George Packer’s definitive piece on the dysfunction of the U.S. Senate, supposedly the greatest deliberative body in the world, was widely cited in the news over the last couple of weeks. But because The New Yorker is one of the few magazines I subscribe to, and don’t read for free online, I resisted the urge to read his story until it arrived in my mailbox. I read it last night and was impressed: It’s a sweeping piece of reportage that examines both the historical view of what the Senate was intended to be by the founders, and the minutiae of the modern senator’s daily schedule, down to the inside jokes senators made to each other on the floor while they voted for the health care bill.
Different blogs have seized on different aspects of the story, but one passage struck me in particular, where Packer describes how fewer and fewer senators have reporters from their home-state papers reporting on issues that affect their constituents. These journalists have been replaced by daily papers that cover capitol hill and focus solely on internecine conflict, no matter how petty, exacerbating partisan bitterness. We check Politico several times a day, and often find interesting tidbits about Max Baucus or Jon Tester or Denny Rehberg, but it’s no substitute for when Lee Newspapers used to have a Washington correspondent reporting on Montana’s federal delegation for its papers here. That position was dissolved years ago, and I think it’s a real loss for citizens and lawmakers – but such are the realities of the modern news industry.
Here’s the excerpt on Washington media, and if you’ve got some time I recommend reading Packer’s piece in its entirety. (Emphasis mine.)
One day in his office, Udall picked up some tabloids from his coffee table and waved them at me. “You know about all these rags that cover the Hill, right?” he said, smiling. There are five dailies—Politico, The Hill, Roll Call, CongressDaily, and CQ Today—all of which emphasize insider conflict. The senators, who like to complain about the trivializing effect of the “24/7 media,” provide no end of fodder for it. The news of the day was what Udall called a “dust-up” between Scott Brown, the freshman Massachusetts Republican, and a staffer for Jim DeMint, the arch-conservative from South Carolina; the staffer had Tweeted that Brown was voting too often with the Democrats, leading Brown to confront DeMint on the Senate floor over this supposed breach of protocol. Bloggers carry so much influence that many senators have a young press aide dedicated to the care and feeding of online media. News about, by, and for a tiny kingdom of political obsessives dominates the attention of senators and staff, while stories that might affect their constituents go unreported because their home-state papers can no longer afford to have bureaus in Washington. Dodd, who came to the Senate in 1981 and will leave next January, told me, “I used to have eleven Connecticut newspaper reporters who covered me on a daily basis. I don’t have one today, and haven’t had one in a number of years. Instead, D.C. publications only see me through the prism of conflict.” Lamar Alexander described the effect as “this instant radicalizing of positions to the left and the right.”
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