Village People

By RJI on February 17, 2010 0 Comments

by Jon Margolis

Jon Margolis, former chief political reporter for the Chicago Tribune and the author of "The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964," lives in northeastern Vermont, where he writes and teaches.

Timing may not be as vital in journalism as it is in comedy, but prominent pundits David Broder and Joe Klein might have been at least a tad embarrassed by the concurrence of their recent columns on Sarah Palin and the latest poll about her.

There it was in black and white. Don’t discount Palin’s ability to connect with “real Americans” (Klein in Time’s on-line political column) ("It's Her Party: The Brillliance of Sarah Palin" Feb. 11, 2010 .) or her “pitch-perfect recital of the populist message,” (Broder in the Washington Post). ("Sarah Palin Displays Her Pitch-perfect Populism"  Feb.  11, 2010.).

On the same day a Washington Post poll reported that 71 percent of all Americans, most of them presumably real and part of the populous, found Palin unqualified to be president of the United States.

Bashing the two gentlemen is not the intent of today’s exercise. First of all, I have known both for decades and consider them friends—honorable fellows and admirable journalists. Second, the poll does not totally refute them;  Palin’s “pitch-perfect” populism could make her a powerful force for years even if the presidency is out of her reach.

And finally, they’ve already been adequately if not excessively trashed by several commentators, perhaps best (because civilly) by Joan Walsh in the on-line magazine Salon. ("When Elites Bash Elitism"  Feb.  11, 2010 ).

Instead, I thought I’d ponder one of the questions raised by this little dust-up—the extent to which elite journalists may be out of synch with “real Americans,” trapped inside Washington’s “bubble,” (or in Klein’s case, a New York-Washington bubble), inhabitants of a different country from the one the rest of us occupy.

Not a new complaint, to be sure, but one with some recent twists. Once largely an objection from the right side of the political spectrum that was convinced Washington reporters were a bunch of wimpy liberals who talked only to each other, it is now heard at least as frequently from the left, from which springs an apt metaphor describing DC journalistic incestuousness: the “village,” of which Washington newsies and their sources are the sole inhabitants.

From left or right, the complaints are not entirely without merit. Conservatives have a point when they claim that most Washington reporters tend to be at least mildly liberal. A successful journalist is likely to be a relatively affluent college graduate who majored in one of the liberal arts and sciences and lives in or near a large city (or Washington, which only sort of qualifies).

They are likely, then, to share the socio-political attitudes of all those doctors, lawyers, teachers, and software writers who are relatively affluent college graduate etc., etc., making them somewhat liberal on most issues. Meaning, for instance, they favor keeping Social Security public and allowing women to choose abortions; they accept that human activity is making the world warmer; they’d rather not go to war.

The insularity here, though, belongs to the conservative commentariate, not the (sort of) liberal journalists, who are on the same side as most “real Americans” on those issues. Whether “real Americans” are predominately center-right or center-left is a question. That they are not nearly as far right as the right-wing columnists think they are is not.

The complaint from the left appears to have two components: (1) Washington elite journalists form a community of sorts, attending each others parties, going to dinner together on the road, mingling largely with each other and the pols, consultants and lobbyists who feed them stories; (2) Either out of their own convictions or because they are swept along by the prevailing  shtick, that community tends to lean Republican.

The second contention is too complicated to be explored this space, except to say that the shameful coverage of Al Gore in 2000 lends it credibility, the soft coverage of Barack Obama in 2008 might refute it.

As to the first contention, though, there is only one possible response: Duh!

People in the same business in the same city tend to form a community of sorts, a subculture. Screenwriters in Hollywood; brokers on Wall or LaSalle Streets, oil lease peddlers in Midland, Texas; computer nerds in San Jose, California; strip-miners in Gillette, Wyoming; lobstermen in Falmouth, Maine.

Or journalists in Washington, D.C.

They may be competitors, but they are also colleagues with a lot in common. Same goals. Same gripes. Birds of sufficiently comparable feather. They tend to get along with one another, a phenomenon which can lead to friendships.

But remember this about that last-named group—the “villagers” of the DC news world. They are aware of their predicament. Because their job is not just to cover what’s going on in government but also how it is being received elsewhere, the danger of insularity is incessantly brooded about.

At least it was when I was resident in that “village,” and I still hear signs of it on my occasional return visits. It’s hard to sit in any K, L, or M Street restaurant at lunchtime  without overhearing some reporters talking about how they have to be careful not to get caught up in the dreaded “inside the Beltway” perspective.

Ironically, Broder and Klein got lambasted for being out of touch in columns warning their colleagues not to get out of touch.

While “lamestream media types like me,” might scoff at Palin, Klein said, poking fun at himself and alerting his fellow media folk, the political potential of a candidate whose “default position” is “the vernacular, rather than focus-group language,” should not be dismissed. And Broder, who has been covering this kind of stuff for a while now, with a pretty good track record, described “the skill with which (Palin) drew a self-portrait that fit not just the wishes of the immediate audience but the mood of a significant slice of the broader electorate.”

OK, they may have been wrong. They wrote after seeing Palin speak to that Tea Party convention in Nashville, and all reporters tend to exaggerate the significance of whatever just happened.

But remember: maybe they weren’t wrong. Outside the Beltway Americans may be “real”; they are also fickle. Should less than a third of that 71 percent anti-Palin majority change their minds—not an unprecedented switch in public opinion—she could become a real contender.

For today’s exercise, though, it matters little whether Broder and Klein were right or wrong. They were both trying to look at the world from a perspective outside their “village.”  Members of that village do it all the time. Rare is the successful journalist with an underdeveloped ego, which usually includes the conviction that he or she has a mind of his/her own uninfluenced by the herd.

In some cases, this conviction may be a delusion.  Members of this subculture are as vulnerable as any other to the temptation of groupthink. No one is uninfluenced by his/her peers. Defying one’s own cohort can uncomfortable.

When residents of this “village” do march in lockstep, they should be called to account. But simply whining about the existence of this “village” is inane. Of course it exists. It can’t not exist, just as those similar “villages” of stockbrokers and lobster-trappers can’t not exist. Human beings are social animals.

Maybe the critics left and right should try doing what the hated “villagers” do once or twice. Instead of just sitting in your pajamas kvetching about the insularity of journalism, see if you can practice it yourself. Go cover a story. Attend an event. Talk to people “real” and otherwise. See what it’s like. There’s a primary election in Texas in a couple of weeks. You might try that one.