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Journalists Escapes Washington, Finds Life

Sam Youngman is a madman. He was a White House correspondent, but got fed up with Washington life, and moved home to Kentucky to work as a local political journalist [1]. Here’s what he has to say about all that:

If you write about American politics for a living, stop right there. Get back to work, and don’t read another damn word.

Sign out of Twitter, say “thanks but no thanks” to a dayside cable hit, get off your ass, go outside and listen to folks beyond the same 200 know-it-alls in Washington and New York who share your affinity for snark, views on Game of Thrones and predictions for next year’s Senate race in a state only a handful of you have ever set foot in.

The 140-character slap-fight you’re in the middle of with another reporter who has never worked for minimum wage is eating up time that I’m begging you to use trying to win back credibility with a country that desperately needs us to spend more time listening and less time talking.

You might have to look it up, but find humility. A quick glance at the poll numbers for how much Americans trust their media or a two-minute conversation with a voter should do the trick. Remember why you do this for a living.

If you’ve managed to carve out a place for yourself in the shark tank that is the Washington media, you probably see yourself as pretty tough—sign No. 1 that you live and work in a town that long ago broke away from reality. It’s not your fault. Washington is an endless maze of funhouse mirrors, a fact we’re reminded of once a year when the Hill publishes its 50 Most Beautiful list, replete with people who are Washington hot, which is a step above rehab hot and two levels below jury duty hot. All are miles below what the rest of the country considers actual hot.

Growing up, I had a big mouth and a lanky 6’3” frame, a hideous and awkward combination that led to more than a few ill-advised fights. In D.C., I was rarely in a room without another dude who inspired violent tendencies but was too pitiful to punch. Remember that if you do get out of This Town. In a lot of places, folks won’t respond by trying to match your passive-aggressive cleverness with a tweet. They’ll knock you on your ass.

In short, get out of Washington. It’s messing you up more than you know.

Read the whole thing. [2] Seriously, do. It’s great. It reminded me of when I left DC to go work at the Sun-Sentinel in south Florida, back in 1995, I went through a detox period in which I would have to watch C-SPAN to see what Speaker Gingrich was saying, because I had just left the center of the universe and oh my God what have I done!

Washington will do that to you. Look, I loved every second of my three years in Washington, but reading Youngman’s story, I can easily see how that can happen to you as a DC political journalist. I liked this especially, in which he talks about what it was like to fly to Lexington, Kentucky, for his post-DC job interview at the Lexington Herald-Leader:

The trauma of years marked by farewell parties for colleagues who had been laid off was visible on the faces of some of the staff I met, but what struck me most was the positive contrast with the Washington whirl, and especially the unfamiliar and conspicuous absence of ego. Here were people, real people, doing the best they could to put out a great newspaper with limited resources before they went home to spend time with their kids.

You will remember this bit from Walker Percy’s Lost In The Cosmos:

I predict that working artists and writers will revert to the vacated places. In fact, they’re already turning up in ordinary houses on ordinary streets long since abandoned by the Hemingways and Agees. …What else? Where would you rather be if you were James Agee now and alive and well: stumbling around Greenwich Village boozed to the gills, or sitting on the front porch of a house on a summer evening in Knoxville?

[H/T: Reader LW]

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23 Comments To "Journalists Escapes Washington, Finds Life"

#1 Comment By Florence On December 20, 2013 @ 7:13 am

For what it is worth, I’ve found the world isn’t nearly as awful a place when I turn the news off. I don’t want to be an ostrich with my head in the sand but if l listened to all the talking heads, I’d want to slit my wrists. IMHO.

#2 Comment By Floridan On December 20, 2013 @ 8:19 am

“The first couple years, I spent almost every night downing bourbon . . .”

Fortunately, there’s no bourbon in Kentucky.

Really, this guy sounds so shallow that before too many years pass, I suspect we’ll be reading some sob story about life in Lexington.

#3 Comment By Mont D. Law On December 20, 2013 @ 8:50 am

This is awful advice on so many levels.

