“House of Cards” Ethics: Why Should We Believe TV Journalists and Pundits Have Any Integrity When They Don’t Value It Themselves?

Safer interviews "President Frank Underwood." Morley, Morely, Morely...

Safer interviews “President Frank Underwood.” Morley, Morely, Morely…

The third season of “House of Cards,” a Netflix series about the corruption in Washington, continues to corrupt real Washington journalists and talking heads. On the third season  episode I just watched, “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” was drawn into this alternate universe (or Hell) and George, along with regular panel members Donna Brazile and Matthew Dowd, rendered trenchant if predictable opinions about fictional President Frank Underwood with exactly as much passion and certitude as they do when they aren’t just playing themselves, but being professional analysts whose job it is to objectively enlighten the TV news audience. With that, they joined CNN’s John King ,Candy Crowley,and Carol Costello, Soledad O’Brien, now with Al Jazeera America, NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Fox’ Sean Hannity, CBS’s Morley Safer of “60 Minutes,”  and Matt Bai as “House of Cards” journalist/actors. I’m sure I missed a few. The mystery is why none of these journalists (and whatever Sean Hannity and Brazile are) don’t hear ethics alarms ringing when invited to sully their already dubious credibility (they are in the news media, after all), by showing themselves reporting and commenting on fiction exactly the way they are seen reporting on reality. Brian Rooney, a media critic who writes “The Rooney Report,” states succinctly what’s the matter with this:

“The trouble with journalists appearing as themselves in entertainment is that the public already has difficulty discerning fact from fiction in the news. Reporters and news organizations survive on truth and trust. Readers and viewers need to believe what they are told so they can make informed decisions. When real reporters allow themselves to be part of fiction, the trust is shattered. They do it with a wink, like they are in on the joke, but it costs them their credibility.”

Well, it would cost them credibility, if they had any. I think what causes this conduct to flourish, which once upon a time would have caused any serious journalist to laugh out loud or perhaps recoil in horror if someone suggested it, is that a critical mass in the profession of broadcast journalism no longer sees itself as distinct from the entertainment industry, and thus has no ethics qualms at being entertainers.  This is, as Rooney notes, self-destructive, but broadcast journalism has no professional moorings any more. If these people (pr their employers) were capable of ethical thought, they would realize that once viewers see them as entertainers, the suspicion that follows is that their news reporting and opinions when they aren’t rubbing elbows with actors playing fake presidents, first ladies and solicitor generals are also warped by entertainment considerations: the desire for ratings, the need for popularity, and the desire to please directors, as in the network brass. There is a benefit to this, I suppose: it explains why so many commenters I read on newspaper websites think that it’s mean to take Brian Williams off the air. “He’s nice looking, he has a good voice, he’s funny on Letterman, he’s never critical of the President…what more do you want? So what if he makes things up?” Yes, I know all the rejoinders to this: “times have changed,” “modern audiences don’t mind,” “don’t be so stuffy,” it’s no big deal,” “who cares?”, “it’s all in good fun,” and the rest. Go ahead and brush it off: you are dead wrong, that’s all. This is a symptom of why our journalism isn’t trustworthy. It demonstrates a widespread disregard for integrity as plainly as a yellow pallor demonstrates a non-functional liver.  I won’t blame Kevin Spacey et al. for corrupting these journalists: they were corrupt already, or they wouldn’t assent to such unprofessional conduct. But if we had the ethical news media and journalists that democracy deserves and needs, we wouldn’t have come within a mile of this particular slippery slope.

17 thoughts on ““House of Cards” Ethics: Why Should We Believe TV Journalists and Pundits Have Any Integrity When They Don’t Value It Themselves?

    • Nobody believed Nixon already. That was, sadly, brilliant: he needed humanizing and de-demonizing, and appearing on Laugh-In was perfect—it may have made him President. I’m perfectly happy to blame this on Dick.

  1. They already live in a world of fiction and present their alternate universe as truth to the public for a living. Why would they balk from this? It’s essentially the same job, only at a different pay scale.

  2. I know exactly what you mean, Jack. When Jerry Springer appeared in Austin Powers 2, I distinctly remember thinking, “there is no way I can take this man seriously anymore.”


  3. Since I doubt anyone is watching HoC on Netflix who doesn’t occasionally watch the news, I doubt there’s any upside like, exposing avid entertainment watchers to real pundits to draw them back to the news side of television.

  4. I don’t see what’s wrong with this on its own merits. Fiction is fiction. If journalists and pundits want to portray themselves in a fictional alternate universe, that’s fine.

    It’s not that this damages their credibility — anyone who has been paying attention can see that they haven’t had any integrity for decades (if they ever really did) — it’s just painful to see how completely the news profession has sold itself out.

    If they actually had any integrity and reliably told the unalloyed truth, their credibility wouldn’t be affected at all by something like this. A good performance on a show like House of Cards wouldn’t detract from their gravitas, it would just lend some to a skillful piece of fiction. Instead, the TV show just points out how much fiction there already is in the precast narratives these charlatans spin in their day jobs. Heck, House of Cards might tell more truth through fiction than the news ever does through its treatment of facts. We’re expected to appreciate a distinction that doesn’t exist — or is actually backwards — and it’s unsettling.

    Reminds me of something George Orwell had to say about the media in his time. “Do remember that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for.Don’t imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the boot-licking propagandist of the Soviet régime, or any other régime, and then suddenly return to mental decency. Once a whore, always a whore.”

    The shoe fits pretty well, I think.

  5. Why do so many Americans believe the media, and not accept that it is totally corrupt? Each news outlet, every reporter, has some axe to grind — liberal or conservative — so we should be surprised that newscasters are willing to take money to “be themselves” in a fictional TV series? Come on: they are engaged in fiction every day — both liberal and conservative — “telling the story” according to their own or their network’s bias. It is telling that CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times is suddenly taking Hillary to task for keeping her official, Secretary of State e-mails private. Don’t think for a quick minute that they think it’s important — it’s only because they are placed in a position that they CAN’T ignore it. If they could, they would. And we all know it.

    • She just had a news conference in which she explained everything. If I had the money to lose, I’d be willing to bet $20 that the aforementioned news services will start printing her denials and excuses as established fact within 24 hours.

      • Dragin – the name of the game. Power corrupts, etc., etc. I’d give it less than 24 hours. Watch nightly news tonight. Her liars/supporters will be there, in droves.

        FYI (an aside): I refuse to watch the morning news. It only makes me angry (no way to start my day), and I know the same news will be repeated over and over again all day. Brian Williams — punished for being a fabulist — is the tip of the iceberg. Few others will be narcissistic or stupid enough to do what he did.

        • I don’t know, Elizabeth. O’Reilly has done the exact same thing, and he, apparently, is getting away with it.

          • You’re right. O’Reilly, despite his insistence on dealing w/ issues the other major networks ignore, is another narcissist, and his protection by Fox News is sickening. Fox still has the highest ratings of the other cable news shows, but if they keep this kind of thing going, they’re going to lose their “fair and honest” slogan pretty quickly. When I watch TV news I go back and forth between CNN and Fox, just to see how they’re handling issues. The difference is pretty astounding. Nevertheless, Fox should have called O’Reilly on his lies, and didn’t. So they’re down at least 50% in the “fair and honest” scale.

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