The power struggle between politicians and reporters

Remember Andrea Seabrook? She was the congressional correspondent who quit her job at NPR last summer, saying she was tired of serving as a mouthpiece for the carefully calibrated spin of politicians.

I thought of Seabrook after watching the first two episodes of Netflix’s “House of Cards,” which features a cynical and calculating House Majority Whip who exploits a young newspaper reporter’s hunger for a big scoop by feeding her information that, when reported in the fictional Washington Herald, enables his master plan. I was amazed at how gullible and vulnerable the political journalists appear in the show, and how eager they are to become tools of a cunning politician’s arsenal. This can’t be how it is in real life, I thought, until I remembered Seabrook.

Here’s what she told Politico last summer after she made her resignation public:

“I realized that there is a part of covering Congress, if you’re doing daily coverage, that is actually sort of colluding with the politicians themselves because so much of what I was doing was actually recording and playing what they say or repeating what they say.”

“Colluding” is such an apt description of the fictional relationship on “House of Cards” between Zoe Barnes and Frank Underwood, the Washington Herald reporter and the House Majority Whip. By the end of the second episode, however, it doesn’t appear that Barnes even realizes she’s getting played. It does not appear to bother her that she’s trading the integrity of the profession to advance her career.

I’m not the only one whose curiosity was piqued by Barnes’s role. The New York Times’s Media Decoder blog just started a series of posts called “Debating ‘House of Cards’: What the Show Gets Right and Wrong About Journalism.” In discussing the first episode, Ashley Parker makes a good point:

“I protect your identity, I print what you tell me, and I’ll never ask any questions,” [Barnes] says, offering to be a virtual transcription monkey after her sexy outfit and picture gets her literally through the front door. (I can’t imagine many publications — dead-tree, online, or otherwise — scrambling to hire a reporter whose opening pitch is that she’ll ask no questions.)

Indeed, serious news organizations strive to hire reporters who will ask tough questions and do the research and critical thinking necessary to avoid serving as a stenographer to the powerful. “House of Cards” is likely exaggerating the capacity of politicians to exploit the media for political gain.

Still, Andrea Seabrook’s experience suggests that there is some truth to what we see on “House of Cards.” Since quitting NPR, Seabrook has been working on her own 30-minute podcast called Decode DC. She discussed her editorial philosophy In a recent interview with Flipboard:

I have some rules. One is never repeat verbatim what a politician says, because it is calculated to spin. It is calculated to reach their audience directly. Try and tell stories that don’t fit at all into that narrative. And it takes some creativity and some thought to go to the right people and ask them, ‘Hey, where are the blank spaces? What are people not hearing in the media?’

You know, we did a show called ‘Voter Guide’ right before the election, and it was a show that kind of talked to different kinds of people about what’s notbeing talked about in the election, and what that means for voting, and how they might think about voting if they care about these other issues.

Democracy in the U.S. could benefit greatly from the kind of journalism Seabrook is now practicing. While business pressures have limited the amount of investigative and explanatory journalism out there, it is promising to see new media organizations such as Decode DC, Homicide Watch DC, California Watch, Voice of San Diego and others step in to fill the void. Journalists would do well to treat Zoe Barnes (at least in the first two episodes, which is all I have seen so far) as an example of “what not to do,” and look to Seabrook and others as models of what journalism should be.