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COMM 431: Mass Media Ethics (Fall Semester 2003)
Instructor: Ross Collins, Department of Communication, North Dakota State University

Student work 2004: The best of student research in mass media ethics

"West Wing," a fictional television program about the U.S. presidency, is often lauded as an example of television for thoughtful viewers tired of shallow values and violence. But this student's top-ranked class research paper encourages us to ask sometimes unsettling questions about what we see. The powerful influence of this almost-too-real television program may lead viewers to unrealistic expectations about real life at the seat of world power.

Andrea M. Karpe

TV’s Newest Reality: Political Implications of "The West Wing"

Television holds something for everyone in our culture: the intellect, the pop culture junkie, the realist, and the comedian. As our society has become increasingly diverse and fragmented, television has increasingly sought to reflect this diversity and illustrate the needs of the public. Yet in the era after September 11th, a new type of television has become predominant. Reality television, while evident in television programming for years, has blossomed as TV’s newest fad. While these shows remain popular with a wide audience segment, it is evident that as our country searches for its identity after the horrible tragedy on September 11th, a new form of the TV drama has emerged.

"The West Wing," "The Agency," "Law and Order," "CSI," "Jag" and "Judging Amy" occupy a powerful majority of prime time viewing and increasingly, are using current, real world events on which to develop their plot lines. However, the pressure from reality TV has pushed many of these shows to make a bigger splash--to become more sensational in order to compete. Yet one of TV’s most popular shows, "The West Wing," has continued to capture some of television’s most educated, affluent viewers since the show’s premiere in 1999 (Waxman, 2003). So what is it that draws these upper middle class consumers to the show week after week? Is it the hope that President Bartlet will have an illicit affair with a leggy blonde who is also a billionaire? Hardly.

So what is it that brings millions of viewers to this fictional West Wing every week? By examining this popular and well-decorated show’s story synopses, we can begin to develop a sense about what is going on with our television dramas today. Most importantly, it will allow us to examine the standards the show sets up for real-world politics and the ethical considerations of these sometimes impractical expectations. Is it ethical for ""The West Wing"" to create high public expectations of the real White House based on this television show?

Executive producer John Wells summed up emergence of "The West Wing" into the public domain succinctly. In 1999 when "West Wing" was born, Americans were disillusioned with politics. After surviving the Clinton impeachment hearings and scandal after scandal, tolerance for politics had come to a divide.

And that’s what happened when "West Wing" came on. We’d reached a point in the culture where we assumed that people who want to choose public service have the basest of motives of self-aggrandizement and financial gain. The public wants to believe in the political process, wants to believe in politicians. Wants to believe that the people who are leading us are doing so—even if there are ideological differences—to make the country better (Waxman, 2003, p. 207).

And so "The West Wing" has taken flight, bringing millions of Americans into a world where honesty, integrity and passion can make a difference in people’s lives.

The genius of "The West Wing" is primarily due to the skillful hand of creator and writer Aaron Sorkin. The show’s witty dialogue, dramatic and intricate plot lines all stem from the vision of Sorkin who also wrote feature films such as "The American President" and "A Few Good Men." (Ezell, 2003). Yet even though "The West Wing" is a fictional show, filled with fictional ideas, the boundary between realism and fiction are severely blurred. Armed with a diverse field of real life politicians and analysts, mostly former members of President Clinton’s staff, Sorkin’s show is carefully handcrafted from the bottom up, in order to ensure the stories and issues are realistic, adding to the power of the drama woven throughout the plotlines (Levine, 2003).
While many aspects of the show are fictional, the issues discussed and the impressions of what it feels like to work at the White House are realistic. According to the analysis of Levine (2003), the show is accurate in its depiction of a variety of aspects in the inner workings of the White House. He argues that while there are several errors in the illustration of the White House, it paints a clear picture in areas such as the limitations of presidential power, the physical and mental drain presidency has on a man, the influence of polling statistics on an administration, as well as for the detailed portrayal of “the complexities of politics and decision-making in the real world where few things are black and white” (Levine, 2003, p. 49).