First, there is zero humility in viewing a political reporter as an artist. I understand that’s Mr. Dreher not the reporter, but still.

(Where would you rather be if you were James Agee now and alive and well: stumbling around Greenwich Village boozed to the gills, or sitting on the front porch of a house on a summer evening in Knoxville? )

Again, silly. Agee wasn’t a political journalist, he was an essayist, whose modern claim to fame is long, Plimpton like pieces on rural poverty, as well as poetry, screenplays and film criticism. None of those things required he live in New York or LA, even then. Upton Sinclair didn’t. Plus Agee was going to be stumbling around drunk somewhere and Knoxville in 1935, would have run him out of town on a rail.

(The trauma of years marked by farewell parties for colleagues who had been laid off was visible on the faces of some of the staff I met, but what struck me most was the positive contrast with the Washington whirl, and especially the unfamiliar and conspicuous absence of ego. Here were people, real people, doing the best they could to put out a great newspaper with limited resources before they went home to spend time with their kids.)

The Herald-Leader hired him for his ability to survive in the shark tank and because of all the sharks he has on speed dial. Meanwhile he’s taking a job and/or resources from someone local, who not only couldn’t survive in the shark tank but likely didn’t even try. He’s not ever going to look in the mirror and see that trauma on his face. He’s the proverbial pro from Dover.

Next, who in their right mind would advise anyone to join an industry that is breathing it’s last. If The Herald-Leader folds in 5 years Youngman isn’t going to have any problem getting work. Linda Blackford not so much. Any twenty year old taking his advice would be likely be unemployable by 35. Hand craved buggy whips are the future boys and girls.

Finally, if you want your cri de coeur taken seriously don’t sell it to Politico, the embodiment of all you claim to loathe.

#4 Comment By Jim Wagner On December 20, 2013 @ 8:54 am

Living in Vilnius, Lithuania, we often listen to NPR’s Morning Edition in the late afternoon via internet. Yesterday we were listening to the Sweet Sixties on Tunein Radio when the Missus said, “Shall we turn over to NPR?” I replied, “I don’t care.” She said, “It all sounds the same after a while.” Indeed. A couple of years ago, while traveling in Germany we noticed that most of the time it didn’t matter if we missed a few days of news from home: it usually sounded the same. I’ve come to think it is a lot like the daytime soaps: you can miss a few days then get back in as though nothing has changed. Or so it seems. Yet the folks who make it and those who report it seem convinced that it is all terribly important. I am sure some of it is, but it cannot all be important, 24-7. Nor, in the great scheme of things, are most of the movers and shakers.

#5 Comment By Puller58 On December 20, 2013 @ 9:15 am

The press has little freedom in DC to do anything approaching real journalism.

#6 Comment By Some Guy On December 20, 2013 @ 9:41 am

Most of my friends from high school and college live in New York, and I lived in Los Angeles for a while after college, and I feel like you could say something similar about those two towns as well. I have been living in South America for the past five years, in a major capital city, and it is interesting how that careerist, anti-family, Internet-addicted, smirkily sarcastic type of urbane cosmopolitan culture has failed to take hold here. People don’t get wrapped up in their jobs or their smugness nearly as much, and people always seem to have time for their families. It’s refreshing.

A guy I met that just moved down here from NY mentioned to me that his friends were always seeing if they could “pencil him in” for a drink, and he started getting mad. “I don’t just want to be penciled in! Why can’t we just hang out?”

#7 Comment By Gromaticus On December 20, 2013 @ 9:42 am

What a load of self-indulgent crap.

Here were people, real people, doing the best they could to put out a great newspaper with limited resources before they went home to spend time with their kids.

I’ve spent forty of my fifty years and all my adult life within 60 miles of the White House, including a couple of years in the mid eighties working for a new right political action committee after college.

