Is “Fake News” Legitimized by “Quality TV?”

In yesterday’s New York Times, the showrunners of several current political TV dramas discuss how the outrageousness of current political reality has affected the plotlines of their shows. Some of them talk about how they had to change the direction of the current season to take into account the real-life headlines that, in some cases, might make a plot twist dated or moot. Reading this, I couldn’t help but feel that there’s another side to this—one that these showrunners might not want to face: that these fictional television series have unwittingly aided and abetted a climate of mistrust for government and the rise of “fake news.”

Fictional TV has always had a side that was “ripped from the headlines.” Famously, the “Law and Order” series would take actual tabloid stories and fictionalize them just enough to pass muster without needing the rights to anyone’s particular story.

In recent years, there has been a spate of series that have one underlying theme—cynicism about our government. This list of shows is long, and includes everything from “Madam Secretary” to “The Good Wife” to “House of Cards” to “Homeland” to “Designated Survivor” to “Scandal”—even to “Game of Thrones.”

There have been many times in the last few years that I’ve watched one of these shows, and while completely entertained and at times on the edge of my seat, I also got a bit queasy about how close some of the characters and plotlines were to current events.

These portrayals of lightly fictionalized characters– acting out exaggerated events usually set in a contemporary version of American politics–can’t help but reinforce the idea that everyone in government is a scheming crook out for his/her own power, and willing to take whatever steps necessary to defeat opponents.

“Game of Thrones” might be the most extreme version, but since it pretends to take place in a world that is made to feel like ancient history, it removes itself from any overt connection to the contemporary world. However, I can’t help but think that Steve Bannon takes notes on strategy when he watches the show.

The contemporary shows make a much more direct connection. One might argue that some of these shows feature characters who are trying to do good within a corrupt world. The characters of Alicia on “The Good Wife,” the accidental President on “Designated Survivor,” or even Carrie on “Homeland,” are essentially moral people, living in a world that forces them to take extreme action. The problem with these shows is that, ultimately, all of them are forced to act against their own instincts. They are effectively defeated by a system that that is so inherently corrupt, there is no choice but to play by those rules.

I am not saying that these shows are in any way responsible for the poisonous atmosphere in our country right now. But I am saying that these shows may have inadvertently helped to create the environment in which fake news is completely believable. When we binge-watch “House of Cards” or “Scandal” and are exposed to politicians who are literally willing to murder anyone who gets in their way, is it a stretch to believe that the Clintons had people murdered, or that Hillary runs a child prostitution ring out of a pizza parlor?

My fear is that audiences eventually become numb to the fact that this is fiction. The writers of these shows are so good at what they do, they make things believable that we would have not-so-long-ago thought of as nonsense. Fake news just harnesses that numbness to take it the next step, blurring fictional conceits with current reality.

I hope that these writers understand that sometimes reality follows fiction rather than the other way around. Just look at who is in the White House.

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