Washington, D.C., is home to a huge concentration of reporters. Why do they miss the stories happening in their own city?
On a bone-chilling January night last week, customers lined up inside Kramerbooks in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle for the midnight release of Michael Wolff’s account of the Trump administration, Fire and Fury. The occasion should have merited only a few quirky write-ups about D.C. residents warming up with the latest Washington gossip. Instead, a phalanx of reporters from Buzzfeed to the Washington Post covered the event with the intensity of fans greeting the latest Harry Potter installment. The spectacle cemented the caricature of D.C. denizens as effete court creatures salivating over some fresh palace intrigue. The Twitter tag for this display was the catch-all dig for Washington preening: #ThisTown.
D.C. is inevitably a “town” and not a city, thanks in part to its modest size and lack of high-rises. But the only view that’s provincial comes from the upper echelon of Washington media—from people like Politico columnist Susan Glasser, for example, who characterizes the nation’s capital as a “village, a small town, a one-industry kind of place.”
In her recent New Yorker piece, Glasser would have you believe that the dining room of the Four Seasons was “the city’s canteen,” and reporters only get scoops by working the Georgetown cocktail circuit. In reality, this Brahman stereotype represents a small fraction of the real D.C., a place of many industries and many different kinds of workers. The city may have changed dramatically over the years, but its foundations were built by its black citizens, who until recently comprised the majority of the population, not a Deep State coterie.
I have praised D.C.’s nerdy, civic pride before, but the bookstore event is not one of those moments. Wolff’s book and the exhaustive coverage of it by the local media is a dispatch right out of #ThisTown: the type of navel-gazing, cocktail-mongering journalism that makes D.C. reporters seem weird and inaccessible to the rest of America. There’s a stark contrast between the armies of journalists dispatched to cover Fire and Fury and the stories that count to residents here—stories recorded faithfully by struggling local outlets. Some of these narratives are invisible to the majors or lost on their reporters.
The same day the Wolff circus rolled into town, news broke that the Current Newspapers filed for bankruptcy. The group of four newspapers covering Northwest D.C. has faced financial troubles for years; they had just uploaded stories online in 2017. But its journalists do the type of unglamorous, hyperlocal reporting on zoning and development that track how our urban landscape is shaped. In recent months, the Current chronicled the fate of the historic West Heating Plant in Georgetown, just a stone’s throw away from the Four Seasons, and redevelopment plans for Walter Reed hospital.
In November*, Washington lost another local news source when billionaire owner Joe Ricketts shuttered the site DCist, along with several other local news outlets he’d purchased across the country. DCist (where I had been an occasional contributor) gave this city vibrant coverage of the local arts scene, a comprehensive list of weekend entertainment, and the beloved “Overheard in D.C.” feature. But it also probed the nexus of national and local news with gusto: One of DCist’s last stories chronicled House Democrats’ suit in federal court to acquire records on the Trump Hotel in the Old Post Office Building.
I remember cutting my teeth on local news as an intern at the Washington Examiner, when the paper existed in its scrappy, metro incarnation. Scott McCabe, the Examiner’s crime reporter, did yeoman’s work with his cold case series, which tried to revive the hopes of many D.C. area families who lost their loved ones to homicides. In one instance, McCabe’s column and the television show “America’s Most Wanted” assisted in a tip that lead to the capture of a suspect in a 15-year-old murder case. Not every article resulted in a closed case, but each one gave voice to those who had only known silence for years.
That changed in 2013, when the paper dashed its metro coverage and tabloid-style print paper, refashioning itself into a glossy, conservative rival to Politico. In D.C., the news has become a strange hydra: When one local outlet dies, a national news explainer pops up in its place. You’ll have no clue what the crime stats are in your neighborhood but you will know it’s congressman X’s aide’s birthday today.
The cop-out answer to the local news crisis is that there are not enough resources to devote reporting time to meaningful-but-geographically circumscribed stories that are likely to only catch a comparatively small number of eyeballs. There do, however, appear to be plenty of resources to livetweet, record in real time, film a time-lapse video, and report in print ad nauseum a zero-stakes story about the late-night debut of a questionably sourced burn book.
