'House of Cards's' Beau Willimon on Showing Bad Journalist Behavior: 'That's Sort Of The Point'
House of Cards, Netflix's glossy political drama, has become a cult sensation, quickly driving discussion and analysis among TV fans and D.C. operatives. Its depiction of the business of governing as a rough-and-tumble, anything-goes brawl packed with lies, deceit and sex may provide a thrill -- but it has also drawn some major complaints.
In particular, some journalists have raised eyebrows at the series’ portrayal of reporters and bloggers, who are often portrayed as being callow, reckless or slow. One of the most sharply-debated aspects is the show's women reporters.
Alternately collaborating and dueling with the venomous Rep. Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is a young journalist named Zoe Barnes, a symbol for the aggression of new media with a borderline-sociopathic determination. Played by Kate Mara, she launches herself from impatient cub newspaper reporter to a national phenomenon, thanks to scoops fed to her by Underwood -- often scored in exchange for sexual favors.
Before she leaves her paper, Barnes has a particularly fierce rivalry with its senior political reporter, played by Constance Zimmer. Slate columnist Alyssa Rosenberg recently lamented that the female journalists are depicted in the show as "promiscuous, catfight-prone, and entirely unethical," which she called "grotesquely insulting to the women who do serious policy and political reporting in Washington every day."
Head writer and showrunner Beau Willimon, however, says it is a question of character, not gender.
"I think among the media community, any sort of I guess disgust or abrasive feelings they have about Zoe Barnes stems from the fact that she has tossed ethics aside," he told THR in a recent interview. "That’s sort of the point, though. If you want to judge her as a noble, ethical journalist, then naturally you’d have that sort of reaction. But we’re not telling the story of a noble, ethical journalist. We’re telling the story of youthful ambition. It’s not someone who’s a good journalist. It’s someone who’s a good climber. That’s in line with the overall subject of our show, which is power ... She wants access and influence, not necessarily the truth."
Katie Baker, writing for Jezebel, largely agrees with the showrunner, writing that she loves how it's taken for granted that the women's actions are "just as repugnant [as the men's]."
Also at issue is House of Cards' take on the shifting winds of digital and print journalism.
Barnes' hubris ruffles the feathers of the old-school beat writers and editors who seek to limit her profile, and ultimately, she blows off the print world for good. She moves to a hyper-speed, loose-with-the-facts website called Slugline, where bloggers sit on beanbags and publish stories unedited. Over time, the site develops and becomes more traditional in its news-gathering, but the perception and divide remain.
"I thought its ideas about both the stodginess of 'old media' and the extreme casualness of 'new' media were laughable. We're not in a world where that kind of sharp divide exists anymore," Jack Mirkinson, The Huffington Post's media editor, tells THR. He added, "The paper wouldn't want her blogging and on TV? ... Then they'd put her education scoop above the fold with equal prominence to the inauguration of a president? And then she goes to this 'cool' website and everyone is working on beanbag chairs and just 'does their thing' from their phone? And her boss isn't interested in political ephemera? Like, give me a break."
Ta-Nehisi Coates, of The Atlantic, snarked about the show on Twitter, writing "So far House of Cards is sticking to the standard rule of incredulous renditions of journalism. 'My own blog! First person! In the urinals!'" He later leveled more serious criticism, tweeting, "EIC of the paper in #HouseOfCards has the worst understanding ever of the digital/print divide. (To the extent it even exists.)"
Willimon, however, insists there was no invidious intent in his portrayal of new media or journalists, regardless of gender.
"Taking shots is juvenile. We’re trying to tell a good story," he says of the criticism. "If you waste dramatic real estate with that sort of pettiness, you’re wasting everyone’s time and money. Certainly we wanted to reflect aspects of the media realistically in our show, and of course you have to at times simplify and reduce for the sake of dramatic efficiency, and the battle between new media and traditional print journalism is not brand new."
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin