In a Friday interview at Patrick Henry College, a Christian conservative institution, Mark Leibovich offered a rather bleak view of D.C. politics and journalism. But this is no surprise, considering the frank and disenchanting language of his book This Town: Two Parties and A Funeral. Leibovich spoke of a city wallowing in “egregious” and “unsustainable” corruption, fixated on money and power.
However, the New York Times Magazine reporter did offer some hope for the young journalism and government majors gathered: he encouraged them to embrace “rootedness” and community, rather than seeking the popularity and charisma of Washington. “Being immersed in small communities gives one an exposure to how people interact, a more hands-on approach to things,” Leibovich said in response to an email on the subject. “Plus, I think it’s more interesting.”
While these statements may not be a full endorsement of localism per se, Leibovich offered important supports for the movement. First, he noted the importance of community-centric service. D.C. media and political leaders often become fixated on their own sphere of political bias, to the detriment of objectivity and even courtesy. Leibovich believes Washington’s reporters are often disdainful of their customers (Leibovich referenced a Politico story entitled “Are Voters Dumb?” that appeared on their front page in 2012).
Journalists writing and living in community recognize their customers. They develop relationships with them, and learn to seek the good of those communities. Leibovich said that any reporter or politician who wants to come to D.C. should first develop this rich background—and added that they (politicians especially) should return to their homeland, and not remain in the noxious D.C. atmosphere.
My personal experience aligns with Leibovich’s statements. While writing for a local Idaho paper, I grew close to my readers and community. The work transcended mere reporting and writing: every article was intimately tied to the daily lives of my neighbors. Obituaries and high school senior profiles, while not glamorous, were incredibly important. Stories on a hot local topic meant hours on the phone with concerned or interested readers the next day. Though I did not fully realize it at the time, it was deeply meaningful work.
Unfortunately, these small bastions of journalism are suffering most in the current media climate. They haven’t the funds available to larger companies like the New York Times. Oftentimes, they lose young journalists to the glamor of big-city newspapers. Young writers eager for a future Pulitzer or book deal see little promise in writing for the local county.
It may seem disingenuous for Leibovich and myself to advocate for small-town journalism while writing in “This Town.” I cannot speak for Leibovich, but perhaps there will come a day when I return to that small-town Idaho community. It was a blessing to write for them. But writing for The American Conservative does feel much like writing for my small-town paper did: we have a very involved readership community, even if it is online. Our active and thoughtful commenters always offer interesting feedback. We do offer a service to an important ideological community, and many of our writers, including Rod Dreher, have combined their work here with a strong sense of place. The two work hand in hand.
Hopefully Leibovich’s comments will encourage other young writers to strongly examine their journalistic motives: are they seeking fame and fortune, or are they seeking to serve? Washington’s corruption, power-lust, and nearly inescapable partisanship are very real temptations. But those who remain rooted to their place and beliefs can offer hope—even in “This Town.”