‘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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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.

Searching for Compassion in the Storm

If you haven’t already heard (or seen, or read), tornadoes in the southern U.S. killed at least 200 people last night and caused untold damage. The tornado season has gotten off to a devastating start in the midwest and in the south.

Being from Kansas, I’ve had tornado safety drilled into my mind practically from birth. A microburst hit my college town in March 2006, and I’ve spent untold numbers of spring and summer evenings hiding out in the basement watching or listening to the weather forecasts, occasionally peeking out the window to look at thunderstorms, hail and the eerie green stillness that only comes when something awful is about to happen. So, learning what’s happened in the south, I can commiserate with what the poor people down there are going through.

I’ve also read various stories about the storms on Gawker and The Huffington Post. While the stories themselves were sympathetic or at least innocuous, I was shocked and disgusted at the tone of many reader comments. Cracking jokes about God’s judgment and the Wizard of Oz, calling the storms retribution for “birtherism,” telling southerners they had no right to expect disaster aid — this is compassion? I by no means consider myself a conservative or a Tea Party member, but these tasteless comments from so-called enlightened liberals made me extraordinarily angry. Tornadoes do not care whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, I promise.

As a Kansan, I’m used to people automatically assuming that I’m uneducated, live on a farm, hate gays and disbelieve evolution. Southerners are often the victims of stereotyping that’s at least that annoying if not worse. But to bring it out when people are dead and dying through no fault of their own, frankly, makes me sick.

What makes it more galling is that most of these people no doubt consider themselves to be open-minded, educated and tolerant. The same people who’d be offended if these comments were slung at gays, minorities or liberals in general have no qualms tossing them at people from an “inferior” region. (For the record, I abhor blanket statements about any demographic.) Many of them self-identify as being from parts of the U.S. like the northeast, which doesn’t typically have as many tornadoes as the midwest and south; do they know what it’s like to cower in your basement and have the very real fear that at any second, without warning, your home may be blown away?

And yes, many people in the south (and elsewhere) express a dislike for government handouts. Does this mean that in their hour of need, we should tell them, “No disaster relief for you”? No. Why? Because we’re supposed to be better than that. If we show a lack of compassion to those who lack it themselves, how are we better? How does that set an example and help people to change their minds? It doesn’t. In pointing out some southerners’ hypocrisy regarding federal assistance, some people have equally made hypocrites of themselves.

The Red Cross is accepting donations on behalf of people in the south affected by the storms. Please make a contribution.