Accuracy in Fiction: Journalists Need to Stop Chasing Windmills

This newspaper hasn’t existed since 1939. Exterior of the Baltimore Sun for “House of Cards”. photo: Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun

This newspaper hasn’t existed since 1939. Exterior of the Baltimore Sun for “House of Cards”. photo: Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun

I’m five episodes into “House of Cards” on Netflix and I already made the mistake of reading initial impressions online. If you haven’t peeked at reviews, many based on the first two episodes that were screened for the press, then I urge you not to for your own continued enjoyment of the series. You will find no links here for that reason.

However I do want to touch upon one criticism that has risen to the top of several online discussions. There seems to be a drumbeat from viewers upset that the show is not more realistic. Particularly journalists who want us to know that newsrooms do not function as they are being portrayed. This seems to be a growing concern among our reporting brethren. A similar message crept up when Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom” aired and it began to ruin the show for me.

As a former reporter for a newspaper I would like to take a moment and go against the tide. Right here and now I would like to state that I do not go in search of realistic portrayals of my former profession in dramatic series. I understand that the show is made up, contrived, and in this case pulled from the BBC classic of the 90s. At no point was I expecting the series to relay the actual boredom faced by reporters as they chase down leads, make endless calls, knock on doors, and tweet. Wouldn’t that be a blast, watching our journalistic representative Zoe Barnes tweeting? After all, David Carr of the New York Times seems to spend much of his day doing just that and he’s unabashedly unapologetic for his love of online media.

So why do the opinions of the media affect my viewing pleasure and possibly yours? I think it’s when they sum up their feelings and put them forth as gospel. Almost as if they’re telling me not to like the show because it’s so far from being a realistic portrayal of their lives. A few reviews in and this theme becomes a topic of discussion.

The press has repeatedly told me that I’m foolish if I enjoy such fantasy. But why must shows like this be realistic? Where is the enjoyment in that? Do they wish for us to return to a viewership consisting of children on “Take Your Child to Work Day”, “oohing” and “ahhing” at the monotony of their lives to justify the time they put into it?

I also worked at nonprofits and we frequently did not dress as well as the fictional well-digging, water-saviors on “House of Cards”. As a publicist I wish that I didn’t have to straighten my CEO’s tie or remind him to tuck in his shirt before a televised interview. I would’ve loved to work with Robin Wright’s perfection but that world rarely attracts these types.

And I’m ok with that portrayal. Why? Because while there will be a few people who actually believe nonprofits work that way, most people will see it for what it is, fictionalized drama, a tool, a means to an end.

The real story centers on the characters. To have them accomplish what they must they need to be in power. What better place than politics, a growing nonprofit and the editorial room at an established newsroom where they sit in (gasp) chairs, or a budding communications start up complete with bean bags and exercise balls? These are devices, nothing more. To look for realism here is chasing windmills.

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