By Samuel Rubenfeld - 02/17/09 04:07 PM EST
Just ask two congressmen starring in their own CNN.com reality show, “Freshman Year.” By the second installment of the show, Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) are knee-deep in constituent mail, comparing the subways between chambers of the Capitol and becoming frustrated with the food in Washington.
The two congressmen were chosen by CNN for their compelling biographies, contrasting backgrounds and familiarity with technology, said CNN.com spokeswoman Jennifer Martin. Polis, 33, is the first openly gay man elected to Congress, whereas Chaffetz, 41, is a Mormon. Both have backgrounds in the private sector: Polis was an Internet entrepreneur and Chaffetz formed a corporate communications company. Each member carries a Flip USB video camera, filming his days and nights for all to see.
But with the members choosing what they film, it allows them to control the message they send to viewers. So the question remains: Does the show succeed in making the institution a more open place, or just the same tightly controlled venue viewers have always seen?
Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University who edits the blog PressThink, said that whoever edits the footage controls the message.
“I would not say there is any gain in openness if it’s just congressmen carrying cameras and CNN deciding what parts to show,” Rosen said, adding that the show “sounds like a gimmick.”
However, Leslie-Jean Thornton, a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, said the show is valuable because “the public has access to material it wouldn’t have otherwise.”
“People can see them both in personable ways; it’s hard to demonize someone you’ve come to know,” she said.
Martin said the network edits down hours of footage the members provide according to editorial judgment, and that it does not allow the members to see the footage before it airs.
“It’s designed to be a first-person perspective of what life is like — both professionally and personally — for two freshman congressmen,” Martin said. “We wanted it to feel very intimate, to give the audience an up-close, behind-the-scenes look that news cameras wouldn’t ordinarily capture.”
CNN delivers the goods, revealing much of the congressmen’s personalities throughout the show. In the first episode, Polis says he has been wearing the same shirt for two weeks, complaining that he has to dress professionally instead of in his preferred turtleneck. “It’s starting to smell a little bit,” he says. “I’ve got to bring a new one in.”
Chaffetz sleeps on a cot in his office instead of renting an apartment. “I’ve got a wife and three kids and a mortgage,” he says in the premiere. “We get paid a handsome salary, but we need to save every penny like everybody else.
“The cot itself is fine,” he told The Hill. “It’s the noises in the hall at night that keep me up. They have this Zamboni-like cleaner that beeps obnoxiously loud.”
Viewers get to see that Chaffetz is not a very healthy eater. At one point, he says that Pop-Tarts often help him through the day. At the end of the second episode, Chaffetz goes to a burrito place in the District, saying, “After two bites, I realized I had to move on,” and instead opts for fast food from a joint called Good Stuff Eatery, where he spends $11 on a burger, fries and bottled water.
Chaffetz said he believes if you are in public service representing constituents, “Your life is fair game.”
By the second episode, both men are deep into the business of being congressmen. Polis heads back to Boulder to meet constituents, while Chaffetz works from Capitol Hill.
Polis meets with the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, and drives a hydrogen fuel cell car at the wind technology center at the National Renewable Energies Laboratory. “It runs clean, but the only problem is they cost about a million dollars each, so they have to get the costs down,” Polis says while driving.
Chaffetz meets with his staff as they sort through constituent mail, then explains how his congressional pin gains him all sorts of access. He shows the view of the Rayburn shoehorn from his office window, saying that he was the sixth freshman member to choose his office out of a 54-member lottery.
The two meet at the Senate subway for the end of the episode, a live interview for CNN International. “It’s kind of like Disneyland — kids love the ride,” Chaffetz says. “So do I.”
Despite how personality-driven the show is, CNN insists there is something substantive here as well. “They touch on serious issues like the economic crisis and the stimulus — and on the way freshmen get oriented, the way the House operates, the role of committees, the staffing and duties of congressional offices and the services provided to constituents,” Martin said.
“This isn’t intended to be an official record of the hearings and votes on Capitol Hill, but rather it’s a window into two very interesting personalities and the way they grow into their new roles as legislators,” she added.
Rosen thinks CNN should take it a step further: “If they carried cameras and you streamed live to their own websites so you could follow around a congressman all day, unfiltered, that would be interesting.”