‘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?

Do facts have a bias?

It’s primary season. As a student of politics, I love it. It’s exciting and interesting and oh so messy. But there is one thing about it that frustrates me endlessly: the media’s lack of punch.

Journalists are supposed to be objective and keep their biases out of their work as much as possible. Lately, though, this has been taken to such an extreme that the media — the fourth estate and supposedly responsible for holding the powerful accountable — have turned toothless, for fear that someone will accuse them of bias or carrying out hit jobs. One of the biggest lessons that still resonates with me from J School came from my adviser. The gist is, “There’s a difference between being fair and being equal.”

There might be a segment on a news program called, “The Earth: Round or Flat?” In a fair model, a person who believes the earth is flat would never be given a platform or would be soundly shut down, because it’s a fact that the earth is not flat. In an equal model, one person who believes that the earth is round would debate a person who believes that the earth is flat. They’d yell at each other for 45 seconds, the anchor would sit impotently by and then sign off without settling the matter, leaving it open-ended and allowing the audience to believe that maybe there really is something to this flat-earth business.

In a recent debate, Mitt Romney made an error and mentioned something about John Adams authoring the Constitution. The moderator didn’t address this, nor did anyone else after the fact that I saw. The Constitution was largely authored by James Madison. I give Romney the benefit of the doubt and assume he made a harmless error, but that the moderator or another candidate didn’t correct it right then — either out of apathy, ignorance or fear of reprisal — is troubling.

That’s an example about a historical event in American history. What if the issue pertains to job growth, defense spending, abortion or health-care reform? A serious flaw in the debates is that the moderators always seem to ask questions with a hypothetical tilt. “What would you do about this?” I’d much rather see a fact-based question that forces the candidates to defend a position they’ve already taken. “You’ve said that X has been decreasing, but this data from Non-Partisan Research Body shows that X has actually been increasing. Do you care to explain your position, or provide a source for your data?”

Even better, have a squad of fact-checkers working during the debate and challenge assertions that candidates make during the debate. These days, fact-checking occurs after the debate is over, if it happens at all. Assuming that people even tune into the debates, I doubt that many of them stick around to see CNN or Fox or MSNBC or ABC go over and fact-check something that was said two or three hours ago or even two or three days ago. If there’s a question of veracity, bring it up then and have the candidates defend it then. 

Much of the disinformation peddled during elections — not just primaries, but general elections too — is aided and abetted by journalists’ unwillingness to take the gloves off and do their jobs. Will they make enemies this way? Sure. But it seems like too many political journalists these days are more interested in schmoozing and gossip and buddying up with candidates than they are in actually examining and evaluating their campaign platforms. As my dad said when I embarked on my (high school, haha) journalism career: “If you’re not pissing anybody off, you’re not doing your job.”

Women in the newsroom

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy (also known as “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and its sequels) features a tough heroine with chutzpah to spare. She makes no apologies for who she is, she never backs down from intimidation, she’s a consummate professional to the very end  and she regularly beats men at their own game.

I’m talking about Erika Berger (you thought it was Lisbeth Salander, didn’t you?).

Berger, with journalist Mikael Blomkvist, helped build Millennium magazine into a gutsy shrine to investigative journalism. Her tenure saw the magazine expose sex trafficking, corporate malfeasance and all manner of government corruption. She left Millennium to take the editor-in-chief job at Sweden’s top newspaper, only to return to Millennium at the end of the series rather than compromise her principles.

I can’t help but think of Berger when I read about Jill Abramson, who last week gained the crown jewel of journalism: leadership of the New York Times. She’s the first woman to ever hold the job; you’ll keep seeing this sentence over and over if you look into it.

If you’re unfamiliar with Abramson, I recommend this succinct but informative profile from the Guardian. What you’ll find is an impressive journalist — a former Washington bureau chief and managing editor with a love of in-depth investigative reporting and eye for the digital age. Her past friction with authority — digging deeper into Ken Starr’s motives during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and butting heads with the Bush administration — makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. Rock-solid credentials.

So why is it a big deal that she’s a woman?

While I know it’s an obvious milestone that can’t help but pop up, I’m leery that putting so much emphasis on Abramson’s sex might subtly be sending some hint of affirmative action or condescension. This is clearly not the case, but it’s troubling that in addition to explaining her background (which would be the case for any new editor, man or woman), Abramson seems compelled to defend her vision of the Times. In perhaps the same way that a female presidential candidate may once have had to prove that she wouldn’t push the Button during menopausal mood swings, Abramson has stated that “soft news” won’t overtake the Times’ front page.

