Ditching Journalism Ethics in 'Inventing Anna'
Shonda Rhimes’ 'Inventing Anna' serves up tired stereotypes about women in media
I first heard about the new Netflix series Inventing Anna, while grabbing coffee with a source. In between pleasantries, he mentioned the show, giving it a high recommendation. It was particularly interesting, he told me, to get a behind-the-scenes look at what journalists do.
Fast forward to a couple weeks later, when I’d finally finished the ninth episode. My one thought was a semi-frantic prayer: I hope no one actually thinks that is how I do my job.
Central to the series—and incidentally, to my gripes about it—is the journalist who broke the story of convicted con artist Anna Sorokin. The following contains some spoilers.
The series is based on real life events documented in a 2018 New York magazine article, “Maybe She Had So Much Money She Just Lost Track of It,” written by Jessica Pressler. Pressler documented how Sorokin, better known as Anna Delvey, posed as a German heiress (she was Russian by birth) to hustle New York’s upper crust. Delvey wines and dines her way through fancy restaurants and exclusive social events, nearly always leaving others to foot the bill.
The series acknowledges it takes some liberties with the tale, something it reminds viewers of in every episode: “This whole story is completely true. Except for all the parts that are totally made up.”
It’s not the first time Hollywood has adapted one of Pressler’s articles: The 2019 movie Hustlers was also based on an article she wrote for New York magazine. The article went viral and Shonda Rhimes of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and Bridgerton fame, convinced Pressler she was the right person to adapt it into a tv series. Pressler also served as a co-producer of the series.
Pressler’s name is not directly used in the show. Instead, the role of the journalist is approximated by Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky) and the publication Kent works for is not New York but Manhattan.
Central to Kent’s character is that she is haunted by a professional scandal she desperately wants to move past: A story she reported earlier in her career turned out to be false. For that, she lost a job offer and has been banished to “Scriberia,” a corner of the newsroom where aging writers are consigned.
The show follows Kent as she pounds the pavement to piece together Delvey’s glittery romp through luxury yachts, fancy hotel rooms, and exotic overseas locations. And Kent quickly begins to uncover the dark underbelly of Delvey’s lifestyle.
The show thankfully stays away from a particularly nasty stereotype Hollywood often indulges in vis-a-vis its portrayal of female journalists, that they get sexually involved with their sources, as exampled in House of Cards, Thank You For Smoking and, most recently Don’t Look Up. But it can’t seem to help portraying Kent as deeply unprofessional—and downright unethical—in other ways.
A short list: She lies to her editors about what piece she is working on, about where she goes during working hours, and relies on her coworkers to do grunt work for her piece. She practices a rather unsavory brand of “access journalism,” promising sources that she won’t include their name in the story if they give her information, and pledging to paint events in a more favorable light if they cooperate.
But she goes even further.
When she realizes that Delvey taking a plea bargain with the prosecution might kill her story, Kent influences Delvey to not take the deal. Kent also seems to go off the deep end when, to keep getting interviews, Kent buys Delvey underwear and later on, lends her a dress to wear for when Delvey goes on trial. She also develops a very questionable relationship with Delvey’s defense lawyer—portrayed by Arian Moayed—at one point begging him: “Let me be part of the team.”
Kent’s professionalism deteriorates as her obsession with Delvey and the piece grows, leading to repeated instances where she seems to blur the line between a journalist reporting on the facts and a conflicted mother figure who has a serious case of misplaced sympathy for Delvey.
As the trial nears its close, Kent fantasizes about how Delvey’s release would mean they could all grab a meal or a drink. (They being Delvey’s beleaguered lawyer, his neglected wife, and Kent’s own rather neglected husband.)
According to the New York Times interview with Sorokin, Kent’s real life counterpart did not bring her underwear. But the journalist did loan Sorokin an outfit during the trial.
Journalism industry quibbles aside, the show struggles in other ways. The writers couldn’t seem to decide whether Delvey is a misunderstood feminist folk hero who came within an inch of outsmarting New York’s financial and social elite (despite the towering barriers of sexism that stand in her way!), or a money-hungry, manipulative sociopath who callously takes advantage of everyone in her life. The show does have a knack for drawing viewers in as Kent pieces together Delvey’s story and, in addition to boasting several good actors, it's also easy on the eyes with a lavish wardrobe and detail-oriented set. But these points alone fail to justify the over nine-hour run time.
Of course, journalists are not the only professionals with gripes about how Hollywood sensationalizes and misrepresents their industry. But one would think Pressler’s involvement with the show would have led to more care with the portrayal of her own trade.