, Kate does point out the conflict of interest when Thomas tries to leak to her a chapter of the book he’s writing, but at that point it’s too late and it comes off as incredibly half-assed.

So of the four prominent female journalists in the series, three of them have slept with their sources, one of them was railroaded out of her beat and one of them printed a congressman’s talking points more or less verbatim for the sole purpose of advancing her own career. Male journalists, interestingly, haven’t played as large of a role in the series. Tom Hammerschmidt, Zoe’s old boss, is treated as a hardass dinosaur who’s behind the times. Lucas Goodwin comes off as lovesick over Zoe and too easily falls into a trap, but there are hints that his previous work has been of good quality and effected change. Kate’s editor at the fictional Telegraph has a brief appearance, but all he really does is squash her barnstorming writing by pointing out the silly notion that writing a full-on column is not good practice for a supposedly impartial news reporter (and Kate’s response is to just move into column-writing, even at the expense of her climb up the masthead). All of the male journalists we meet have one major thing in common: We see none of them sleeping with sources.

Is this what Beau Willimon and Co. actually think female journalists (or journalists in general) do? I hope not. Is our line of work being made more tawdry for the sake of drama? Surely. Is there something more scintillating about a female reporter who can’t manage to not bang a source? I guess? I do know dozens of female reporters and editors, and every one of them takes her job very seriously. They’re talented enough and connected enough to rely on their skills and reputations. And seeing their work distilled into what’s on display in “House of Cards” is incredibly depressing, even though I do enjoy the show.

And yes, the show is fictional. It does not accurately convey the realities of Congress, the White House, lobbying, the United Nations, bilateral agreements, … nth. But being a female journalist is one thing that I at least have the experience to speak out about. Give us a female reporter or editor who isn’t a stenographer, a backstabber, a liar and/or a source bedmate. Too much to ask?

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The Solo Diner

I’ve written before about traveling solo and how invigorating (and, I think, necessary) it is. But what about going solo in the city where you live?

I am a classic introvert. I like people and I like seeing friends, but it exhausts me. Unless something major is happening, I try to stick to about one “thing” with people each weekend. This weekend I’m meeting a friend for a film and dinner and next week I’m going to a happy hour party for a friend’s new job. The rest of the time, I have “me” time.

During the majority of the week, I’m surrounded by people and my time is not really my own. But on weekends I tend to wander around on my own, and I like it that way. I can pick the films I want to see, the coffee shops where I hang out and read and the restaurants where I eat.

I celebrated my raise with a solo dinner at Oyamel. Probably once every other month or so I go to The Coupe and sit and have a meal at the bar. Ted’s Bulletin on 14th? Great solo bar breakfasts. I also did a Restaurant Week lunch last weekend at The Source. It’s just what I do, and it’s great.

I never got the point of being embarrassed or scared of doing things alone. I think it might be a combination of my introversion and being an only child. I’ve always been self-sufficient and have never relied on finding other people to do things with. Do I like going out with friends, yes. Am I mentally exhausted after, also yes. I’d miss out on a lot of experiences, things I want to do, if I only ever did them when I could coordinate with other people.

So make that solo dinner reservation without fear. Just maybe bring a book.

In praise of digital relationships, romantic and otherwise

Earlier tonight, as I prepared to go to bed, I looked up a few old schoolmates on Facebook. People to whom I was never particularly close, even then. The ones I found were nearly strangers to me. I have nothing in common with them now, and the only thing I had in common with them then was geography. Even that wasn’t exactly a matter of agency, given that we lived where our parents had chosen to live.

I’ve long rejected the notion that friendships and relationships should be based on geography. Obviously you’ll eventually want to meet your closest online friends and especially your online romantic interests, and romantic partners would ultimately relocate for each other. But choosing a friend or a partner based on elementary school or high school or even college always seemed needlessly limited to me. I know many people who found their long-term partners in school; I wasn’t one of them. And while I do retain close friendships with many people with whom I went to school, I have just as many close friends whom I met through various online means, based on our mutual interests.

Because of my shyness and, to use the technical term, resting bitch face, I’ve long had difficulty getting close to people I meet first in person. I know that I come off as a bit awkward and aloof. I communicate much better in writing. Even my co-workers compliment my humor and wit in our office chat program. So it makes sense that someone like me would more easily forge written-based relationships. 

One of my best friends now is someone I’d have never met at all, in person or otherwise, were it not for our mutual love of Harry Potter and various other geekery. We crossed paths online over five years ago and up to this point we’ve visited each other and we regularly chat long-distance about other things: cooking, pets, work, moving. I talk to her about things I’d talk to any true friend about in person.

My current long-distance partner (soon to, in a few weeks, hopefully become my short-distance partner for a few days at least) approached me because he admired my online writing about, of all things, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” That was six months ago and we’ve been talking non-stop ever since. Though I’m eager to see him, I don’t consider what we have to be inherently less meaningful because it’s mostly based on written communication.