Not only does "The West Wing" seek to bring a realistic White House to the American public, but it also weaves real life issues and controversies into its powerful story. While the majority of the storylines in the show are purely fictional, at times Sorkin does feel it is important to bring actual events and issues into the story (Waxman, 2003). One prominent example of a real issue creeping into the show occurred in an episode titled “Take this Sabbath Day” where President Bartlet struggled with the decision to commute a Supreme Court decision to execute a man convicted of a drug-related murder (“West Wing”, 2003). This event closely parallels a real incident where President Clinton decided to postpone the execution of a federal prisoner (Waxman, 2003).

A second instance where "The West Wing" foreshadowed real events was found in a plotline in which an American journalist was kidnapped while reporting in the Congo (“West Wing”, 2003). The show originally aired during the kidnapping and murder of journalist Daniel Pearl (Stanley, 2002). Another clear example is the hastily produced show created in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11th which addressed racial profiling of Arab-Americans in the search for a suspected terrorist (Carter, 2001). When the show draws on such prominent and vivid examples from real life, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between what is authentic and what is Sorkin.

On the other hand, it is not only "The West Wing" that is guilty in blurring the lines between truth and illusion. When, in response to a West Wing episode in which a truck carrying depleted uranium-fuel rods crashed in Idaho, New Mexico Governor Gary E. Johnson released a statement in order to reassure his constituents about the safety of stored nuclear waste in New Mexico, he too blurred this line. Anne Clark, a radioactive waste official who issued the statement for Governor Johnson, concisely summarized this real-fantasy world conundrum when she said, “Clearly, we all know TV drama is fiction. But usually things that are portrayed could happen. So where’s the line? We thought it was a good idea to let people know what could happen and what couldn’t happen” (All fiction, 2002). Where’s the line indeed?

It is clear that realism is a fundamental goal of "West Wing" and at the center of Sorkin’s make-believe White House are his characters. These characters provide an essential base that has paved the way for the show’s development and growth. Sorkin created a White House full of idealistic, brilliant, noble Democrats who week after week and year after year, seek not to advance political careers and ambitions, but to do good, to make their mark by making the country a better place (Podhoretz, 2003). They are Sorkin’s “heroes” sent to wipe the political cynicism from the minds of the American people and help the public believe in democracy again. Audiences are left with the strong belief that these are ethical people who genuinely love their jobs and care passionately about making our country better (Levine, 2003). The value of these types of characters was clearly reinforced when Sojourners wrote, “If this is not how the White House actually is, it’s how it should be” (Found in Pompper, 2003).

At core of "The West Wing’s" White House sits President Bartlet--a president who is not afraid to use his political and military power, and who is intelligent enough to use his force wisely. He is a loving and protective husband who cares for his staff members almost as if they too were his family. Bartlet boasts American blue-blood, a Nobel Prize, is the warm-hearted father of three daughters and is a dynamic President who can be commanding and compassionate while tackling some of the most difficult issues in American politics in a human, almost vulnerable way (Podhoretz, 2003). President Bartlet is the president Americans have aspired for. He is a president we can believe in.

Millions tune into the show week after week in search of the fulfillment of this abstract dream. Yet, when we turn off the television, we are not left with the feeling that the heroes of Bartlet’s White House are frozen, waiting for our return. Sorkin’s West Wing is continuous, always in motion; these characters are real to audiences, and the issues they discuss are factual. The public feels the characters in the show are real, we trust them, we believe in them. According to disposition theory, we are more apt to like characters that experience positive outcomes and that we believe are similar to us (Raney & Bryant, 2002). The New Yorker once explained this feeling as though "The West Wing’s" characters “actually existed before the show” (Pompper, 2003). We believe they go home each night to plush apartments and wake up to screaming alarm clocks. They struggle in rush hour traffic each morning and pursue unique hobbies. To us, these are real people.

