There is no one who loves politics as much as I do. And yet, somehow I didn't start watching the Netflix series House of Cards until more than two years after the first episode came out.
I intended to watch. Really. But frankly, I was put off by the severe criticism from many political journalists — people whose opinions I really respect — who thought the show was unrealistic. Much of their disapproval was about the way reporters are portrayed in the show.
A quick sampling:
Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post: "Let's start with the fact that the way Zoe, a young reporter, begins her source building with Underwood is by going to his house late one night to show him a picture of him looking at her butt on the way into an event. That seems both far-fetched and, frankly, offensive to female reporters everywhere."
Maureen Ryan of The Huffington Post: "Just once, for the love of God, I'd like someone who knows how print and digital operations actually work to write scenes that make them seem interesting and fresh, and that don't involve female co-workers who are unable to resist petty catfights."
Allysa Rosenberg of Slate: "I know the show has no interest in getting this profession right."
After reading these reviews, I had little interest in dedicating the 13 hours or so it would take to watch the first season. After all, who has that kind of time to waste?
However, on a recent eight-hour flight home from Europe, I finally succumbed. I binge-watched five episodes in a row. And guess what? I really enjoyed the show, and discovered that the criticism was unfair. The series actually shines a much-needed bright light on some of the big problems with political journalism.
House of Cards doesn't really portray anyone — politicians, lobbyists, reporters — in a particularly good light. The main character, Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey), isn't just a slimy and unethical politician. He's actually evil.
But by taking each of the characters in the show to their extremes, House of Cards does a pretty good job of highlighting what's wrong with much of our political culture. And that includes political journalism.
Most reporters don't sleep with politicians to get their stories as they do in House of Cards. Nonetheless, many political reporters are way too close to the people they are supposed to be covering. And that often impedes their judgment in ways that are harmful to their profession.
Most real-world journalists might not be as unethical as they are in House of Cards, but there are many who are more interested in ambition and power than they are in getting to the truth of a story.
This point was driven home by the recent White House Correspondents' Dinner, where journalists, politicians, and celebrities — including some of the actors in House of Cards itself — mingled while listening to jokes about themselves. It's a wildly popular evening in Washington, D.C., and many make a weekend of it with pre-parties, after-parties, and brunches the next morning.
But how many journalists are willing to write a critical story about a congressman or senator after a weekend of socializing together?
The dinner has become a symbol of all that is wrong with the intersection of politics and journalism. Politicians and reporters may not sleep together after the dinner — well, not all of them at least — but many are way too cozy with each other to do their jobs well.
That's the point that I think House of Cards is trying to make about political journalism. And it's absolutely right.