Sotto Voce.

"Qui plume a, guerre a." — Voltaire

Redefining Political Journalism’s Front Line: a Response to Masha Gessen

In a recent New Yorker essay, staff writer Masha Gessen argued that the press should not boycott the White House in the wake of the Jim Acosta debacle (“After the White House Banned Jim Acosta, Should Other Journalists Boycott Its Press Briefings?,” Nov. 9). As a reporter who covers government, and by extension politics, I feel compelled to respond.

Gessen may in fact be right, but I don’t think her arguments make her case. And the main reason why I think that can be summed up by a quote in the article by NYU professor Jay Rosen, who argued on his blog that the press should “send the interns” to cover the White House because it’s essentially become a backwater for factual, verifiable information.

“Recognize that the real story is elsewhere, and most likely hidden,” Rosen wrote.

Gessen’s counterargument is that “[t]he White House is a lousy source of information about itself, but it’s also the best available source.” Not covering it, she argues, “would give this White House exactly what it wants: less contact with the media, less visibility, ever less transparency and accountability.”

The problem with that, as Rosen notes, is that there already is no transparency or accountability to be found there, so why waste the talents of your best reporters trying to find it there?

The real story is to be found at the agencies that have to enact the random, whim-based policies, that have to deal daily with the fallout on millions of Americans as well as people around the world who suffer the consequences.

And the people who cover those agencies on a daily basis have the contacts and the trust of people who can get them that information. Probably not the trust of the appointed puppets in the head offices, but we don’t need to hear them parrot their dictated talking points anyway.

Gessen writes, “Refusing to engage with [Trump’s] words would mean refusing to engage with Trump voters and with the Trump Administration itself. It would mean walking away from politics altogether, which, for journalists, would be an abdication of responsibility.”

I disagree with that because I think it’s an artificial conflation. The words, the voters, and the administration are all incredibly different things. The words are from one person. The voters have many different voices, and to lump them together is to deny the voters their say, to treat them as a simple faceless collective. Sure, many of them are ditto-heads, but the best reporters will find out why they are.

And with regard to the administration, as I said the story is really to be found at the coalface, where every day someone who is being paid by our tax dollars is making a decision to deny an immigrant a visa or to incarcerate a person of color or try to fight an injustice without the resources to do their job.

And as for “walking away from politics altogether,” I’d remind her of the phrase often attributed to former House Speaker Tip O’Neill that “all politics is local.” The real story of this White House is not to be found at this White House. The story is to be found in the consequences, from the agency headquarters in DC (yes, White House press corps, you don’t have to leave DC and its swank hotels and hip neighborhoods to still write about the administration) all the way down to the state highway administrations and county health agencies and city police departments.

Gessen’s view of the situation, perhaps informed by her years covering the autocratic politics of Putin (she wrote a chilling and authoritative biography of the man), assumes a far more centralized national government than I’ve seen from my years working with and around federal science agencies. Just because the president imagines that he can be a dictator doesn’t mean that the entire federal bureaucracy has decided to reinvent itself overnight to accomodate his delusional fantasy.

Thank god sometimes for the slow wheels of the bureaucracy.

I would argue that Gessen’s vision of a top-down, monolithic national politics — a narrative no doubt embraced by the trivial reality-show personality who fancies himself to be a classic Russian-style strongman — can be most effectively refuted by a press corps that is dedicated to telling the story of national politics from the ground up.


Categorised as: Life the Universe and Everything

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