“House of Cards” likes to paint D.C. as a place unfriendly towards journalists.
Reality proves otherwise.
At the time of this writing, I have been studying and working in the capitol for one month and 28 days. I have met and spoken with seasoned professional journalists and industry legends. I’ve been on live television, attended a luncheon for Attorney General Eric Holder, sat in on a Supreme Court oral argument, watched Senate in session from the press box and hung out in the newsrooms of major national newspapers.
I have done more than what I expected to do these past two months, and I still have two months to go. In light of the third season of “House of Cards”, and the start of my break, I thought it would be fitting to reflect on my thoughts of the city and my experiences in comparison to that of Kate Mara’s character, Zoe Barnes (warning: season two spoilers ahead).
Let’s start with the obvious differences.
News media outlets look neither like The Washington Herald nor Slugline. They are not desperately clinging to traditional print journalism ideals, but they are not flinging those ideals out the window. In reality, newspapers and online publications are marrying the two extremes to create content that is both traditionally ethical and organized, as well as fast and accessible.
I ride the Metro nearly everyday, and I’ve never been afraid of being pushed into an oncoming train. I don’t, however, live in fear of ruthless, power hungry politicians (at an immediate, personal level).
Now, “House of Cards” may be fictional and extremely dramatized, but they do get some things right. The sentiment of drive and ambition is rampant throughout the entire series, and it’s a feeling that is almost tangible in reality.
Powerful people are everywhere. Zoe happened to pass by Underwood at an opera. One of my professors once passed by John Boehner at Whole Foods. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Capitol Building, so I like to think I’ve bumped into a major lawmaker whose face I just didn’t recognize. I don’t know. Old men in suits are starting to look all the same to me.
In order to succeed in D.C. as a journalist (or as anything else, really), you need to make connections and be persistent with your sources. I personally wouldn’t recommend blackmail, but using every possible resource (mutual acquaintances, Internet forums, social media, etc.) to get your foot in the door of a potential source or employer is key.
A friend of mine was recently writing a story on medical tourism in the city, but after two weeks of searching, he couldn’t find anyone to speak to him. He contacted local hospitals, travel/tourism bureaus, people on the Internet, etc.
An unlikely resource brought him to a former D.C. health director, who also let him interview others on his staff: LinkedIn.
As a result, he was able to get the interview he was searching so hard for, and all it took was utilizing a new resource.
You also need to learn how to ask for the things you want. Zoe wasn’t afraid to ask her editors for more substantial work. She didn’t shy away from confronting her higher-ups when she wasn’t content with the work she was doing.
This is a point that my program advisors and professors hammered into us early in the semester: If you’re not happy with the work you’re doing at your internship (i.e. insubstantial intern grunt work such as data entry or file organization), then bring it up with your supervisor.
Ask if there’s anything else you can do to help. See if you can sit in on editors’ meetings. Make it known that you want to contribute more than what you’re doing.
This brings me to my last point.
This city breeds ambition. It forces you to evaluate your life, lays out all the possible career paths and goals and shows you how to achieve them. For Zoe, the goal was to write something politically influential and hard-hitting. For me, it’s to create impactful digital content and tell stories through new mediums.
When I first came to D.C., I had no idea what I wanted to do in the field of journalism. I had the general tools of a photographer, videographer and writer, but I didn’t have my focus. Now that I’ve immersed myself in all the facets of the field, I can say, with a scary amount of specificity (and flexibility, of course), what I want to do when I graduate.
What’s more is that I know how to get there.