How Hollywood Gets Bloggers Wrong
From Gossip Girl to The Newsroom, movies and TV shows have no idea how blogging actually works.
Still from State of Play courtesy Universal Pictures. Still from Gossip Girl by Giovanni Rufino/The CW—© 2012 the CW Network. Still of Dev Patel by Melissa Moseley/HBO.
When Gossip Girl ends its six-season run tonight, it will bring down the curtain on the relationship drama of socialites Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick) and Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester), while also raising the curtain at last on one of the longest-running blogger characters anywhere in pop culture. The finale’s promised to reveal the identity of the titular cyber-mudslinger, long voiced by Kristen Bell. But while knowing who Gossip Girl is, and how she’s been in a position to gather all of that Upper East Side dish, may solve the show’s final, if least-baroque, mystery, it spotlights a bigger problem.
Gossip Girl, which began airing in 2007, spanned the years when the media and publishing industries began to integrate bloggers, those upstart challengers to their business models, shelling out book and TV deals to writers like The Pioneer Woman’s Ree Drummond, and building entire sections around writers like the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein. But for the most part, movies and TV shows haven’t figured out how to utilize bloggers yet. In fact, they barely understand how blogging actually works—or what, from a plot standpoint, it’s good for.
Gossip Girl did provide a seminal trope for bloggers in pop culture, particularly on television shows about high-school students: blogger as rumor-mill-qua-exposition device. Where once narrators were voices of God who introduced us to large estates on Long Island whence lived a girl named Sabrina, bloggers now are constant interruptions on certain television shows. Glee has Jacob Ben-Israel, who appears mostly to sexually harass star singer Rachel Berry, or to move the show quickly through discussions of topics like the characters’ college plans, or to voice concerns critics have expressed about Glee in the real world. Awkward, MTV’s show about a high school student who becomes more popular after a rumor spreads that she attempted suicide, actually makes a blogger its main character, and her site a factor in her attempts to negotiate her love life.
But none of these high-school bloggers quite capture the highs or lows blog platforms can play in real high schoolers’ lives. Gossip Girl’s items may ripple through rich kids’ smartphones, but they aren’t nearly as nasty—and her readers aren’t as obsessively engaged—as on microblogging sites like Ask.fm, where high-school students open themselves to queries (many of them unkind) about their personal lives. And while Gossip Girl is powerful, she’s anonymous. Jacob is a pathetic nerd, and Awkward’s Jenna is only marginally popular. There’s not a Tavi Gevinson, the fashion blogger and founder of Rookie, who’s now forging an acting career of her own, among them.
If high-school bloggers are marginal in pop culture, their adult counterparts are often portrayed as frivolous or even actively malign. One recurring trope in journalism dramas has been to saddle older, wiser reporters with young female bloggers as colleagues or as competition, as a way of reinforcing the virtues of old-school journalism. In the 2009 adaptation of the British miniseries State of Play, Russell Crowe played Cal McCaffrey, a political reporter who got teamed up with Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) a young blogger, to cover the death of a congressman’s mistress. Even though Cal’s conflicts—his friendship with the congressman and emotional attachment to the man’s wife—would have barred him from covering the story at any respectable paper, and even though Della’s reporting uncovered the first break in the case, over the course of the movie Della comes to respect Cal’s wisdom, becoming a respectful Robin to his journalistic Batman.
If State of Play’s portrayal of Della was irritatingly smug, the way USA’s miniseries Political Animals treated its young female blogger was downright insulting. The miniseries countered old-school journalist Susan Berg (Carla Gugino) with blogger rival Georgia Gibbons (Meghann Fahy)—not just a shallow, style-obsessed chronicler of D.C. nonsense, but a selfish slut who was sleeping with Susan’s boyfriend. To the show’s credit, Georgia at least got a shot at proving she was competent, scooping Susan on a story when Susan’s old-school focus on source development lead her to delay the news too long. But even if Georgia got the story, she was still a bad girl, if personally rather than professionally, and Susan was the hero, even if she got so cozy with her sources that she ended up sleeping with the First Lady’s son. In this formulation, reporters get a free pass on crossing ethical lines, but their blogger counterparts are dumb little girls who need to be taught valuable lessons.
Male bloggers don’t fare much better though: While their female counterparts are merely unsubstantive, men who blog for a living are loons, and sometimes ones who do enormous damage. In Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, Jude Law plays Alan Krumwiede, a disgruntled blogger who keeps getting his freelance pitches turned down by a newspaper editor. When a global pandemic strikes, Alan sees his chance to become a prophet: He spreads the rumor that he’s cured himself of the disease using forsythia as an herbal remedy, and urges his readers to ignore public-health officials. His misinformation renders the population more vulnerable—including that newspaper editor, whom he leaves to die in the street—and he’s ultimately found to be in the pay of a pharmaceutical company eager to profit off the crisis. When, at the end of the film, Alan’s arrested, he claims he’ll be bailed out: He’s evil, but the stupidity of his followers may be even more dangerous.
Aaron Sorkin’s depiction of bloggers in his HBO drama The Newsroom this summer was less damaging, but in its own way, much more dismissive. Neal Sampat (Dev Patel), the blogger for news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), could be an asset to the team, as when he found a stringer in Cairo in the midst of the Arab Spring. But instead of just letting him be a talented new-media journalist, Sorkin saddled Neal with a bizarre Bigfoot obsession and a girlfriend who got Will high on a night when important news broke. Sorkin, ever distrustful of the Internet, seemingly couldn’t resist making Neal ludicrous, lest we become more impressed with him than with his bloviating, recovering-sellout boss.
There’s no question that some bloggers are sloppy writers who repurpose content rather than adding value to the news cycle. And misinformation floats around even establishment sites like the Huffington Post and Gawker. But from the New York Times’ statistician Nate Silver to the Post’s Klein, who now oversees a team of economics reporters, bloggers don’t exist solely as noxious weeds to be pruned down into responsible reporters, or as rumor-mongering cancers that need to be excised from the public square. If you want intra-newsroom drama, it’s past time for bloggers to have their shot at being upstart heroes who challenge the complacency and maybe even work ethics of old-school reporters.
Bloggers aren’t just passive observers of the lives of more interesting people any more. And from the Upper East Side to the White House press room, it would be nice if television and movies started recognizing that they’re capable of breaking real news—or even, sometimes, being the story.
Alyssa Rosenberg writes about culture and television for Slate’s “XX Factor” blog. She also contributes to ThinkProgress and theatlantic.com.