‘Parks and Recreation’ Returns in the Brainless Media Landscape It Foreshadowed


Does any small town in America have a media landscape quite so zany and crowded as that of Pawnee, Indiana? In the Parks and Recreation universe, the fictional seventh-largest city in Indiana is home to a nutty and surprisingly populated field of media outlets, including two local newspapers, two television stations, and at least three radio stations. In an era of slashed budgets at news outlets around the globe, with small-town news organizations particularly hard hit, Pawnee’s thriving media scene isn’t exactly realistic, but one thing about it rings true: despite airing long before Trumpism, Parks and Recreation somehow got Trump-ist media exactly right.

Parks and Recreation is a sunny show about the value of civil service and the power of “little” people to enact big change, to be certain—but it’s also a show about one government official’s tortured relationship with the local media. Leslie Knope is constantly at odds with local journalists—badgering newspaper reporter Shawna Malwae-Tweep about headlines, battling the muckraking tabloid that hacks her emails and speciously indicts her in political sex scandals, and appearing on television and radio programs to promote government events to an array of eccentric newscasters. Indeed those newscasters are among the brightest spots in the show, from the bumbling, hyper-literal Perd Hapley to the sensationalist (and sensationally unprofessional) Joan Callamezzo.

In its heyday, airing in the early 2010s, the media ecosystem portrayed on Parks and Recreation felt like something that could only exist on a sitcom, full as it was of thriving local media and kooky personalities, with not a competent, ethical journalist in sight. Certainly it was a smart satire of sensationalized journalism and the 24-hour news cycle, yet it rang too comical and hyperbolized to be real. Today, less than a decade later, it registers instead as dismally par for the course, like an eerie prediction of the media circus we’d come to experience in the age of the reality show president. With Parks and Recreation returning to television this week in the form of a reunion special intended to raise funds for Feeding America’s Response Fund, the show’s gut-busting send-up of the fourth estate has never been more relevant—or more necessary.

So far, all we know about the plot of the reunion special is this: with all of the characters isolated due to the coronavirus pandemic, Leslie is determined to stay connected to her friends during a time of social distancing. If or how the special will involve the Pawnee media remains unclear, but it’s certain that the pandemic has given the Parks and Recreation writers no shortage of material, with the White House’s ludicrous daily press briefings spreading misinformation to a press corps so afflicted by both-sides-ism that it refuses to call a spade a spade, even in the matter of, “To shoot up with bleach or not to shoot up with bleach?” Over at Vulture, Parks and Recreation creator Mike Schur teased his take on a coronavirus episode, with Leslie saving the town by adopting CDC guidelines within twenty-four hours of the first coronavirus reports in America. One can almost picture the Pawnee press pushing back as it so often did when Leslie tried in vain to feed the town some necessary medicine, whether it was appropriately-sized sodas or fluoridated water.

Yet as relevant as the show is during this pandemic, it’s always been ahead of the curve in predicting the follies of the media circa the Trump era, particularly when it comes to Pawnee’s television news landscape. Take, for example, “Pawnee Today,” hosted on public access television by “legendary newswoman” Joan Callamezzo (emphasis: Joan’s own). “Pawnee Today” is practically a Fox News program in the making, featuring body language experts and “gotcha!” dancers that sashay onto the stage when Joan ensnares her guests in gotcha journalism. Joan herself is a Jeanine Pirro-esque figure, coiffed to the high heavens and often intoxicated on the air, prone to flying off the handle and asking her guests egregiously leading questions. When The Pawnee Sun, the local rag, implicates Leslie in a sex scandal with sleazy Councilman Bill Dexhart, Leslie appears on “Pawnee Today” to clear her name, with Joan opening the segment by launching a characteristically sensationalized and biased salvo: “Sex. Drugs. Possibly rock and roll. We’ll find out today from the woman at the center of the Dexhart sex scandal, Leslie Knope. Leslie, when did the affair start?”

While Joan and The Pawnee Sun are ever eager to peddle falsehoods, other journalists in Pawnee are quick to pile on. We rarely see Perd Hapley reporting a story; rather, on “Ya Heard With Perd,” Perd’s sources are often hearsay or the specious reporting of other sources. In covering the Dexhart sex scandal, Perd cites only “unconfirmed reports from The Pawnee Sun.” Parks and Recreation highlights how media narratives often coalesce hastily and falsely, with multiple sources swapping ill-substantiated reporting as they hurtle toward a crowdsourced verdict. Pawnee’s local media is quick to ratify around a hastily-reached consensus, with many of its journalists arriving at a conclusion before the reporting bears out. Some even reach foregone conclusions before reporting a story, particularly Joan, whose murky relationship to truth and fiction is never more evident than when she opines on her show: “The city council has done very little over the past few years, and what they have accomplished, in my opinion, is embarrassing—and that is a fact.” Fake news, much?

In further Trumpian similarity, Pawnee even has a birther plotline of its own (ring-led by Joan, of course), albeit one far less racist than Donald Trump’s birther crusade, with Leslie subjected to widespread invective and scrutiny when it comes to light that she was not born in Pawnee. Though the birther plot point most directly referenced Trump’s racist 2008 crusade to discredit Barack Obama’s American citizenship, it proved to have legs when birther rhetoric continued to snowball in the years to follow, proving even further how insidious media narratives take hold and refuse to go away. Meanwhile, in oblivious Bobby Newport, Leslie’s opponent for a seat on the city council, Parks and Rec finds a sweeter version of Trump—an entitled heir to a massive fortune, born on third base, who can’t fathom why the election shouldn’t simply be handed to him.

The only thing that Parks and Recreation gets wrong about the intersection of media and politics is its assertion that Leslie Knope could win an election. In the eyes of Washington, Leslie is a nobody from nowhere—a career public servant with no influence, no high-powered allies, no billionaire backers. As Leslie describes herself, with no hint of irony, “I’m a lifelong government bureaucrat who’s well-versed in the issues—and those are the kind of sexy qualifications that win elections.” In this Trumpian moment where corporate raiders rule the political process and the swamp feels murkier than ever, success stories about grassroots candidates like Leslie are depressingly few and far between. When Leslie is ousted from public office after a recall election, with her adversaries leaning hard on the local media to gin up negative sentiment toward her, it calls to mind Trump’s impeachment. In fact, it smarts like hell that a small-time politician as dedicated to civil service as Leslie can be chased out of politics while the leader of the free world evades consequences for his numerous abuses of office.

It remains to be seen if Pawnee’s fourth estate will make an appearance in the reunion episode, but no doubt they’re bearing up under adversity in their typical fashion, with The Pawnee Sun publishing crackpot “science” and Perd running low-budget, overly literal animations of coronavirus infection scenarios. Fingers crossed for a shot of Joan chugging Clorox.

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