On a snowy weekend this month (Oh my God!) ten years ago in Manchester, NH, I first encountered a young political reporter for InsideNH Politics named Sam (or as everyone there called him, Sammy) Youngman. Sammy was a tall dude from Kentucky–like his evident idol, Hunter Thompson–and if the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary of 2004 had a mascot, it would have been Sammy. I met him at the unofficial watering hole of the presidential campaigns (with one exception: “The Deanies don’t hang out,” I was told), the Wild Rover bar. The event I had gone up there to attend had been cancelled because of the blizzard, and I was commiserating with my friends from what then looked like a doomed John Kerry campaign. Sammy was a wild rover himself, and was the life of a very uninhibited party.
Later that same night, I was at the apartment of my buddy Theo Yedinsky (political director for Kerry in the Granite State), and the booze had run out and I was thinking of going to sleep, when Sammy blew in. To make a long story short, we played poker until the very wee hours, trading campaign stories and Thompson lore. Uncharacteristically, I was winning relentlessly, and though he was genial about it, I could tell Sammy was a very competitive guy.
As it happens, I encountered Mr.Youngman just as his career in political journalism was taking off. I ran into him now and then in D.C., never for more than a few minutes, and then we went our very separate ways. I heard from mutual friends at some point that Sam (as he was now known) had sworn off the hooch and become serious indeed, and I read some of his serious stories, and wondered what had happened to him.
Well, now I know, thanks to Youngman’s long-form confessional piece about his climb up and down the slippery pole of Beltway political journalism he published in–somewhat ironically–Politico Magazine.
You can read it all yourself, but basically Sam admits he bought the whole Bigfoot Journalism game, and found it to be a mess of pottage characterized by relentless self-promotion and idiotic “narratives” and story-lines.
By the 2012 campaign, a race almost entirely devoted to image creation and protection, and entirely devoid of romance and meaning, I had grown resolute in my belief that as a profession, we had lost our way. The whole year was one long, drawn-out Jerry Maguire moment. The endless fights with the Romney campaign over the number of Free Trade Agreements Obama had actually signed. Reporting on battles of snark between Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom and Obama strategist David Axelrod while ignoring the actual war we are still fighting in Afghanistan. I do not recall the issue of, say, poverty coming up a single time in all my coverage, despite the fact that 46.5 million Americans were living in poverty that year, the highest number in at least 50 years.
So after considering an editing gig in New York, Youngman instead went back to Kentucky and took a reporting job with the mid-market Lexington Herald-Leader, where he professes to be learning the art of real journalism and getting the Beltway variety thoroughly out of his system.
I wish him well, and emphathize with his critique of the endless B.S. of the presidential campaign circuit, where reporters these days probably dream of becoming the next Mark Halperin rather than the next Hunter Thompson. But I must say I think Sam is overreacting a bit to the inherent corruption of the actual job as opposed to the devilish temptations of easily acquired fame and the company of powerful people. He says journalists need to talk to voters instead of reading polls; there’s no rule against doing both, and over-interpretation of shoe-leather anecdotes is, in my opinion, as big a problem with journalism as excessive reliance on more systematic forms of empirical data.
It would be great if more aspiring journalists got their OJT away from the big media centers, but as Youngman notes in passing, it’s not like that’s an abundant job market. So if I were offering advice to the young writers Sam’s cautioning, I’d say it’s a good idea to become involved in politics and government before “covering” these subjects. A state government gig, where the rubber meets the road that runs from national policies to local needs, is where I got my most important training, but then this kind of experience is not necessarily appreciated by the keepers of the journalistic guild, as I learned when I tried to make the jump from government to a newspaper editorial job about thirty years ago.
So to anyone wanting to make a career in political journalism, Youngman’s right about several important things: don’t get intoxicated with seeing your byline; don’t assume the luck that passes your way, good or bad, is an accurate judgment of your work; and if you go up the Yellow Brick Road to Washington, spend your time there learning, and try not to drink the water.