Why Washington journalism doesn’t suck

December 19, 2013

Of late, there's a cottage industry blooming in political journalism: Blasting political journalism.


Yes, I love "Game Of Thrones."  This does not make me a bad reporter. (HBO, Nick Briggs)

The latest example came in piece that Sam Youngman of the Lexington Herald-Leader wrote for Politico Magazine entitled "Take This Town and Shove It." It's -- as you might guess from the headline -- a takedown of a D.C. politico-journalistic culture that prizes snarky tweets over actual shoe-leather reporting and that functions as a sort of extended college for people not ready to grow up just yet. Writes Youngman:

Sign out of Twitter, say “thanks but no thanks” to a dayside cable hit, get off your ass, go outside and listen to folks beyond the same 200 know-it-alls in Washington and New York who share your affinity for snark, views on Game of Thrones and predictions for next year’s Senate race in a state only a handful of you have ever set foot in.

The 140-character slap-fight you’re in the middle of with another reporter who has never worked for minimum wage is eating up time that I’m begging you to use trying to win back credibility with a country that desperately needs us to spend more time listening and less time talking.

The piece was instantly tweeted around by many of the same political journalists -- irony! -- that Youngman was berating. It's just the sort of speak-truth-to-power piece that the self-loathing D.C. political reporting culture loves. We are bad! We do spend too much time fighting with each other on Twitter! (Youngman had me nailed; at the moment I saw his piece move on Twitter I was scrapping online with Politico's Jake Sherman over some minor point about whether legislating is dead or dying.)

Before going into why I disagree with Sam, let me say a few things. (1) I like him -- despite his defense of John Calipari -- and have had him on Post TV to talk about his stories. (2) He's right that there is a loathsome strain within the Washington political culture that is obsessed with who follows you on Twitter, who gets invited to what parties and forever forever forever climbing the political-social ladder. The journalism often gets lost amid that endless struggle for power. Sam has diagnosed that problem well.

But, as someone who makes my living writing a blog based in no small part on conversations with people who live inside the Beltway, going on TV to talk about those things and tweeting dozens of times a day (hell, I even have an Eddard Stark Twitter profile pic!), I take issue with the characterization -- or at least the implication -- in Sam's piece that we are all clueless about what "real" reporting actually is and that living in D.C. and being a reporter means, by default, you are part of this gross subculture.

Let me first take on the "D.C. as extended college" idea. My experience has been very different. I live in the suburbs. I am married with two kids. When I go out at night, I do it to play pickup basketball not glad-hand with congressional staffers. Maybe I run with the wrong crowd, but the folks I know have a life more like mine than the one Sam describes in his piece. Let me reiterate: I -- and everyone who lives in D.C. -- know that world exists. But, knowing it exists and participating in it are very different things.

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 the 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.

Of course, all of my defense of Washington journalism undoubtedly ensures that I will be cast a "Villager" (do people still use that word?) defending its own. That's fine by me. Because the bulk of the Washington journalistic world isn't the parody that many people want it to be. It can be -- if that's how you choose to spend your time. But, I -- and virtually every other person I know -- don't make that choice. We try our best to do our jobs well and get it right. I'll stand with those people any day.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Ed O'Keefe | December 19, 2013