Sam Youngman’s piece in Politico on Washington shows many of the media pathologies that cause Americans to hate their political media and their politics.
The talk of the town, or more properly This Town, in Washington DC is Sam Youngman’s supposed tell all in Politico that purports to expose everything that is wrong with our politics and Washington DC in general. I think it utterly fails to mention anything, well political, and instead is a shining testament to what’s wrong with a lot of our political media and helps to explain why American’s can be so cynical about our politics.
The overall tone of the piece is unfortunately one of narcissism. A lot of it can be found in Youngman’s constant name dropping and what you might call “did you know I did this? Dropping” in which we get to learn about how he, among other things, “…arrived in Norfolk, we switched to helicopters and landed on the deck of the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier. I was standing next to an F-18 when Dan Eggen of the Washington Post quietly told me, “You know, Sam, it’s OK that this stuff is pretty cool.”
The problem here is that those sorts of anecdotes and name drops constitute the lion’s share of Youngman’s descriptions of what he did during those 10 years of working in Washington. To someone who might want to know how political decisions actually get made, that is how Washington actually works, this sort of piece is utterly unhelpful.
Then we get to hear about his various history of substance abuse and all the women he picked up in bars:
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.
But it’s okay because he later said he was sorry to them, or at least tried to on noted Washington website Politico, “(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.)” Presumably because as Jonathan Chait sarcastically put it, “There were so, so many.” I suppose it’s good that he said he was sorry, but the fact remains that his substance abuse and sexual proclivity has quite literally nothing to do with how our political system works.
This is journalism as Tucker Max column. As if to just say, “Look at my great job! Look at my wacky hijinks! Look at all the casual sex I get!” Or more simply, “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!” To make matters worse Youngman then goes on to talk about all the important issues that don’t get covered by the political media. Annoyed by the issues of the 2012 presidential campaign he states, “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.” Why it’s almost as if Youngman isn’t even a member in the White House Press Corps!
But that’s precisely what he was for 10 years: a journalist in Washington who for years covered the White House. Perhaps instead of complaining he could have gone out and written stories about subjects, like poverty, that are routinely given short shift by our political media. Or at the very least ask his campaign minders about issues like poverty, gun violence in urban communities, or whatever instead of asking about Joe Biden’s latest “gaffe” and everything else he cranked stories out about for that lost decade.
Imagine what he could have done in those years instead writing stories that involve things like, “I wanted Santorum to give me a sexy response to some now forgotten shot Romney had taken on The Tonight Show.” There are literally thousands of families living in poverty just a 10 dollar cab ride from where he used to live in Eastern Market (I used to live at Sixteenth and D in Northeast so I know). If he’d like to see those stories covered he could have, well, covered them.
But he didn’t cover them, and instead Youngman seems to have thought that all those issues he did cover didn’t really matter at all, instead they were a “drawn-out Jerry Maguire moment” as he puts it. Then suddenly they did matter because they had an actual impact on a person he cares about when the government almost shutdown in 2011:
“I got a call from my brother, who was deployed in Iraq and wanted to know about the latest news in the negotiations. When I told him no agreement had been reached to protect the pay of the troops in the event of a shutdown, he said he had offered to loan money to the guys he was serving with if they didn’t get paid. By the time we hung up, I was almost shaking with anger and frustration.”
I feel for Youngman and his brother, I really do, but when someone who has written about politics for years only learns that political decisions do really matter to actual people when those decisions adversely impact his brother, well I suppose a lot of people think like that. But when a national political reporter does that’s almost the definition of narcissism. Which I think Youngman acknowledges in a roundabout way when he explains that those personal concerns disappeared after a short time, “a few hours later, I had forgotten my anger as I alternated between taking notes and taking in the grandeur of the White House Roosevelt Room.”
The sad thing is that the life and times of Sam Youngman Serious Professional Journalist just don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Meanwhile things like Medicare expansion, tax rates, and monetary policy do matter a great deal to lots of people. Because things like health care, taxes, and having a job have big impacts on people’s lives.
The huge disconnect between how our politics and political choices really do matter and how it’s treated as a big pointless game by so many professional journalists is a big reason why Americans can get so frustrated with their political media, and ultimately our politics itself. Youngman clearly wrote this article to say how much he hates Washington, and I guess he probably does. But he’s missing something important here. The big message from my standpoint, and I suspect most people who I know who work in politics, wouldn’t be “Take This Town and Shove It” but rather, “Get Out of Here and Don’t Ever Come Back.”
Photo by Saul Loeb/AP