Finding your Kentucky

I’ve been wrestling for days with Sam Youngman’s currently Twitter-famous essay on Washington, DC, and journalistic culture. As a sometime freelance writer with a keen interest in national and international politics, raised in small-town North Carolina, and based more-or-less  in DC, Youngman’s jeremiad piqued my interest, then tied me up in knots for days. Am I doomed by my residence on this patch of ground, consigned irrevocably to egotism within this little sphere, and irrelevance beyond it? Will This Town destroy my passion for writing – and by extension, might it kill the passions of hundreds of other aspiring journalists, essayists, engages? Must I, and should others, flee post-haste?

No. Youngman’s essay contains wrenching confessions, but bad advice. It strips the writer (Youngman, and by extension others) of agency, while absolving journalists of the obligation to write courageously, and presenting a deterministic account of journalistic failure. It obscures the contingent nature of falling out of love with Washington, and politics, and political journalism. Reading Youngman, you’d think that Washington is an inevitably corrupting place – but it doesn’t have to be this way.

The fundamental, fatal flaw in Youngman’s piece is that it is at heart two essays, connected weakly at best. One is a confessional piece, detailing Youngman’s descent into dissipation and his loss of faith in his own profession. This piece is moving, and the impressions one can glean from them are important, even if they are inherently impressionistic.

The other part of the essay is an indictment of the culture of the national press, and indeed contains prescriptions for how his colleagues can avoid sinking into this same pit. This second essay is not so moving, and its prescriptions are unhelpful, and in some places border on disingenuous. They are founded on the idea that Youngman’s crackup, and his failure to find meaning in covering the national political scene, are etiologically traceable to the miasma of This Town. But this case is overstated; the corrosive influence of Washington culture is not inevitable, as plenty of national journalists seem to eschew gladhanding and social climbing in favor of simply doing their jobs and building families in a city that is just as real as any other. Youngman’s advice is unhelpful, bordering on inane, and potentially harmful. Part of his argument is valid: local and state-level politics is incredibly important! But this doesn’t mean fetishizing local processes at the expense of national coverage, and it certainly doesn’t excuse passing off flawed journalistic advice as the solutions to problems that may lie more in the realm of personality and nerve.

For an easy example, political reporters don’t need to ignore polls in favor of talking to regular people. Polls sometimes contain wisdom that isn’t always obvious from chatting up the man on the street – as the 2012 election amply demonstrated. Besides, who says that you have to do one or the other? And where is the space for other modes of reporting (data-driven journalism, for example). Writers can do more than one of these things! Chris Cilizza makes this point above, in fact. But the problem is deeper than that, even: Youngman is focused on a critique of technique, positing this as the answer to self-absorption and devotion to the incestuous insider networks of official Washington; he then pivots to blaming all this on DC culture, when he should be focused on his own agency. It is a question not of connecting with “real people,” getting out of this noxious den of ambition, but of nerve, even courage.

Youngman decries the lack of attention to issues of poverty during the 2012 presidential campaign. Yet he himself never seems to have broached the subject on Air Force One; and a perusal of his pieces for the Herald-Leader reveal that he hasn’t opened the discussion back home either. On the other hand, The Atlantic, storied old-media monster in the very heart of DC, has repeatedly devoted space to a social justice issue far less likely to arouse public sympathy – prison reform – and for that matter, so it is clearly not impossible to wrote about these things. Rather, it is our responsibility, as writers, if we seek that path, to bring up these questions; to push that debate forward, if need be, even when politicians and the public do not want to have these hard discussions. What we should not be doing is blaming the culture of a city for our failure to do so. The fault, oftentimes, lies not in This Town, but in ourselves.

This is not, I feel compelled to repeat, intended to discount Youngman’s experience with personal disillusionment (and substance abuse). This is a separate issue and one that merits conversation. There is no denying that DC can be a toxic place, with a heavy drinking culture. And the destructive effect this has on some people is clearly at odds with a good society, and with the Washington that we might hope to build.

But if you, like me, have been a bit disheartened by Youngman’s diagnosis of DC journalism’s pathologies, cheer up, and ignore both his grim diagnosis and his advice on journalism! No pathology is inevitable, even here, and with courage, we as writers and reporters can build fulfilling careers wherever passion takes us. There are almost as many ways of doing journalism as there are writers, and most of them are valid, as long as we remember our own agency and do not become stenographers for power. Indeed, your Kentucky may well be right here – and there’s not a damn thing wrong with that.

The companion essay to this piece can be found here: Take any town: understanding and misunderstanding the importance of the local.

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