In the search to ground these characters in our everyday lives, many have argued that generally all of the show’s characters have been developed from former members of President Clinton’s staff, in fact many show analysts have even gone so far as to relate Sorkin’s individual characters to actual Clinton staffers. (See Rollins & O’Connor, 2003). In response to these seemingly improbable comparisons Sorkin answers, “Those connections are nonsense. I make those people up.” (Waxman, 2003). But despite his protests, the resemblance of the Bartlet White House to the Clinton White House is apparent. Most of the cast members are liberal democrats, both on and off the screen; in many ways, the show’s characters are real life politicians and staff members with their flaws airbrushed effortlessly from the screen. Some have even gone so far as to label the show as “what the Clinton White House should have been” without the scandals and demise of the administration (Pompper, 2003).

Outside of its characters, the focus of "West Wing" is to shed light on policy issues and give the public a detailed understanding about how politics works. Sorkin describes the show as “the two minutes before and after [the president is] on CNN” (, 2003). White House staffers are constantly rushing around through the luxurious halls of "The West Wing," discussing prominent issues at a blistering pace. Throughout the show’s lifespan, nearly every salient political issue has been addressed through the dazzling dialogue and the wit of the President’s senior staff. Now in its fifth season, the show has tackled a variety of hot topics such as Middle Eastern peace and campaign finance reform, as well as more subtle issues such as funding for PBS and wrestling with the public spotlight on the personal lives of the staff. (, 2003).

Most importantly however, the political debates that erupt on the show are not resolved in 60 minutes. These debates and discussions continue into the future, giving audiences a sense of “debate in progress,” the idea that politics is a continuous, flowing event that cannot be described or portrayed in bites (Pompper, 2003). In other words, the process of politics on "The West Wing" is seamless, ceaseless even when the closing credits shut our door on the Bartlet White House.

Not only are the stories and the people of Bartlet’s administration lifelike, but the backdrop of "The West Wing" is also true to life. West Wing set creators, Ellen Totleben and Kenneth Hardy, spent months researching the set for the show. By digging through actual West Wing desk drawers and modeled President Bartlet’s knickknack arrangement in the Oval Office after that of President Clinton, the pair was able to recreate "The West Wing" in a vibrant and authentic fashion. When the actors on the fictional West Wing visited the White House, they were amazed to find the detailed resemblance between the real West Wing and the set upon which they work. In Hollywood, the art garnishing the walls are replicas of real artwork in "The West Wing," the chairs are covered in the same fabric, and the antique furniture in real staff offices was painstakingly recreated for the show (Frank, 2002).

Aside from the architectural and aesthetic details of the set, the props used create a lifelike feel were also inspired by the real White House. Adornments of flags on the walls, a plethora of televisions stacked in nearly every corner, shoes and clothes behind doors as busy staff members never had time to change at home before dinner, were all recreated to enhance the realism of "West Wing" (Frank, 2002).

All of these aspects of the show have served to create a realistic picture of what life in the White House is actually like. However, this extreme sense of realism can create several difficulties for the real West Wing and all American politicians.

Results and analysis
In order to evaluate the ethical consideration of the show, it was important to divide the series into more digestible pieces. After examining nearly 100 shows spanning five seasons based on episode synopses from (2003) in a content analysis, eight major plot events were identified and coded along with the political issues addressed in the show. By examining these eight major events in greater detail and understanding how the expression of these political issues have created public demands on real-world politicians, we can begin to evaluate the ethics involved in creating these types of pressures on the real political world.

The most prominent feature "The West Wing" projects to the public is speed. Speed of dialogue, speed of walking, speed of conflict resolution, speed of thought; there is an urgent tempo in the Bartlet White House. Nothing is stagnant: ideas, people, and speech are in a state of constant and imperative flux. Each episode is engulfed with staffers rushing through their day, engaging in some of the most intellectual and vital public debate our country has ever seen. The critical elements of the speed of Sorkin’s West Wing lie in the perceptions the public creates about the speed of real policymaking and the swiftness with which real politicians are able to address issues.

In just over four years, the fictional West Wing has addressed at least 80 political issues and weathered eight major events. Of these, even one such event would have the potential to tarnish an entire presidency in the real world. Yet the resilient Bartlet administration handles each of these near disasters with grace and skill. While this makes dramatic television, how does the American public interpret this when looking at real-world politics? In order to understand the magnitude of these events, we will look at each in greater detail. (See Figure 1 for the coding of these events.)