There is nothing inherently evil about the District of Columbia (BTW no one from here calls it “Washington’, it’s “The District”); there is something inherently broken is people who are easily seduced by fame and power. My suspicion is that a year from now Mr. Youngman will feel all a-flutter inside when the Governor’s press secretary mentions his putting stroke in a press conference.

All those real people, doing the best they could at their job, then going home to their kids were there in the District too; he just chose not to see them.

#8 Comment By Art Deco On December 20, 2013 @ 10:30 am

He ought to get out of journalism before it implodes. If he can transfer credits earned in his youth to meet the distribution requirements, this might only take a half-dozen years of part time study:

[3]

#9 Comment By mike nimzo On December 20, 2013 @ 11:26 am

The Washington this author, and most political reporters describe, is as alien to the vast majority of actual people that live here as it seems to be to the rest of the country.

#10 Comment By Judith On December 20, 2013 @ 12:10 pm

Thank you Floridian, and some others too. These guys are the ones with Attention Deficit Disorder, and ought to stupified with Ritalin, not children.

Their need for attention never ends.

#11 Comment By Ping Lin On December 20, 2013 @ 12:11 pm

Jon Chait has an interesting counterpoint to the piece that he put up today:

[4]

Personally, I’m not sure if Chait’s takedown is, in itself, symptomatic of what ails the Northeastern Corridor. It could also be a needed skeptical look at Youngman’s true motives.

I will say, however, that if Chait’s last sentence is correct and Youngman does indeed move back to “This Town”, then I am very much inclined to believe Chait.

#12 Comment By Scott Nunn On December 20, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

Boy, I really dislike the “move away from Washington or New York back to where the real people live” meme.

#13 Comment By Art Deco On December 20, 2013 @ 12:43 pm

Just to point out that there are about 4.4 million people living in metropolitan Washington. I think about 3/4 live in households which have no federal employees therein. The subcultures formed by journalists, lobbyists, lawyers representing people in front of public agencies, political consultants, foreign diplomats, miscellaneous ngo functionaries, and their dependents might just make it into the six digits. For around 70% of the population resident therein, “This Town” is pretty much like any other town, but with higher rents.

#14 Comment By Tyro On December 20, 2013 @ 12:43 pm

He had a drug and alcohol problem, and his career imploded, while the career itself produced nothing of lasting substance, forcing him to return home to a lower tier job. Though I appreciate how he managed to cloak it in a veneer of middle-America authenticity.

I appreciate how he managed to capture the ouroboros-like pointlessness of so much of DC journalism. But DC has thousands of people who head back to their home states every year after their careers go essentially nowhere.

Heck, I could write a similar story, but, “I left DC to trade up to a better job and have more fun where I live, make more money and do more interesting work,” isn’t as sexy as, “I left DC for ‘real America’ where I obsess over important things like basketball rather than politics.”

#15 Comment By William Burns On December 20, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

Somehow, I just don’t see the “fact” that Washingtonians reply to passive-aggressive behavior with a tweet rather than a punch in the mouth as a mark of inferiority to “real” America.

#16 Comment By qasedede On December 20, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

I love smaller cities and big towns, but

There is nothing inherently evil about the District of Columbia (BTW no one from here calls it “Washington’, it’s “The District”); there is something inherently broken is people who are easily seduced by fame and power.

and

The Washington this author, and most political reporters describe, is as alien to the vast majority of actual people that live here as it seems to be to the rest of the country.

are absolutely accurate. “Washington, DC” is a lazy metonym — emphatically not a proper synonym — for “the Capitol Hill-obsessed politico-journalist entertainment jackassery complex.” One need not actually leave the former to escape the frenzied shrill egomania of the latter. This Sam Youngman character (who I’d never heard of until he denounced my city of residence) didn’t need to move to Kentucky. He needed to walk twenty minutes away from Capitol Hill. Or quit his petty profession. Or just be less of a shallow twit. I suspect that Youngman will still be a boorish jerk in Kentucky.

The fault, dear awful Washington residents, lies not in your District, but in your selves.

