You may remember a book called This Town that came out a couple years ago. Written by Mark Leibovich, it’s one of those DC-insider dealies that skewers Washington culture and yet was beloved by the people who make up that culture. One of the sturdier aspects of DC journalism is that nobody is more cynical about it than DC journalists, at least in the abstract. So when the book came out, you saw very frank discussion by people who know that the entire edifice of American political media is impossibly corrupt.
But now it’s election season, and so this kind of self-knowledge is nowhere to be found. Whenever election coverage ramp up, the self-same insiders who will throw up their hands and say “this town! so corrupt!” suddenly lose that insight and become very invested in the integrity of the process. This is where they make their hay, and they can’t let the ambient understanding that DC journalism is a sewer get in the way.
This morning, I’ve been pointing out on Twitter that the unanimity of pro-Hillary Clinton journalism coming from the mouthpieces of establishment Democratic politics — Slate, Vox, New York Magazine, etc. — is entirely predictable and has no meaningful relationship to her actual performance at the debate last night. That’s because, one, the Democrats are a centrist party that is interested in maintaining the stranglehold of the DNC establishment on their presidential politics, and these publications toe that line. And second, because Clinton has long been assumed to be the heavy favorite to win the presidency, these publications are in a heated battle to produce the most sympathetic coverage, in order to gain access. That is a tried-and-true method of career advancement in political journalism. Ezra Klein was a well-regarded blogger and journalist. He became the most influential journalist in DC (and someone, I can tell you with great confidence, that young political journalists are terrified of crossing) through his rabid defense of Obamacare, and subsequent access to the President. That people would try and play the same role with Clinton is as natural and unsurprising as I can imagine.
It happens that I’m no big fan of Bernie Sanders — hate his politics on Israel, guns, and immigration. But I am a fan of expanding the boundaries of what’s politically possible, and you can’t do that when everybody’s angling to get on the good side of the Democratic establishment.
Now, people are falling on their fainting couches. They’re calling this argument conspiracy mongering, saying it’s ridiculous, that I’m a crank, etc. But if you took any of them — any of them at all — out of the context of this particular moment, and you said, “do political journalists trade positive coverage for access?,” they’d laugh out loud at the obviousness of the answer. Of course they do, they’d laugh! That’s one of the things that compels them to say “this town!” when they’re in their DC-skewering moods. And yet they can’t countenance the idea that this is happening right now, because right now, they’re in election season, and they’ve got business to attend to. Which just leaves me asking: what happened to those cynics that were, in the recent past, so devastatingly cutting and open about the fundamental corruption of our political media? Where did those people go?
And I can tell you, again with great confidence, that in a year and a half, I’ll be sitting at some bar with somebody in political media, and they’ll say, “you know, looking back, you were so right about that. This town!” They’ll remember just in time for it to be of no use.
Update: Look, I am always well aware of how posts like this are going to go over. It’s never a surprise. And we can go ahead and assume that I already know that everybody in political media thinks I’m wrong and crazy and a jerk and seeking attention and all of the usual insults that get thrown my way. However: the divide I’m identifying between the way that people in political journalism generally acknowledge the corruption of their industry, and their visceral reactions against specific allegations of the consequences of this corruption, is very strange, very important, and worth talking about. So I think maybe people should spend a little of their energy (just a little!) thinking and talking about it.
I mean, read Mark Halperin’s book. Read the Leibovich book. These are open secrets. But people can’t stand it when I draw reasonable conclusions in this way. That’s weird! You guys should think about it.