Netflix took the country by storm when it released season 2 of its original series House of Cards on Valentine’s Day this year. A favorite among former West Wing enthusiasts and fans who simply love its dark, twisted commentary on American political theater, the show glorifies the ruthless approach that Senator Frank Underwood takes to gain power. One of Frank’s main avenues to execute his ascent is manipulation of the media. He uses a young reporter named Zoe Barnes to get stories into the national spotlight, and Zoe becomes a media darling in the process. Some think the show proves that the media is biased, self-serving, and untrustworthy. Others believe it shows that the media is the only tool the public has available for discovering the truth, and exposing the scandals that disrupt effective representative government. In the following debate, two of our reps settle the score on how the media is portrayed on the show.
Aidan: It’s clear that the writers believe that people will do whatever it takes to promote their agendas. Frank and Zoe develop a behind-the-scenes relationship using each other to achieve their own goals without regard to the integrity of their position or institutions. Zoe is a smart woman, keenly aware of how her connection to Frank can get her to the top quickly. She knows that the media’s mandate as the public’s neutral informer gives her power to influence decisions at the voting booth. If she can help Frank win, her information only gets better and her career takes off. The key message here is that without strong sources, the media can’t do their job, which is now as much packaging as it is reporting the news. Reporters need good stories to warrant coverage, and to get good stories they need good sources. Good sources typically have their own reasons to share the secret information they have. For better or worse, scandal always benefits someone and appeals to many, and for that reason, the media will always find a way to cover it.
Alex: I think we can both agree that reporters will go great lengths to write a strong, compelling, and meaningful story, especially if they scoop their competition. It’s true that Zoe Barnes used Frank Underwood to find stories that would push her past the fluff column in the local paper to a hard hitting journalist, but it’s where she goes from there that is most interesting. Though Zoe’s approach often ran counter to the unbiased principals of a free press, the show’s writers made it clear that she always sought to expose the truth. Zoe risked everything to pull the curtains back from Washington and expose the stories that would make an impact on the country. That being said, Zoe is an outlier in the world of journalism. Reporters build relationships with trustworthy sources and should report the news using unbiased facts, and that’s precisely why the media exists. Journalism, the fourth estate, is needed to expose the truth and maintain checks and balances.
Our reps have brought strong arguments to support their perception of the role of media on the show. They both acknowledge that House of Cards sensationalizes almost all aspects of the political environment and the relationships between politics, media, and the public. While the show’s writers may not have accurately recreated reality, our reps agree that building healthy relationships at all levels of participation is at the core of the system’s functionality. Nurturing trustworthy bonds is essential, and is the key ingredient for achieving progress.
Do you feel strongly about this topic? Let us know how you think Zoe and Frank are portrayed in the show, and what you believe are the most important lessons we can learn from them.