As the Fire and Fury bonanza highlights, D.C. coverage is overwhelmingly focused on the federal government, and as a result, is driven by and for mostly white voices. If you’d like to find the perfect shade for your wedding dress, skip Pantone and go check out the Capitol Hill and Pentagon press corps, where most of us comfortably reside in the space between eggshell and cream.
The cadre of workers and reporters who make up federal Washington or “official Washington” not only lacks diversity, but a fundamental understanding of the municipality they live in. There’s the idea that Washington never existed without the federal government and that the only people who live here are outsiders lured by national politics. As Ally Schweitzer of WAMU pointed out this fall, that misconception is the root of the oft-repeated phrase, “Nobody is from D.C.” This motto translates to “People only come here to work for the government,” or more bluntly, “I don’t know any black people, therefore I don’t know anyone from D.C.”
It’s no wonder “real Americans” hate D.C.; national reporters depict its citizens like those of Panem. A working-class Iowan would find common ground with their capital brethren, however, if they picked up a copy of D.C’s Afro-American, a weekly that has covered the city’s black community for 80 years in a just-the-facts ma’am manner. Reporting beyond the “east-of-the-river” formula that equates black D.C. with crime or poverty, the Afro pays close attention to the DMV’s black middle class and network of churches. The Afro’s activist edge also vocalizes the local black community’s concerns over the federal stranglehold that affects D.C.’s criminal justice and education system.
The national reporters clustered here, smarting from critical characterizations of their coastal media bubbles, have decamped to the wildlands of Nevada to cover white frustration with federal meddling and traveled far and wide in search of the perfect Trump voter. But few appear to have ventured beyond their rowhouse backyards to report on the city they call home. When District stories are farmed out to freelancers instead of full-time journalists who marinate in a community, you get news without context. You get articles suspiciously peppered with quotes from Vornado, a prominent Virginia property management company with stakes in Arlington, comparing Crystal City to Brooklyn (they’re both across a river and the similarities stop there).
The bleeding of local news in D.C. is a special tragedy since these smaller outlets have consistently produced smarter, more nuanced reporting than their national competitors. City Paper’s “Young and Hungry” section has examined how frosty relations between Moscow and Washington are affecting the Russian restaurant scene in D.C.; meanwhile, the New York Times continues to cover the District’s food scene as though they were visiting Mars. (See articles like “Restaurants in D.C. Are Moving Into Residential Neighborhoods,” which trots out the outdated stereotype that half the city’s restaurants are white tablecloth steakhouses.)
Newspapers and media companies should be clamoring to cover the District deeper now than ever before. D.C. has and will continue to be an urban laboratory for federal experiments—from the 1968 National Parks Service “Summer in the Parks” program that quelled racial strife after the riots 50 years ago to the District of Columbia Economic Recovery Act that raised housing prices in D.C. and laid the foundation for the federal First Time Home Buyer Tax Credit.
Without their ears to the ground, those national outlets missed out on blockbuster stories like WAMU and NPR’s investigation that found dozens of high school students from one of D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods graduated despite high absentee rates. Washingtonian, a glossy city monthly, covered toxic contamination at a former defense site, and they did so by going to door-to-door in one of Washington’s most well-heeled neighborhoods, something even the Four Seasons media mafia could risk doing in their Ferragamos. Months before Trump canceled Salvadoran immigrants’ Temporary Protected Status, Greater Greater Washington looked at the implications in the District, where the highest concentration of Salvadorans in the nation live.
How does D.C. boast such a wealth of knowledgeable and talented reporters who can unravel the most complex regulatory agencies, but write about their own city like privileged expats who have never set foot outside the foreign bureau? And to appeal to every journalist’s fragile ego, doesn’t it hurt when a local paper is doing a better job covering Washington than a national outlet? D.C. residents have suffered as some of the most disenfranchised citizens in the United States. That should give national journalists even greater impetus to serve them as well as those in swing states. It’s time Washington’s reporters leave their cozy lunches, get their heads out of their navels, and really cover this town.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that DCist was shut down in October.