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.