Washington’s Media Myopia

With practically no legislation moving through Congress, the Washington press corps is beginning to focus on action in states and localities.
January 2015
David Kidd
Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

More than two years ago, I wrote what was admittedly a very grumpy column bemoaning what had happened to the Washington press corps. Specifically, I railed on about how the White House Correspondents’ annual dinner had changed, and what that said about both the capital and the media that supposedly covered it.

“The dinner has evolved (or devolved) into a self-important, narcissistic gathering of corporate chieftains, big-name lobbyists, Hollywood celebrities, reality TV stars and a different breed of journalists -- more from TV, especially cable TV, and glamour magazines like Vanity Fair than The New York Times,” I wrote. “A few old-time journalists grouse about the change, but for the most part, the coverage, replete with photos of women in fancy dress and men in tuxedos, is all breathless and gushy.”

Well, we’re at it again, only this time the precipitating event was the party following the funeral for The Washington Post’s former editor, Ben Bradlee, who died in October. Described in the Post as the “last hurrah for the A-list gatherings” hosted by Bradlee and his wife, the story read: “An invitation to the couple’s historic Georgetown home was one of the most coveted status symbols in the nation’s capital, an entry to an elite salon of the powerful, talented and witty.” This time, the 800 or so “favored packed in like sardines” to a large tent in the backyard.

“The uninvited -- who not only wanted to pay their respects to the family but wanted the world to see them paying those respects -- sulked at home and complained to friends.” That’s not all. “Cameras flashed, hugs were exchanged, and the tent quivered with the casual bonhomie of exclusivity ....”

Really? The “powerful, talented and witty” made it in to “the elite salon” to enjoy the “bonhomie of exclusivity” in their quivering tent while the riff-raff who wanted to see and be seen sulked and complained outside?

I admired Ben Bradlee. Most journalists did. He was smart, funny and fearless. But my eyes roll when I hear or read this kind of drivel.

Today’s truth is that not much of real consequence goes on in Washington. If the city’s dismal football team needs to adopt a new name, one that truly describes the town, it would be the “D.C. Dysfunction.” If Miami can have the Heat, D.C. can have the Dysfunction.

The press corps that thinks so highly of itself, in fact, does not have a lot to do. News about legislation working its way through Congress or regulations spilling out of the various agencies used to keep a sprawling media infrastructure fully occupied. Today, a lot of that coverage is puff. There has been almost no legislation of any import moving through Congress. The White House effort to circumvent the legislative branch will bump up regulatory activity in some areas, especially on environmental -- and perhaps immigration -- issues. But that goes only so far.

So what is new, and maybe even heartening, is that the Washington establishment -- historically impervious to any thought, trend or movement beyond the Capital Beltway -- is slowly beginning to realize that there is a country out there. States and metro areas are doing stuff that matters, and it often affects national policy.

To be sure, Washington’s newfound interest in the states is fledgling. Many of the national media’s spinoffs of state and local coverage are just that -- spinoffs. Others are being operated by foundations, nonprofits or think tanks. The Pew Center on the States for a number of years has published the online daily newsletter Stateline. More recently, the Rockefeller Foundation-funded CitiScope launched with a mission to cover urban policy across the globe. Meanwhile, The Washington Post, at the epicenter of the D.C. Dysfunction coverage, has stepped up its reporting of states and cities. So too has Atlantic Media, the D.C.-based owner of the Atlantic magazine and National Journal.

Most of these new endeavors are blogs or online publications; it’s too soon to know which will have the most impact. And it’s always impossible to predict which foundation-backed efforts or which media offshoots will survive. But I’m happy to see this new media interest in statehouses and city halls. I just hope it’s a long-term commitment rather than a passing fancy, something to be sidelined whenever -- if ever -- the wheels of Washington do start turning again.

At a time when D.C. Dysfunction has reached critical mass, states and localities deserve as much attention as they can get.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness | Founder, Publisher Emeritus | pharkness@governing.com