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Journalism's House of Cards

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In the second season of the Netflix drama House of Cards CNN's breathless anchor Ashley Banfield conducts a dramatized interview with the actress Robin Wright who plays the fictional wife of a fictional vice-president. At the end of the scene it's hard to say whether Banfield has less credibility as an anchor trying to be an actor, or an actor portraying an anchor.

House of Cards is a caricature of Washington that makes the city and its power players appear worse than they really are. Playing along is a long list of mostly reputable journalists lured to the flame of acting in a hit show. To name a few: CNN's John King, Soledad O'Brien, now with Al Jazeera America, NBC's Kelly O'Donnell and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. Fox opinionator Sean Hannity made a brief splash. The venerable Morley Safer of 60 Minutes, one of the greatest reporters in the history of television news, played himself in an interview scene with fictional Vice President Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey.

The trouble with journalists appearing as themselves in entertainment is that the public already has difficulty discerning fact from fiction in the news. Reporters and news organizations survive on truth and trust. Readers and viewers need to believe what they are told so they can make informed decisions. When real reporters allow themselves to be part of fiction, the trust is shattered. They do it with a wink, like they are in on the joke, but it costs them their credibility.

CNN's Candy Crowley, an otherwise no-nonsense reporter, bowed to the gods of fame and made an appearance on House of Cards.

ABC's George Stephanopoulos had a brief bit in season one and in so doing hit the Matt Drudge trifecta of politico, journalist, actor. George has been all three, proving Drudge's theory that there's really no difference so long as you are well-known and on television. Journalism, politics and Hollywood have become a social club of power, influence, money and celebrity with the White House Correspondents dinner as the Spring Prom.

The most egregious violation was committed by Matt Bai, the former political correspondent for the New York Times who now writes for Yahoo! News. As a reporter, Bai is everything as a reporter that Ashley Banfield is not and has a much better reputation to lose. Bai wrote deep and thoughtful articles for the New York Times Magazine rather than stirring hours of uninformed speculation about the latest tabloid murder on CNN. Bai is the real thing.

He is featured in a two-episode subplot in which he is offered access to the vice-president's wife for a magazine profile about her admission during the Banfield interview that she once was raped by a man just made a general in the Marines. In real life it would be a huge story for a woman of that stature to make such an admission, and the real Ashley Banfield, if there is one, would feed on it for weeks on CNN.

But the vice president's wife is pushing a bill to reform the handling of sexual assault in the military. For complicated political reasons in the plot, the PR operatives pressure Matt Bai to focus instead on a veteran who says she, too, was raped by the general.

Matt Bai... the fictional Matt Bai played by the real Matt Bai... says to the rape victim, "I agreed to change the focus of my piece to focus on you." What he's saying is that he bowed to pressure from the vice president, his wife and staff, thereby playing himself as a reporter who can be manipulated by politicians. I assume Matt Bai would never do that, but from now on, when I read something written by Matt Bai, I'll be thinking about that.

Is a good reporter's reputation worth a quick spin on a popular television series?

When I moved to Los Angeles an old high school friend invited me to play hockey with a team made up mostly of actors. Some were famous, others would become famous. I was a network correspondent and didn't want the actors to think I might leak what went on in the locker room, so I didn't talk about what I did for a living. But during the locker room chatter I was surprised to learn that the actors were fascinated with news and talked about it all the time.

It was 1989 and I suddenly disappeared for six weeks to cover the Tien An Men crisis in China. The next time I walked into the locker room several guys stared at me as I found a place to sit. I didn't know what to make of it as I put down my bag and started to get into my gear. The actors sitting opposite had a television series at the time. He looked me in the eye for a moment and said, "Man, you do something serious." I wish all those reporters who appeared on House of Cards had the same respect for their own profession.