Would a male executive editor have to iterate that?

While the Kansan is obviously not the Times, it is in its own way a microcosm of a broader journalistic culture. My second semester as managing editor, the entire upper echelon of management was female: the editor-in-chief and three managing editors. By May, after dealing with a bomb threat, stabbings, robberies, an alcohol-related death, an accidental death, a bizarre animal cruelty case, a fatal hit-and-run and numerous other crises, I’d have dared anyone to tell us we were “too soft.”

The Kansan (which lately has male and female editors in roughly equal measure) isn’t alone here. Of the 17 winners of the Associated Collegiate Press Newspaper Pacemaker in 2010, 11 papers had female editors or co-editors. Of the 11 large-school winners of the Associated Collegiate Press Online Pacemaker in 2010, six sites had female editors (including the awesome Lauren Cunningham, who managed Kansan.com that semester). So not only are women running college newspapers more often now, but we’re apparently running them very well.

We admire great male journalists simply as “great journalists.” Eventually — and here’s hoping Abramson’s tenure helps — I hope we can also look at great female journalists simply as “great journalists.” Both young men and women in the profession need role models and mentors. I’d like young women (and men) interested in our profession to admire seasoned ladies based on their qualifications and accomplishments, not because they got as far as they did despite the fact that (or because) they’re women. Focusing disproportionately on Abramson’s gender, and not on her record, doesn’t help.

I wish Abramson the best of luck, and I hope she knows that she has a whole fleet of young women journalists coming after her. Someone had to be first, after all. But not the final.

Stewart, Colbert, truthiness and journalists

One of my (few) regrets since moving to England is that I won’t be in the U.S. or anywhere near Washington DC when Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert stage their dueling rallies, the Rally to Restore Sanity and the March to Keep Fear Alive.

Imagine my surprise when I read that NPR was banning its news employees from attending the rally. The New York Times and Washington Post, while allowing their employees to attend, have also given them strict guidelines on how to behave. Don’t wear supportive shirts, don’t give any impression of support, try hard not to laugh (no, really). The Times’ directive in particular makes use of the Royal We (it might as well be) and has the distinct flavor of an Old Testament God hurling down orders from on high. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s Colbert Nation wristband.”

Washington City Paper hilariously lampooned such guidelines in its own tongue-in-cheek staff memo regarding the rallies. My personal favorite guideline is #10: “Feel free to laugh heartily at any jokes that target the terrorists.”

And there, I think, is the rub. It’s OK to laugh at terrorist-targeted jokes because it’s easy and requires little in the way of political or journalistic courage. It comes down to news agencies’ skittishness about their credibility and a mad dash to snuff out anything that might remotely resemble a conflict of interest. Despite Stewart and Colbert frequently mocking both sides of the political spectrum, it’s clear which side has organizations nervous.

Media ethicist and Miami Herald columnist Edward Wasserman summed it up perfectly in his Oct. 25 column. He notes that hand-wringing over whether employees attend a DC celebration of satire (is The Onion next on the chopping block?) dilutes very real conflict-of-interest dilemmas. Conflicts of interest are taken extremely seriously, and at their core, they undermine a reporter’s ability to fairly and objectively report a story. A true conflict of interest, Wasserman notes, is something like “the business reporter who covers a company in which she owns shares.” It is not employees attending a comedic event off the clock.

He goes further and says that it’s actually against news judgment principles — seeking tenets of prominence, conflict, proximity, unusualness, timeliness and impact — not to allow reporters to attend the rallies. Telling a reporter not to attend a well-publicized, controversial, first- and possibly only-time, celebrity-attended, interesting event on their own time is akin to telling an off-duty firefighter to stay away from any burning buildings he sees.

It comes down to courage versus cowardliness. Are news organizations secure enough in their own integrity to allow their employees to attend the Colbert and Stewart rallies off the clock, or are they so afraid of the conflict-of-interest shadow that they think that not allowing their employees to attend will make any difference at all to the people most likely to scream “BIAS”? People out to undermine news organizations will always find something to nitpick. If it wasn’t this event it’d be something else.

Most ominously, Wasserman says, is the question of how news organizations will handle stories and events that actually have legitimate ethical and moral implications when they can’t or won’t face a satirical event head on.