Finally, the peril of going to school in the Midwest and in England and living on the East Coast is that nearly all of my friends, even if they began as in-person friends, became long-distance friends. Written communication is absolutely essential, whether it’s a tweet, email, text, Facebook message or something else. This is what helps me sustain my friendships, because the vast majority of my friends live hundreds or thousands of miles away.

I have more in common with a handful of people thousands of miles away in England than I do with a handful of people in Kansas with whom I shared a few years of schooling 20-odd years ago. It’s worth it to me to forsake in-person interactions for the time being in exchange for a deeper emotional attachment through writing. I wouldn’t trade a day’s worth of emails with my partner for 50 middling OKCupid dates in D.C.

But I am excited to see him, though …

On the stories of paintings

"Danaë," by Titian

“Danaë,” by Titian

During the month I spent traveling across Europe in March and April 2007, I visited some of the greatest art galleries in the world, including the Louvre, the Orsay, the Vatican Museum, the Uffizi and the Prado. My love for art, particularly Italian Renaissance pieces and French Impressionism, has been steadfast ever since.

Today I visited the National Gallery, which currently has on loan a painting by the Venetian Renaissance master Titian. The piece is “Danaë,” one of a series of five Titian paintings of the mythological princess and mother of Perseus. This particular piece is housed in Naples, and was originally commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese.

As I read the information about the painting (I must confess that I’m not a particular fan of Titian; I veer more toward the Florentines), I noticed that the backstory included details of the painting’s commission and information about what happened to it later. During World War II, Hermann Göring had it looted from Italy to add to his personal collection. It was recovered in a salt mine in Altaussee, Austria, by the “Monuments Men.”

It struck me that paintings such as this are often at the mercy of what happens to them later, through no fault or intention of their creator. The origin story of the series is fascinating enough (the classical inspiration was a way to skirt obscenity charges because of the nudity, and the Danaë figure reputedly has the face of Farnese’s mistress), all the more so because it gives Titian some level of agency.

But what to make of the World War II connection? You can also sub in any other incident: theft, attempted theft, damage, popular literature. There are numerous ways for the mystique of a painting to transcend the painting itself. How many exemplary pieces of art are sidelined, overlooked or even forgotten simply because they lack a glamorous story to accompany them?

As I seek out works of art that I haven’t yet seen, and revisit old favorites, that’s what I’ll attempt to remind myself. Evaluate the work based on the work, and treat any interesting incidents as just that: external forces that don’t — shouldn’t — elevate or reduce the art. A painting or sculpture is not any more or less valuable because a Nazi wanted it, or because it disappeared in a museum heist, or because someone wrote a fictional book about it.

(In an unrelated now, I find myself wanting to return to Italy.)

In search of “home”

I do some of my best thinking on the Metro. There’s nothing to do, really, except think and go over things in my mind.

My little epiphany this morning was in my realization that, while I can safely say that I don’t feel much emotional attachment to where I grew up — without my friends and parents and other family there, I’d have no reason to go back — I also don’t have that many roots in D.C., despite living here for a year and a half. I think deep down, I see my time here as temporary and transient. Will it end up being so? Maybe. Maybe not. Plenty of people in D.C. planned to stay for a year or two, and lo, 30 years pass and they’re still here.

Then I thought about what makes a home. How do you decide to lay down roots? When should you decide? Should you fall in love with a place, and stay out of love for that place, or should you fall in love with a person, and lay roots with them wherever? I don’t think it’s too much to ask to love someone and stay with them in a place that you’d love even if you weren’t with them. I hope to be so fortunate.

I’m also not sure that time expended counts toward a feeling of home. I still think of England as “home” on some occasions, despite only living there for two years. On the one hand, almost two decades in the Midwest hadn’t done much to solidify nostalgia for that place. The jury’s still out on D.C., I have a certain fondness for it, but can’t help this nagging feeling that it too is just a pit stop on the road to … somewhere else.

Traveling is something I have to do, almost compulsively. Even my trips that get planned months in advance receive almost obsessive attention. Is my travel bug some subconscious method of “scouting” a possible home? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes I’m afraid that I’m destined to just be a wanderer, moving here and there whenever I manage to overcome inertia.

At the end of the day, I think a true home has to combine both people and location. It’s not enough to live somewhere you love if you have no one to share it with, and it’s not enough to be with someone you love if the location makes you miserable or unhappy.

Wish me luck eventually finding that happy balance.

Refusing a bite of the apple

I might be one of a rare breed of female twentysomething journalists who consider themselves city mice: I have never made any serious, good-faith attempt to “make it” in New York, nor have I ever wanted to and honestly, unless an amazing opportunity arises or I move for a partner, I sincerely can see myself never wanting to.

