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House of Cards Shows the Unfortunate Future of Journalism – and its Office Space
February 11, 2013  | By Eric Gould  | 2 comments

The blizzard in the northeast — all 27" of it — shut me in for 36 hours and was the perfect opportunity for a binge watch, which is probably the method Netflix had in mind when they released all 13 episodes of House of Cards at once. It's a very good ride — an inventive mix of writer's parlor tricks and good old adult drama. Kevin Spacey, as the Machiavellian puppet-master, Minority Whip Francis (Frank) Underwood, is the main reason to keep returning. He brings extraordinary craft to each scene, and it's a beautiful thing to watch.

But as good as Spacey is (and he is great) House of Cards suffers a few contrivances that feel hasty. There's the young, ruthless next-gen blogger-reporter Zoe Barns (Kate Mara, top, left). She spouts the chess master-level threats of a grizzled old newsroom vet, but looks 15 years old. But that's livable after a while, since a young, hostile know-it-all isn't too far of a stretch.

Less so is national teachers union leader Marty Spinella (Al Sapienza, left) leading a protest outside of outside a fund-raiser being hosted by Frank's wife Claire (Robin Wright). She's executive director of a non-profit clean water group. He holds up a sign with a failing grade of "F" for Underwood, but we all know what the "F" really means.

He clearly doesn't think it through that he's picketing members of congress who are at a private fundraiser for do-gooding activists. It plays badly on the 11 o'clock news (that he is protesting against clean water), and the supposed media-savvy head of a labor organization has no idea this might backfire on him.

These are small, but distracting dopey moments that sometimes halt an otherwise good story about Underwood's plot for revenge after being promised, and then passed over, as nominee for Secretary of State. (Doubling down on the "F" factor, his initials are F.U., after all.)

The biggest carbuncle on House of Cards this season has been the portrayal of Slugline, home of a new Politico-style website run by twenty-somethings. They're out to undo old-school journalism, filing stories from iPhones.

The battle between traditional journalism and the blogosphere is a recurring theme in House of Cards, and it's an issue worth exploring. As the series progresses, ruthless Zoe is out to show her former employers at the fictional Washington Herald what so-called new journalism is all about.
What it's about, it seems, is making opinion the news. As Zoe explains, "Everyone is a free agent. They can write whatever they want, wherever they are. Most people write from their phones."

As Zoe's editor Carly Heath (Tawny Cypress, right) tells her, "You don't have to send me things before you post."

"Oh. I thought you might want to have taken a look," Zoe replies. "The goal here," says Carly, "is to post things faster than I can read them ... If you're satisfied with the article, just put it up. It's OK to be opinionated, Zoe."

Slugline seems to be all about the edginess and sass of up-to-the-second opinion, and stuff like hard news is just so... 20th Century. They're so far ahead of the curve they're free from bothersome things like editors, corroborating sources and quotes.

That also makes them, apparently, free from desks, office equipment and even chairs. In epsisode five, the whiz-kids at Slugline slouch around on bean bag chairs and use packing crates as work stations.

There are, however, bold ink drawings of fists (fight the power) and a grid of ceiling lights; presumably we're now under the cold, ubiquitous light of 24-hour internet bloggo-journalism.

To be fair, the Slugline offices are a start-up, and they appear a bit more furnished in later episodes, and they do get around to hunting some hard leads about D.C. dirty tricks. The characterization doesn't really diminish a series notable for its display of American political power with its considerable, Kubrick-inspired symmetry.

But the message is clear: the next phase of the free press — the fourth estate and essential guardian of democracy — will no longer be troubled with the standards that left Op/Ed partitioned from the news for a couple of centuries. Or, it seems, office furniture.

Let's hope that that vision is, as perhaps a lot of the Slugline insta-posts are: unreliable and inaccurate.

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Peter Young
Gimme another 03 episodis. Yeah, I didn't like all the abbarent sex and innuendo, but I really believe that's the way it is in DC and everyone who works there in the government halls, know's it is business and greed and sex, as usual !!!
Feb 20, 2013   |  Reply
I think you're right about Slugline -- but I think you leave out a lot when you don't take on the portrayal of the show's stand-in for the Washington Post. It comes off as ruinously sexist and a place with complete, and ultimately suicidal, contempt for the audience.

The only journalism-related figure that comes off well in this show, IMO, is the show's stand-in for Katherine Graham.

You might enjoy James Hamilton's "All The News That's Fit To Sell," which places the value of journalistic objectivity in a historical context. Hamilton points out that objectivity itself was a marketing ploy -- in an era where many small outlets were being replaced by mass media, programs that were political were guaranteed to turn off some segment of the audience. Now that we have more channels for distribution, our news looks like it did before the broadcast era -- more outlets with more opinions. I'm not convinced that's a bad thing.
Feb 14, 2013   |  Reply
(continuing from below...) and that's something maybe the next-gen can make happen; thoughtful, factual studies of issues that also get broad appeal. Maybe the old guard just couldn't pull it off. It just seemed the portrayal of Slugline as the next logical step to all this was cartoonish, and unfortunate. –EG
Feb 15, 2013
LW - All thoughtful comments; I found the sexism in the faux Washington Post room cutting from both directions, both genders. Tom, the editor (Boris McGiver) crossed the fatal HR line using the C word to a staff person. Then, it was the older reporter, Janine, (Constance Zimmer) continually accusing Zoe of sleeping her way through sources -- which she of course, was, and later admits to. Even the Catherine Graham doppelganger admits needing to change the traditional newspaper tone to get new audiences.

My main complaint about that topic was that the need for objectivity, even the appearance of it, is essential to keep debate ongoing at a reasonably civil level, or otherwise we are doomed to partisan outlets like Fox News, and to a lesser degree, MSNBC. As you rightly point out, those outlets make money, so there is a market for their content, and that's a good thing. Hopefully in the future, we'll get more shows coming along in the Bill Moyers model that will have wider appeal...
Feb 15, 2013
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