Like many Americans during the past week, I have been reluctant to leave my house because of what I’ve been seeing on television. Every night, it’s a toxic stew of politics, violence, corruption, manipulation, deception, and rage, all stoked by a compliant media that loves nothing more than to fan the flames of fear when evil seems to be marching toward certain victory.
I am of course talking about Season 4 of House of Cards, in which president Francis Underwood and his wife, the sociopathic ice queen Claire, have gamed the entire political system so adroitly that they are on the cusp of their ultimate triumph: separate jets.
You may be forgiven if, for a moment, you thought I was referring to the Donald Trump show. These days, it’s difficult to tell where reality ends and entertainment begins. When you have a billionaire tycoon running for president who ingratiated himself to the American people on television by firing people, then have that same fabulously rich television personality at actual political rallies promising to create jobs, while also claiming that he is going to “make America great again” by getting rid of all the pesky immigrants he hires to keep his casinos running—well, it’s easy to see why Comedy Central’s ratings are going down. Who can compete?
But back to House of Cards.
The scene is the 2016 Democratic national convention in Atlanta. The president has engineered a brokered convention and all hell is starting to break loose, what with delegates and super-delegates voting this way and that based on behind-the-scenes promises and threats—because, as everyone knows, the machinery of American politics can be easily controlled by a few nasty people with cellphones and an axe to grind.
Cut to the CNN Situation Room, where Wolf Blitzer and John King are analyzing the data, running the numbers and discussing the possible outcomes.
Wait a minute: Aren’t Wolf Blitzer and John King actual anchors on a legitimate news network in the real world?
Why yes, they are—or so they claim. But now they are also pretending to be fictional versions of themselves covering an imaginary political convention, using the same technology, techniques, and patter they use to cover real politics. And they are doing it to help the television show itself achieve a greater level of verisimilitude, so that the show will feel more credible—more real.
But in order for House of Cards to have that eerie this could happen! feel, it has to piggyback on the credibility that Wolf Blitzer and John King have built up over the years as reporters of actual news. And for this to happen, John King, Wolf Blitzer, and CNN all have to agree to lend (or sell) a portion of their legitimacy as journalists and political analysts. And for THAT to happen, all involved have to believe there is either no legitimacy worth preserving, or that the historical distinction between journalism and make-believe is irrelevant—or both.
I know, it’s confusing. But objecting to these cameos by the CNN duo on the grounds that it blurs the line between news and entertainment assumes there is still a line there to be blurred.
Apparently, there isn’t.
This wasn’t always the case. There used to be a distinction between news and, say, The Brady Bunch. One was fact, one was fiction, and most people knew the difference. One was boring, and the other involved honest, sober coverage of national and international matters of which engaged citizens in a democracy ought to be aware.
Not anymore. It has become commonplace for actual important people to make cameo appearances in television dramas. Madeline Albright, once the actual secretary of state, has appeared as herself on Madam Secretary, offering advice to the fictional Madam Secretary on the show (played by Tea Leoni), who is herself an idealized version of Hillary Clinton.
On The Good Wife, when Juliana Marguiles’s character, Alicia Florrick, was contemplating a run for state’s attorney, she was encouraged to do so by president Obama’s real-world senior adviser, Chicago pol Valerie Jarrett, and honest-to-god feminist icon Gloria Steinem, both playing themselves.
Pretty much everyone in show business has done voice-overs for the cartoon version of themselves on The Simpsons or Family Guy. And so many candidates have appeared on Saturday Night Live over the years, either playing themselves or other characters, that it would be weird NOT to see them on the SNL stage, pretending to go along with the joke.
So what are we to make of a world where fact and fiction bleed so seamlessly into each other?
A couple of weeks ago, former Nightline news anchor Ted Koppel lit into Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly for turning the sober, responsible news of yore into a crass form of entertainment. And he is right, of course, because Ted Koppel has made a career out of being right. Unfortunately, Ted did his takedown of O’Reilly in that authoritative, condescending dad-voice that all elite newscasters adopt when they think they are saying something important. And that voice—that attitude—of high-minded media authority doesn’t work in today’s mutant, let’s-ignore-the-facts multimedia muck pond. Suggesting, as Koppel does, that news-people who interview Donald Trump should do some reporting beforehand so that they can ask intelligent questions—well, where’s the fun in that?
The logic behind the trend of mix-and-match media goes something like this: Nobody worries about damaging the credibility of major news outlets anymore because there is precious little credibility left to be damaged. Besides, any idiot can tell the difference between John and Wolf discussing fictional delegate counts on Netflix one night and real delegate counts on CNN the next. Just like they can tell the difference between real candidates for president debating serious policy matters and, during the commercial breaks, advertisements for a fictional president who is dedicated to "putting people before politics." They are totally different, and anyone who can’t see the difference isn’t likely to be watching House of Cards anyway, so what’s the big whoop? It’s fun to see trusted newscasters toying with our sense of reality, and if you’re stupid enough to be fooled, then you really shouldn’t have a Netflix account in the first place.
But if that’s the logic, shouldn’t news networks themselves be doing more to capitalize on the public’s appetite for—and indifference toward—a more fluid interpretation of reality? Granted, “Wolf Blitzer” is an excellent fictional name for a hard-charging reporter with killer instincts, and the name John King does imply an everyman kind of royalty. But consider how much more fun it would be to watch two brilliant actors—Paul Giamatti as Wolf, say, and Brad Pitt as the fast-talking, jut-jawed analyst King—poring over election returns this November. To make things even more interesting, they could get Ted Danson to play a silver-haired Anderson Cooper, and reunite the cast of Friends as “the best political team on television.”
Even I’d watch that.
In the meantime, we have to settle for a billionaire reality-television mogul pretending to run for president on a hilarious platform of racism, sexism, and bigotry—all in the name of patriotism and the American Way, ha, ha.
I’m not worried, though, because any moron can tell the difference between someone who is really running for president and someone who is only pretending to run for the sake of entertainment and ratings.