On Sunday evening I watched 60 Minutes. One of the pieces featured the Canadian journalist Morley Safer examining new ‘drone’ technology that permits remotely controlled model aircraft to fly around neighborhoods with digital cameras. The episode was not exactly hard hitting journalism but it did raise some issues about technology and privacy. Soft as the piece was, I assumed that Safer was presenting a news story and not a piece of fictional entertainment.
Then I turned on the Netflix series House of Cards and who did I see? Morley Safer playing himself as a hard-hitting journalist from 60 Minutes pressing a fictional Vice-President of the United States about an alleged political scandal. Safer is not the only journalist who has had a cameo appearance on House of Cards. Kelly O’Donnell, NBC News, Ashleigh Banfield, CNN, Candy, Crowley, CNN, Sean Hannity, Fox News, Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, Chris Matthews, MSNBC, Chris Hayes, MSNBC, Morris Jones, ABC 7, Julianna Goldman, Bloomberg News, Major Garrett, CBS News and Scott Thuman, ABC 7 have all ‘played themselves’ on the hit show. Moreover, cameo appearances by journalists in television shows and movies are increasingly common.
The producers of the shows want to generate an air authenticity by featuring ‘real’ news broadcasters. And for the journalists it’s cool to rub shoulders with famous actors and wink ironically at the camera. The lure of appearing in a hit TV show or a Hollywood film is clearly irresistible to many journalists. Yet I think it should be resisted.
Such cameos unhelpfully blur the line between journalism and entertainment. The depiction of the journalists is almost always very sympathetic to the point of being fawning. The reporters are invariably portrayed posing probing questions and ‘reporting’ important breaking news. Of course, they are just reading fictional scripts that have been carefully crafted for dramatic effect. Whether or not these journalists actually deserve recognition as good journalists in the real world, their presence in the fictional dramas conveys the impression that they really are good news people. They are represented as important, trustworthy, incisive, effective, and as highly professional exemplars of their craft.
I’m sure that I too might be perceived as having a certain intellectual cachet if I had the chance to play myself and deliver important sounding lines in a hit show. (I imagine being cast as Jesse Pinkman’s ethics professor….) But any credibility or gravitas generated this way is entirely bogus. Real journalists, it seems to me, care about earning and preserving their professional integrity via their work reporting and analyzing real news.
Fake reporting by real reporters in TV dramas may be entertaining and it may boost the egos of journalists. But it can trivialize real journalism and it thereby diminishes journalistic integrity. Contemporary journalism is often very shallow as it is. We need more journalists who take real news more seriously, not more journalists covering the ‘story’ of Frank Underwood.