It's Not Washington, It's You

I wasn't going to write about this, but then something shocking happened: Chris Cillizza wrote something I agreed with. So now I have little choice.

Here's what I'm talking about: a reporter named Sam Youngman wrote a piece for Politico about how despicable Washington journalistic culture is and how he's so glad he went back to Kentucky to be a real reporter after his heady days of flying around on Air Force One. Now you might think that as someone who is often critical of the Washington press corps and sometimes of Washington in general (although it's complicated) I would be saying "Right on, brother!" But I'm not.

The first problem is that Youngman's story reads as much like a tale of his own douchitude as it does an indictment of Washington journalists. For instance, no one forced him to treat the image-making of national politics as though it were the beginning and end of every story. And certainly, no one forced him to do this: "The first couple years, I spent almost every night downing bourbon—and sometimes indulging in harder substances—at Capitol Lounge before walking back to my studio apartment in Eastern Market, occasionally with some female congressional staffer whose name I was almost always too drunk to remember. (I later sought out and apologized to as many of those women as I could. To the ones I missed: I'm profoundly sorry for my behavior.)" It sounds like Youngman is in steps 8 and 9, which is all well and good, but most Washington journalists, whatever their other sins, aren't alcoholics doing things to women they later feel compelled to apologize for.

The next (and much larger) problem is that while Youngman may be critical of his personal behavior, he slips into the passive voice when talking about his journalistic behavior. "By the 2012 campaign, a race almost entirely devoted to image creation and protection, and entirely devoid of romance and meaning, I had grown resolute in my belief that as a profession, we had lost our way," he writes. "I do not recall the issue of, say, poverty coming up a single time in all my coverage, despite the fact that 46.5 million Americans were living in poverty that year, the highest number in at least 50 years." Gee, if only he had been in a position to do something about that! By, oh I don't know ... writing a story about poverty, maybe? But it didn't "come up" in his coverage, so the only solution is to get out of Washington, I guess. But now, he's back doing real journalism, talking to voters instead of relying on polls.

Which brings me to Chris Cillizza, a Washington Post reporter/blogger whom I ordinarily think of as part of the problem of Washington journalism. Though I'm sure he's a nice guy, most of the time he seems consumed to an unhealthy degree with strategy and tactics, approaches policy as if it's for losers, and characterizes every momentary blip into the polls into one of those "game changing" moments that is supposed to change everything but actually changes nothing. All that notwithstanding, Cillizza has the right response to Youngman:

Second, and this is the one that really irks me, is the idea that unless you are talking to "regular people" every minute of every day, you are not doing "real" reporting. There are LOTS of ways to do political journalism. Some people spend months (and even years) doing investigative reporting. Others master covering a metropolitan area by, literally, getting out and walking through the community daily or weekly. Some political reporters — and I think WaPo's Dan Balz and New York Times' Jonathan Martin are two of the best at this — travel regularly to states to write from the ground about the political climate and mood. Then there are people like me, who largely do our reporting and analysis from Washington.

All of these ways of reporting are worthy — if (and this is a big "if") you are telling people something they don't know, shedding light on their elected officials or otherwise making the public more fully informed. How you do that matters far less to me than whether or not you do it well.

Precisely. You can spend your time talking to real people and still produce crappy journalism that obscures more than it illuminates. You can write about polls all day and actually have something interesting and enlightening to say. There are reporters who spend untold hours scouring budgets and committee reports and all other manner of boring policy arcana, seldom talking to regular folks, and that's valuable too. And whatever the problems of the Washington press corps are (and there are plenty), they're the product of choices people make. If Youngman isn't happy with the choices he made when he was a Washington journalist, that's not Washington's fault.

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