A friend of mine shared this blog entry today, which I read and which maybe finally made me realize why I never sought that city the way so many women my age and in my profession do. New York City, the presumed epicenter of culture, literature and intellectual thought, is crowding out (and has been crowding out) the very people who contribute those things to the city. Creativity must be nurtured, and that requires basic security, energy and time, things that can be difficult if not impossible to attain in the city, especially if, like the blog author, you have to work a “real” job to make ends meet. The author decided to ultimately sacrifice location for that trifecta she needed to do something fulfilling, and left.

Which brings me back to myself; reading that, I have to wonder if I always knew, subconsciously, that I wouldn’t find in New York what I needed to fulfill me. Rather than needing to live there to realize that, maybe I always had a sense that it wasn’t really worth it. It wasn’t worth paying four figures to live with a bunch of other people in some outer borough, or doing a menial and unrewarding job, or going without food, just to be able to say, “I live in New York.” If “living in New York” doesn’t really come with the actual lifestyle implied by “living in New York” (creative freedom and intellectual growth), then what the bloody hell good is it? It’s an empty phrase, designed to impress outsiders or people from home; it would have no bearing on how I actually lived my life. That air of superiority, given the living circumstances of so many people like me in the city, just felt unearned, and I’d be damned if I moved there to perpetuate it.

And obviously it’s different for different people. I have friends there who love it, and I freely admit that I’d feel perfectly happy living in that other New York-esque metropolis with which I’m so familiar (London, I mean London). But after reading the blog entry and seeing a woman who might, in another life, have been me, it clicked. I had “gotten it” before I really even knew what I had “gotten.”

But then again, I never really knew or noticed how prevalent “Good-bye, New York” writings were. Time and again, young women aspire to go to New York, do so and then leave, for one reason or another. Maybe I just cut out the middleman.

In all fairness I do say this as a Washingtonian (via the Midwest and some stints in Britain), living in a place that isn’t exactly inexpensive. Many people in D.C. view it as a step on the way to New York, including at least a few of my friends. The District’s alleged inferiority complex is often remarked upon, and I’d be lying if I didn’t find the Times’s sometimes downright snotty coverage of the city (including, at times, bush-league geographic errors) to be grating. It seems like no matter what D.C. has, New York has more of it. Which is to be expected, as New York has more than 8 million people and D.C. only recently topped about 650,000, although it’s only getting bigger. But often, any criticism of New York by a D.C.-er brings allegations of jealousy or attempts at one-upping.

Which is why I found Andrew Sullivan’s own farewell to New York to be comforting; it’s rare (at least in my experience) to have someone that high-profile in the creative/journalistic community so publicly and forcefully side with D.C. over New York. For once, we’re not the ones being jilted. And Sullivan noticed that, too. It was “incomprehensible” to New Yorkers, he said, that a person might choose D.C. over their city.

And that’s at least partly why he left.

Everyone is ‘Friends of Hamas’

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

I think just about every working journalist has heard that bit of wisdom at some point. Today’s dose of political journalism schadenfreude ties into it nicely.

Here’s what happened, as near as I can tell. Dan Friedman of New York Daily News called a Hill worker to look into allegations that Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel had questionable, anti-Israel ties. Friedman, thinking he was quipping, asked his source if Hagel had ever given a speech to “Friends of Hamas” (the “Junior League of Hezbollah, in France” was also name-dropped but it was “Friends” that stuck).

Fast forward to about two weeks ago when Ben Schapiro of Breitbart.com ran an article claiming that White House officials were dodging questions about Hagel’s association with the group.

Friends of Hamas, of course, doesn’t exist. It’s not a real organization. Friedman had been so sure that his questions were easily spotted as hyberbole that it never occurred to him that someone might run with it. And it wasn’t just Breitbart — other conservative publications picked it up, too.

Dave Weigel of Slate saw all this and decided to take 20 minutes (his own estimation) to do what hadn’t occurred to anyone else: actually do some research to see if Friends of Hamas was an actual group.

This all resulted in pretty much everyone in my Twitter feed trading quips about Friends of Hamas and wondering what the hell Schapiro was thinking when he ran with a scoop without verifying it. Schapiro posted a follow-up, but all it really does is blame everyone but Schapiro himself for what happened. He also suggests that the impetus is on Hagel to disprove all of this. Something about when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

Knocking Schapiro at this point is superfluous. But this can be a cautionary tale to other journalists. A reminder that “interesting if true” has the word “if” in it. A reminder to always verify what your sources tell you (Schapiro goes from having plural sources in his original article to a single source in his update, so which is it?). A reminder not to go in with a political agenda, looking for things to validate an opinion you already have. And a reminder that if you’re ever caught doing this, have the grace and dignity to admit you screwed up instead of just digging in deeper.