The first of these major events involves chief of staff, Leo McGarry who is an alcoholic and former abuser of Valium. When a White House staff member releases McGarry’s personal file to the media, his secret is thrust into the forefront. After being forced to bring his past in front of the American people through the press, McGarry is threatened with a possible hearing regarding these humiliating aspects of his past (, 2003).

Political assassinations are some of the most tragic political events and in "The West Wing," assassination is a serious issue. However, the assassination attempt which occurs in the beginning of season two is not meant for the President. Instead, radical white supremacists who are enraged by the romantic relationship between the President’s daughter and his African American personal assistant, attempt to slay Charlie Young, devoted Presidential ‘’body man.” While both Young and the President’s daughter, Zoey, were the core reason for the attack, it is Josh Lyman, deputy chief of staff who takes the bullet (

Much of the second and third seasons are engulfed with one issue: the disclosure of the President’s struggle with multiple sclerosis. This plot line consumes many episodes, ranging from the President collapsing to a grueling set of hearings in which every member of the President’s staff are interrogated by a House committee on the cover up. This trauma casts a dark shadow on another prominent event in the show: President Bartlet’s reelection. While it is evident Bartlet will rise to the top in his reelection struggle, Sorkin is able to shine a fresh light on political campaigning throughout much of season three (“West Wing,” 2003).

Terrorism became a prominent event in the show when the defense minister of a fictional Middle Eastern country, Qumar, was suspected to have developed a plot to blow-up the Golden Gate Bridge. This drives the President to become the assassin, this time in the form of the calculated murder of this terrorist. The repercussions of this decision hit the White House hard in the future when the President’s youngest daughter, Zoey, is kidnapped at her graduation party. Due to the lack of domestic leads, it is believed her kidnapping was retaliation for the assassination (“West Wing,” 2003).

Finally the closure of season four and beginning of season five contains two key events which warrant examination. First, Vice President John Hoynes was discovered to have had an affair with a long time White House staff member and had been leaking classified information to her. When she released this information to the press and published a book based on facts he provided her, Hoynes was forced to resign his office. And lastly, in the early episodes of season five, due to the lack of agreement over budget appropriations, the federal government is forced to shut down until an agreement between the Senate and the President can be reached (“West Wing,” 2003).

These eight events have provided "West Wing" viewers with a substantial amount of political eye candy in a relatively short amount of time. In order to better understand and visualize the pace of these eight events, they can be coded across shows and compared to the duration of the series, depicted in days since the pilot. In the 673 days the show has been on the air, these eight major events have dominated nearly 50 percent of the show’s episodes. Seasons three, four and five contain the majority of episodes addressing these major events.

Also, the time period between events has varied over the life of the show. While there are defined lags between events one, two and three, events three through five and six through eight occur if not simultaneously, than in rapid succession. Additionally, events one through five require at least three episodes in order to fully address the issue, while events five through eight often did not warrant more than one episode per incident. This allows these major events to occur in a more compact amount of time.

From this analysis, it is evident that "The West Wing" moves at an idealistic rate. While each of these eight events are plausible, real-world issues, the probability of any one of these events occurring during one given presidency is limited. These events make for invigorating television but they also have the ability to create inhuman public perceptions about how real politics can function.

Discussion and Implications
The hurried ways in which these significant events occur across the show create several problems for real-life politicians. First, it decreases our tolerance for the timeframe of issue resolution in our real lives. In anywhere from one to fifteen episodes, President Bartlet’s celebrated staff can successfully resolve some of the most serious problems any political administration could face. As evidenced by many of the momentous events that occur in our real lives such as the September 11th attacks, and Operation Iraqi Freedom, these events do not go away in 90 minutes or 90 days. They stay with us. We cannot resolve or forget about many of them in a limited amount of time or even a lifetime. By breezing through tremendous events in such an irrational fashion, "The West Wing" creates unrealistic expectations in the minds of the American people.

