House of Cards: What Happens When a Reporter Becomes an Army of One?

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March 1, 2013 by newsgetting

Welcome back to the “House of Cards” recap where Ashley Parker and David Carr tease apart Netflix’s Washington-based drama as a reflection of the world of politics and media. Spoilers abound, so read at your peril.

Episode Three
Rep. Frank Underwood is busy hammering out an education bill when a seemingly made-up controversy in his home district forces him to hop a plane. Meanwhile, the newspaper reporter Zoe Barnes enjoys her time in the spotlight and contemplates going rogue.

Carr: There are two parables embedded in this episode. The first is an old one, reminding us that all politics, no matter how important the players, are local. And the second seems to take on a more modern dilemma, suggesting that journalism, often thought of as a team sport, is actually morphing into a place where individuals shine. After all, there’s at least one “I” in journalism, right?

Even as he’s dealing with the education bill, Frank returns to his district to deal with a crisis involving a teenage girl’s death. The dual responsibilities give the show the opportunity to show the tension between being a beltway player while keeping the home fires burning. For my money, though, the journalism leg of the episode three is the far more provocative strand of this show. Zoe Barnes, a newly minted It Girl of Beltway journalism, is ushered into the editor’s office and is met by the newspaper’s publisher, a doyenne played by Kathleen Chalfant and clearly meant to evoke Katharine Graham of The Washington Post.

She quizzes Zoe about her source for a story but Zoe refuses to give it up: “Do you want my source or my integrity?” Zoe asks somewhat aphoristically. The publisher, charmed by her insouciance, orders the editor to put the young reporter’s story about a secretary of state nominee on the front page. Those kind of edicts might occur at some newspapers — not the one I work at — but they would never, ever be delivered in front of a reporter.

The publisher’s mandate only increases the friction between the upstart reporter and her very traditional editor, Tom Hammerschmidt. Played in the key of dour by Boris McGiver, Hammerschmidt does a slow burn as he watches Zoe do a television interview and making all manner of broadcast judgments about the state of journalism and The Washington Herald, her mythical paper.

“Your job is to cover the news, not be the news,” he says.

“I was promoting the paper,” she responds.

“You were were promoting Zoe Barnes,” he shoots back, before telling her to reign in her arrogance, along with her television appearances. “No TV for a month,” he says. When she complains, he threatens, “You make it no TV indefinitely?” That conversation rings very true to the father of teenagers like me, but it would not go off that way in any professional setting I have ever worked in.

What say you, Ashley? Did you like the episode? And do you think that Ms. Barnes push-back against her boss flicked at the growing power of individuals within journalistic enterprises?

Parker: The question of individual brands in journalism is an interesting one. When I graduated from college, in 2005, it was a legitimate question as to whether an aspiring journalist should try to get their foot in the door at the best place possible, or go out into the country and work for a smaller paper, learning the ropes by covering courts or cops for a few years. But now, when I’m occasionally asked to speak to high school or college journalism classes, my advice is totally different. I tell students to seriously consider a start-up or fully online enterprise; it wasn’t too long ago, after all, that places like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed — now hubs of top-notch talent — seemed like upstart longshots.

Ignoring the larger question of what this means for journalism generally, a just-out-of-college reporter can now, for instance, cover a presidential campaign, with the attendant rewards and risks: do a good job and watch your profile shoot up in a way it never could have just a decade ago, but make a mistake and it will be chronicled in every imaginable sphere (the blogosphere, the Twittersphere and on and on).

But yes, in this way, reporters can become individual brands. That concept is not necessarily a wholly positive development. For starters, it ignores all of the editing and collaboration that goes into almost any story, especially at a newspaper like ours.

What’s interesting to me is how Zoe seems to want to have it both ways, playing the sexism card when it suits her, while simultaneously using her sex appeal to land stories. After a dressing down by Hammerschmidt, she threatens, “So you think when a woman asks to be treated with respect, that’s arrogance?” A fully admirable sentiment, though perhaps she’s not the most credible messenger.

Marin Cogan wrote a fantastic piece Wednesday in The New Republic — aptly titled “House of Cads” — chronicling, as the headline put it, “The psycho-sexual ordeal of reporting in Washington.” The fact that her essay was the buzz in the city today underscores that most female reporters, especially those covering politics, have encountered similarly uncomfortable situations — where professional interest was confused for something more … personal.

Do you think it would be possible for a show like this to explore the actual complexity of reporting while female? Or do we, the viewing public, prefer our female reporters like Zoe — easy to pigeonhole in all the wrong ways?

Carr: This show has as much chance of exploring those complexities as I do of running a marathon. “House of Cards” fans know without looking (ahead) that Zoe is going to make some epic bad choices. And not in the ditzy HBO “Girls” way of “Living the dream, one mistake at a time.” Zoe is not so much bumping into things as running over them headlong. Her neediness, her entitlement, are manifest in all she does. She is all about the Zoe Barnes the brand, but as many of us have found out, the whole Army of One thing is great until you get in a jam and need backing.

But even though our business is full of talented, successful women, it’s a different challenge. On the Poynter site today, there was a post about things “Said to Lady Journos,” which laid out a depressing array of oafishness and sexism. Twitter was alive with the meme.

In the end, Zoe is a necessary figure for the “House of Cards” parable. She must seduce the congressman, less to possess him than to use him, so that she can declare dominion over her corner of the world.

So no, no teachable moments about the lot of working newsies who happen to be women, just two narcissists trying to make the world curve to their every need. Which isn’t bad television, by the way. And at the risk of prolonging a long chat, one last question for you, Ashley. Have you ever met a Zoe on the beat? How did that approach work out for her?

Parker: There is no one quite like Ms. Barnes, as Frank Underwood might say. But on the flip side of the same question, I do know a few political operatives who had a bad (and frankly sexist) habit of assuming a female reporter was pulling a Zoe Barnes, so to speak, when she emerged with a good, scoopy story. But that’s usually all there was to the story: A good scoop, which is plenty juicy enough.

By David Carr and Ashley Parker – New York Times
(http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/)
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