Front page NY Times piece today laments the general downsizing of Washington bureaus by papers and chains. On the one hand, any time some writer loses a job, it’s a shame. But we can acknowledge that human price and still question the assumptions behind the more general professional garment-rending.
Before we worried about the rising tide of unemployed journalists, we had a word for the sort of journalism too many of the folks inside the old DC bureaus did: pack journalism. This was not a term of endearment. The pack members mostly asked the same questions, arrived at a general consensus, and shook their heads in sync when somebody broke ranks. It was this same pack that went nuts over the Lewinsky story and failed to understand that the American people did not want to see their president impeached for a peccadillo, and never did. It was this same pack that served (with a handful of honorable exceptions) as stenographers for the Bush administration’s faulty intelligence and accomplices in the rush into a misbegotten war in Iraq.
In the Times piece, Andy Alexander, the retiring chief of Cox’s DC bureau, which is being eliminated, says, “I think the cop is leaving the beat here.” Too often, alas, the cop was either asleep or on the take.
I do not think it is coincidental that the old DC bureaus are being downsized at the same time that we are welcoming a new presidential administration that, as this Times magazine piece reports, does not feel obligated to give interviews to reporters simply because those reporters show up at cocktail parties. A cocktail-party invitation should not be the entree to asking questions of the government. Maybe paying to keep reporters in the capital so they can go to cocktail parties is not a good use of dwindling journalistic resources. If the DC cocktail party circuit is dead — and I doubt that’s actually the case — it can only mean good things for our democracy.
Of course we need reporters in the capital to dig into complex stories and ask hard questions. But do we need hundreds of them all doing the same job, covering the same stories? How many times do we need reporters to repeat the same question, like “Why haven’t you released your internal report on contacts with Blagojevich?” when the question has already been reasonably answered? If many of these bureaus are being replaced by coverage from niche publications that have more specialized focuses, maybe that is something to cheer — a more sensible division of labor.
Henry Blodget isn’t shedding tears, either. But he does acknowledge that the elimination of local papers’ DC bureaus might reduce coverage of the local communities’ concerns and representatives in the capital.
I think we probably will have a gap there for a while, and that’s not good. But it’s not a national disaster. Eventually, the local Web sites will pick up the slack. They may not be able to send reporters fulltime to DC. They’ll miss the cocktail parties. But they’ll still be able to cover the stories that matter to them.
UPDATE: John McQuaid suggests Blodget’s being cavalier, wonders who will dig through all the new data Obama’s “transparency” promise will provide.