So many aspects of the show are incredibly real. The characters, the set, even the political ideologies are true to life. For this reason, it may be difficult for the audience to distinguish between the fictional realism of Sorkin’s West Wing and the capabilities of the true West Wing. According to cultivation theory, heavy television viewing causes audiences to develop a “TV reality”, or warped perceptions about the real world (Stone, Singletary & Richmond, 1999). When audiences engage in "West Wing" on a regular basis, they can develop unreasonable expectations for real policymaking. If President Bartlet can push a crime bill through Congress in only two weeks, and simultaneously assassinate a Middle Eastern terrorist leader, why can’t President Bush create peace with North Korea and radically alter our nation’s energy policy at the same time? These types of extrapolations are irrational, yet effortless after indulging in the show; however, they serve only to increase public cynicism when real politicians fail to meet Sorkin-esque standards.

The second and possibly more serious of these real-world implications lie in the desensitization of the American public to somber events on the show and in real life. With so many colossal storylines nearly overstepping each other across the series, audiences become desensitized to the weight and impact of each individual event. We are not allowed time to reflect and evaluate the impact of the issues, we are not allowed a moment to breathe and consider the show in terms of the real world upon which it so closely parallels. In everyday life, we are usually offered a pause, or a moment to contemplate on the meaning of events (Murray, 2001; Ponton, 2001). Through this meditation, we can assess the significance and ramifications of such events and gain perspective on how these incidences affects and influences our lives.

But in the world of "The West Wing," no time is allowed to follow the everyday rhythm of the show; instead we are ricocheted from one exceedingly dramatic set of occurrences to another. Just as viewing excessive amounts of violence raises our tolerance to subsequent acts of violence, viewing excessively melodramatic episodes desensitizes us to the actual implications of the events (TV News, 1993). It isn’t every day that the Vice President resigns his office for leaking classified information, but because next week something equally as dramatic will occur, the weight of the individual event is lost, often times, forgotten.

This desensitization becomes exceedingly dangerous when we step out of this fictional West Wing and back into everyday life. Just as studies of World War Two bombings have indicated, heavy, regular bombardment quickly becomes ignored as people maneuver their lives around the danger, while moderate intermediate bombings have lasting psychological effects (Hunt, 1993). When we are constantly inundated with over-the-top events, whether in fiction or on CNN, they lose significance and soon become a part of everyday life, we expect it. Our ability to feel is slowly eroded (Casey, 1999; Murray, 2001; Ponton, 2001; TV News, 1993). When we begin to expect to be awed in this manner, just as excessive violence slowly raises our threshold, so too does this constant bombardment of drama. What will it take to grab and hold our attention in the future if our level excitement is constantly pushed to new heights? Few of us would like to live in a world where death, murder, and political corruption can occur every day, without notice or outcry.

This idea of desensitization is already evident in everyday life. By watching CNN, MSNBC or ever FOX News for a brief period, a number of “breaking” stories are flashed across our screen in the desperate attempt to break through our adaptation to melodrama (Casey, 1999). “The crawl” a device which originated on September 11th in order to help keep television viewers updated of rapidly changing events, hasn’t gone away and now includes more and more trivial information on slow news days (Moll, 2002). Both of these trends are helping to desensitize the American public and increase apathy and cynicism towards politics, the media and the events themselves.

The last of the concerns we can discern from "The West Wing" lie in the demands the show places on real-world politicians. Policy-making in the real world is dominated by horse-trading, and “if you pat my back, I’ll pat yours” scenarios (Los Angeles Times, 2003). Politicians live in a world filled with the threat of backlash from other policy makers; even your own party may choose to isolate you for your decisions (Gongloff, 2003). Most Americans understand this world and most Americans are cynical about the political implications of these “gentlemen’s agreements”. Yet even on "The West Wing" we see these types of circumstances emerge. Josh Lyman is constantly struggling to strike deals with other policymakers in order to advance the President’s agenda. In the episode “Let Bartlet be Bartlet”, the White House staff spends their entire day meeting with congressional and political leaders in hopes of drawing support for the President’s aspirations (“West Wing,” 2003).

