TV’s badly written press secretaries (and a good one)

Naturally, you don’t expect exact authenticity from TV entertainment shows. That’s not the point. But the most prominent fictional spokespeople too often suffer from fakery.

If someone of modest experience as a spokesperson or press secretary can spot the missteps in TV portrayals of these jobs, I wonder, what good are the shows’ consultants? It’s the rare TV production that gets it right. Granted, they’re rarely trying to get it right; when the main characters are someone else, the press secretary or spokesperson is a prop, a second or third fiddle. But can he or she be a little more realistic?

Trust me, the following descriptions of the purported ultimate truth tellers are at least as much from multisource Internet research as from any studying of episodes. (Please don’t assume my viewing habits!)

https://i0.wp.com/img2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20140428011301/bluebloodstv/images/4/4e/102607_0392b.jpgGarrett Moore, NYPD deputy commissioner of public information, Blue Bloods. It’s a plum job, being the top communications guy/PR flack/ghostwriter to the police commissioner of the City of New York, but who would want to stay? First, Garrett suffers from the show’s holier-than-thou, the-Reagans-are-saints-and-everyone-else-ain’t mindset. More specifically, Commissioner Frank Reagan may be a standup guy, but he also blocks Garrett at nearly every turn. He’s a grouch. He refuses to comment. He goes off script. He shuts down professional counsel. He does frequent end runs and doesn’t tell Garrett a thing, leaving his entire press staff in the dark. The media should roast Frank when Garrett can tell them little or nothing, and eventually that would lose him the mayor’s confidence. The client is not letting the contractor serve him, which results in bad service, which results in conditions that should leave Garrett a frustrated, angry, marginalized news-release writer with a high salary. Find another job, Garrett!

http://chitownstarconnections.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/dan-bucatinsky-400x600.jpgJames Novak, White House press secretary, Scandal. James was much more absurd. First he was White House correspondent for a Washington newspaper, worried that his badge would be stripped because his conniving husband kept slipping him information / denying him information / giving him a snog in the office. He quit after getting himself embroiled in a (gasp) scandal. A year later, he was back at work, instantly interviewing the First Lady for some national news broadcast. (As if!) Then he was fired. The next week he was a magazine freelancer with a prime assignment. Then suddenly he was White House press secretary, fielding questions from national and international media—oh, come on—right up until he and two women were shot on the street outside the gate. And no one noticed, no Secret Service, no one of a dozen other Washington police and security forces, no passersby, even though the killer sat around on the pavement waiting for poor James to die. This show gets four eyerolls on the eyeroll scale.

https://i0.wp.com/www.gender-focus.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/allison_janney.jpgC.J. Cregg, White House press secretary, The West Wing. Yay! They got C.J. much more right, within the bounds of TV. Of course, The West Wing was a much better show.

Not that it was 100 percent realistic. There is no 18th and Potomac, and you don’t turn west on Key Bridge to get to George Washington University Hospital. And since when does a press secretary become chief of staff? But the show benefited from having a real White House press secretary as a consultant:

—C.J. went from high-flying private-sector PR operative to jobless to campaign press person at less than 10 percent of the pay.

—She was shown at work behind the scenes, talking to reporters about stories she wanted done and talking them out of other ones. It’s not all standing in front of the press room.

—She was shown being screwed over when her colleagues left her in the dark about a major issue. See, NYPD, that’s what happens! (And what did happen to former press secretary and show consultant Dee Dee Myers.)

—A bit of the real world came in when C.J. showed a documentary filmmaker the flak jacket she inherited from her predecessor and that she’d pass on to her successor with a note in the pocket. That’s a tradition started by Ron Nessen in 1977.

—The show also gave viewers a glimpse of how easy it is to do the job wrong. When C.J. had dental surgery and arrogant Josh Lyman went to the podium with an “anyone can do this” attitude, he got his head handed to him in less than 30 seconds, causing trouble for both POTUS and C.J. “You compwetwy impwoded!” she yelled at him afterward. “You are not evew awowed in my pwess woom again!”

Equivalent characters on House of Cards, Veep, and Homeland are reportedly less prominent. Not having cable to check, I can’t comment firsthand on those portrayals. Do they follow the West Wing model? I wouldn’t bet on it…. What do you think?

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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