Are some journos crossing the line into entertainers with their celebrity status?

Sharon Dunten | Commentary

Trying to catch up on viewing my old DVR recordings, I came across a March 2019 episode of CBS’ “Madam Secretary.” I enjoyed the episode but then I stopped short when Jane Pauley, a well-respected veteran broadcast journalist, was playing herself (Jane Pauley) as fictional talk show journalist on this Sunday night television program. She is seen as interviewing the fictional character of U.S. Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord, who is played by actress Téa Leoni. View below, apology for the ad.

As a squeaky new J-student beginning to study journalism at Ball State University in the late 1970s, the first class I enrolled in was for an entry level study of the functions of journalism, or JOURNO 101. One of the first mantras a student reads or hears is the functions of journalism are to inform, educate and entertain. Now decades later, I couldn’t imagine a fellow Hoosier working in journalism would be crossing the line from a journalist to an entertainer, which is completely outside the realm of “to entertain” through journalism. I was disappointed in Pauley appearance on “Madam Secretary.”

“I couldn’t imagine a fellow Hoosier working in journalism would be crossing the line from a journalist to an entertainer, which is completely outside the realm of “to entertain” through journalism.

Jane Pauley

Has the ability to take our reputations as journalists into the realm of entertainment gone too far? Is Pauley’s decision to appear on “Madam Secretary” actually an example of a deteriorating news media? Are some journalists fogging the credibility of a live, professional news broadcast and mixing it with a twist of a reality show and stirring it with obvious fiction? With a former reality show president presently in the White House, is the appearance of a journalist as a TV show celebrity only adding to the complexity of working as a journalist where one’s work is easily disputed by the president and his base on a daily basis? Appearing as a journalist playing themselves on a fictional TV show or movie show only degrades the journalism professional to a lower standard.

The 1980s ABC sitcom “Murphy Brown” depicted a fictional news journalist who worked in a fictional newsroom in New York City. Wiki photo

Clearly professional journalists know the difference between acting and reporting. It’s not like we are comparing Mary Tyler Moore, an actress who played a TV producer, or Candice Bergen who played a television reporter in “Murphy Brown,” a popular 1980s sitcom, or even Robert Redford portraying Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in the movie, “All the President’s Men.” These actors were not journalists. They portrayed journalists. So what is a working journalist projecting when they become actors betraying themselves and leave their serious roles as a professional journalist behind?

These actors were not journalists. They portrayed journalists.

In an August 2018 Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times, the author writes that “such scruples are short lived. The number of famous journalists in movies and TV series has exploded.” The Op-Ed continues to share examples of journalists who have shed their professional journalism cloaks and now reveals their fictional celebrity status. This reveal includes the HBO’s “House of Cards” where MSNBC news talk show host Rachel Maddow, Georgia Stephanopoulos, host of ABC’s Good Morning America, and even NBC’s Nightly News Anchor Lester Holt who play themselves as working journalists. Anderson Cooper was also featured in the “Batman vs. Superman” movie.

Broadcast journalists Georgia Stephanopoulous, Rachel Maddow and Lester Holt have appeared in the fictional HBO Series “House of Cards” playing themselves as broadcast journalists in the show. Wiki photos

This decision to appear as oneself in fictional entertainment only adds to the daily accusations of “fake news” when working journalists take the role in an imaginary or “fake” world. And didn’t I read somewhere that producing good journalism is not about the journalist, but it’s about the story. I see this trend toward celebrity-like conduct is making the journalist the story.

I am sure that it is flattering for a broadcast journalist to be asked to appear on a popular TV show or a blockbuster movie, but for what gain? Branding their image as a journalist, maybe… sort of, or is it deflating the journalism profession down to a few scenes in a sideshow that may feature a popular TV news leader ripping off his face to divulge a transformation into a villain or superhero.

Eder Campuzano, a reporter from The Oregonian, is assaulted during an Oregon protest in 2018. Twitter photo

Sounds like fun? But it isn’t. Journalists are harassed, shoved, hit and killed for the work they do everyday to provide truth and accountability for it’s viewers and readers. And many are losing their jobs because media corporations want to make money rather than produce good journalism.

As the summer TV rerun season ends and the Oscar-caliber films start to drift into the fall and holiday line ups, I hope that we see less of professional journalists on the tiny and big screens in fictional story lines. Otherwise, what’s real and what’s fake? And right now this country to needs to know the difference. 

Sharon Dunten is the executive editor of Dunten is also a freelance journalist based out of Atlanta, Georgia. Her work has appeared in many regional publications and The Washington Post. She is the assistant regional director for the Society of Professional Journalists in Region 3.

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