While we are given an accurate picture about how policy is created on the show, we are deprived of one important issue regarding the formation of legislation. Every action has its concurrent consequences. Yet, after watching "The West Wing" for a brief amount of time, it is evident that neither the President nor his staff is afraid to ignore conventions and institute their own methods of conducting business. It in these rogue, powerful moments that audiences are held most captive, but it is in these moments that the show strays from a genuine portrayal of how American politics is conducted.

In the episode “Mandatory Minimums” the President decides to nominate his own choices for two openings on the Federal Election Committee, a nomination which is always influenced by congressional leaders. In response to his dramatic decision, the Senate leaders attempt to intimidate the President with a barrage of unpopular legislation and the threat of a swift congressional veto on any future legislation the President wishes to pass (“West Wing,” 2003). While these threats sound serious and intimidating, neither the President nor his staff are daunted. And for good reason- audiences are never exposed to these political repercussions. We never watch the White House deal with the direct consequences of its impetuous actions and in most cases, we never hear about these threats again.

The lack of follow through in these types of situations where political repercussions are imminent, allows audiences to develop deceptive interpretations of how policymaking occurs. All real world politicians are constrained by their ability to gain majority support for their issues if they expect ratification of their bill. More often or not, the lack of consensus on political issues at the congressional level stalls legislation of all types, regardless of the altruistic goals of a determined President (Levine, 2003). When we watch the show, we are caught up in its realism and the convictions of the characters, yet real politicians and real policy can rarely live up to the standards presented in the show. Whether this is an indictment of our current policy arena or the authenticity of "The West Wing", we may never know. However, when audiences experience policymaking without the subsequent ramifications real politicians are faced, they are left with nothing but cynicism for the real system of policymaking.

Without a doubt, "The West Wing" is one of the most decorated television shows on the air. The mantels of show creator Aaron Sorkin and the illustrious staff are heavy with Emmys and other prestigious awards. Being one of the only shows to have been awarded more than 20 Emmys, the success of the show and its popularity are undisputed (Academy of Television, 2003). However the question lies in the ability of the show to retain its audiences in the era after creator Aaron Sorkin has left his West Wing.

What he has left behind however, is a unique, powerful and enticing show that is an important instrument for alleviating the cynical ideas the American public retains about politics. The show is a potent instrument to show audiences how democracy can work, possibly even how it should work. However, within this ideal picture of "West Wing" politics, the show also places extreme demands upon less-well scripted politicians who struggle though the trenches of real political debate. There are physical limits to what can and what cannot be accomplished in politics. Money, backstabbing, personal attacks and incompetence are rampant in our political world. While "The West Wing" may serve as an instrument to reveal a higher standard to the American public, this is a standard from which reality will always fall short.

Additionally, the speed that Sorkin uses to capture the attention of the audience week after week slowly erodes the sensitivity of audiences to the full impacts of the issues discussed in the show. By speeding up the pace of "The West Wing" Americans expect more every week and eventually, there will be a limit to what can capture and awe audiences. This type of systematic desensitization not only creates issues for the future of the show, but also holds serious implications in our everyday lives. If we continue to increase our “shock and awe” threshold for real events, the horrors of this world will become less and less significant to us. Like the citizens of London in World War II, we too will learn to meld our life around traumatic events without so much as a second glance.

Opening up politics to this type of editorial evaluation is healthy. Regardless of the slight reality suspension audiences may have to engage, changing the way America sees politics is the only way we can institute change: it is the only way we can know the difference between what is and what could be. By cultivating the public to hold real politics to a higher standard, change can occur. As John Stewart Mill would agree, the ends truly justify the means (Knowlton & Parsons, 1995). "The West Wing" is an idealized version of politics that takes place in a fictional White House and emphasizes salient issues, believable scenarios, and genuine characters we related to and admire. While the demands West Wing places on real politics may be harsh, the show portrays a version of democracy we can live with. A version Americans wish was real.
So while "The West Wing" may not hand out roses at the end of every show and while it fails to “kick someone out of office” each week, it does offer audiences its own version of reality TV.

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