#17 Comment By anonforthis On December 20, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

Posting anonymously for this (I hope).

Got extended family in and near DC. Many of them work or have worked on the political fringes or in govt. jobs.

They’ll say this isn’t true, that DC is full of real people, etc., just like some commenters here are saying.

It’s bunk. These are among the most messed-up people I know, and they have that smug, superior attitude on top of all the dysfunction that says “Well, at least I live somewhere that matters.”

But they’re the last people to see it in themselves. And they’re not even bigwigs or power brokers–just part of the legions of minor functionaries that clutter the area.

#18 Comment By J On December 20, 2013 @ 1:57 pm

I dunno, it’s not even in the ballpark of Joan Didion’s or Austin Bramwell’s famous parting shots (both entitled ‘Goodbye to All That’). Youngman is just a parvenu being a parvenu. Which is worth knowing about in outline, but not one of The Great Stories of our time.

I think the best essay on American politics this year is easily Tom Scocco’s-
[5]

#19 Comment By jon s On December 20, 2013 @ 4:45 pm

Sooo… cocky young journalist comes to “Washington” to earn his bones, only to discover he fulfills his destiny as a dbag, in an environment where others are achieving the same.

A) how far in “growth” has this dbag achieved if his throws this scorched earth jab back at the city that he lived in?

B) I hate this kind of bashing of DC (my hometown), because he is actually bashing a clique of dbag carpetbaggers WHO ARE NOT FROM DC. Couldn’t it be his actual problem isn’t the city, but instead a group of people JUST LIKE HIM who came to DC? How many times did this guy go to Great Falls on the Potomac? Hit a go-go club? Go to a high school sporting event? Crab on the Chesapeake?

Believe me, we are a large, beautiful, heterogeneous nation and people– with some duds thrown in. Instead of throwing shade at Washington, the longterm residents of DC should earn the respect of the nation for enduring everyone else’s duds with such aplomb. This clown should tumble back to from whence he came with a whimper, not a bang.

#20 Comment By Kolakowskian On December 20, 2013 @ 5:00 pm

This guy’s tone just rubs me up the wrong way. He reminds me of those musicians, desperate to stand out, who define themselves solely by their opposition to all the ‘sellouts’, ‘mainstream crap’… ‘you know, we’re just tired of all these pop clones… we just want to go back to basics… you know, just two guitars and drums’. I think he’d do better to define in positive terms what he’s doing and drop the vitriol. Surely the whole point of ‘escaping Washington’ isn’t to prove how superior you are to the community you’re leaving behind?

FWIW, I’m not lumping you in with this criticism Rod – no qualms with your tone or motive!

#21 Comment By Tyro On December 21, 2013 @ 1:11 pm

DC was the least friendly and most arrogant place I’ve lived.

Yes and no. The civil servants are some of the most genuine people I dealt with– people who like their jobs and are good at it, happy to be a small piece of a much larger machine, and then go home to their families after putting in an honest day’s work and slowly move up the GS-ladder. Not too exciting or sexy, but sexy and exciting is uncommon in life. Don’t tell people how useless they are because many times they’re top-notch people doing interesting work in their field.

The more socially ambitious people in DC are problematic: the only thing they care about is your proximity to power (“how many social steps away from the president are you?”). The sort of intellectual professionals, artists, innovators, or businesspeople that make a city “interesting” and “vibrant” have little social standing in DC and are the sort of people who get looked past in any social situation. And in many neighborhoods, the guy opening up a restaurant is looked upon as a bit of a threat.

#22 Comment By Art Deco On December 21, 2013 @ 6:58 pm

The sort of intellectual professionals, artists, innovators, or businesspeople that make a city “interesting” and “vibrant” have little social standing in DC and are the sort of people who get looked past in any social situation.

Why should they have social standing?

#23 Comment By Tyro On December 22, 2013 @ 8:29 am

Why should they have social standing?

Well, in DC, where one’s social value is determined by one’s social/professional proximity to the president, they don’t.