Media obsession over Washington bad for federalism

Authored by Jack Butler

Earlier this year, Washington, D.C., was transfixed by drama in the House of Representatives. Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.), the presumed Speaker of the House after Republicans narrowly retook control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections, proved unable to secure a majority in support of his taking the position. McCarthy ultimately won the gavel, but only on the 15th vote.

As Washington couldn’t look away from the U.S. House, a similar drama was playing out in Columbus, Ohio. Derrek Merrin, the choice of the Republican caucus’s large majority in the state house of representatives, unexpectedly lost the speakership to fellow Republican Jason Stephens, who secured the gavel with a minority of Republican votes but all the Democratic ones.

Non-Ohio readers might be forgiven for not having been aware of this parallel story. It is undoubtedly the case that certain news stories achieve national attention because they have national implications, while many state and local news stories understandably never reach the same level of mass awareness. Many trends in media and government, however, have magnified these realities to such an extent that many voters in a state probably pay more attention to national-level news (even when it affects them little), while developments that directly affect their own lives might only register if they blow up on a national scale. What philosopher and media critic Neil Postman called the “information-action ratio,” the tendency of the data a given person receives about reality actually to matter to him, has been skewed in the wrong direction. 

This topsy-turvy environment has many causes. Chief among them is the growth of government and the centralization of power in Washington, D.C. Many responsibilities once exclusively or at least largely in the ambit of states or localities have migrated to the nation’s capital, unhealthily raising the stakes of Beltway politics. This general pattern has sent attention Beltway-ward even for matters that little concern the average non-Washingtonian.

Related to this is the hollowing out of local news. The congealing of government power in and around Washington is not the sole cause of these institutions’ demise, to be sure. Regardless of the other contributing factors, however, their decline is an undeniable part of what has sent attention to the capital. It leads to such absurd situations as, for example, the lines formed to enter a Senate office building to hear former FBI director James Comey testify in 2017. Legions of D.C.-based reporters compete with each other to tweet out the same juicy quotes seconds before their competitors, while consequential intrigue or skullduggery in a state capital often gets attention from only a handful of intrepid reporters (if that).  

Legions of national-level reporters show up to D.C. because they respond to the perverse incentives of our media-political environment. The money and the clicks are increasingly in Washington, not Columbus. So the typical post-collegiate aspiring journalist looks not to his state capital (much less his hometown), but (ultimately if not immediately) to D.C. The result, as former Obama administration official Ben Rhodes put it in a moment of candor, is that the city is full of young, inexperienced reporters who tend to think of politics at the national level. “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old,” Rhodes told the New York Times in 2016, “and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

Located in downtown Columbus, the state capitol building is home to the Ohio General Assembly and is the ceremonial location of the offices of the governor, lieutenant governor, auditor and treasurer.

It was not always this way. In this regard, the career of Robert D. Novak, the longtime Washington journalist, is instructive. Novak spent several years early in his career covering state politics in Nebraska and Indiana. There were ample scandals and controversies in both places during his time in each. In “The Prince of Darkness, his autobiography, he observes of the latter that “intrigue and factionalism were nonstop in both Indiana parties.” He tended to find himself unimpressed by many of the political figures he encountered. So early on in his journalistic career, his experience at different rungs of our federalist architecture both humanized politics for him, and deromanticized it. He learned that human nature is constant, and that, as John Adams once put it, “absolute power intoxicates alike despots, monarchs, aristocrats, and democrats, and jacobins, and sans culottes.” Novak’s experience suggests that Adams might well have added governors and state legislators to that list.

So when an unexpected opportunity from the Associated Press took Novak to Washington in 1957, he was already well instructed about the foibles of humanity as they manifested in politics. Because he experienced the grubbiness of politics on a down-to-earth level, he wasn’t so easily sucked into the glamor that entrances so many young reporters starting out in Washington today. “I did not find the caliber of politicians in Washington generally any higher than what I had encountered in Indianapolis and Lincoln,” he writes in “The Prince of Darkness.”

Of course, the D.C. of that time was quite different from today. For one thing, it was a surprise for him to be sent there at all. D.C. assignments were typically only for veteran journalists. As a result, reporters in the city were not today’s legion of inexperienced youth. “I was the only AP newsman in Washington less than thirty years old, and there were precious few under forty,” Novak recounts. Government was also much smaller, and the city was “shabbier and less pretentious,” in his description. The surfeit of glittering apartments with rooftop pools and the spilling of Washington’s wealth out into the Virginia and Maryland suburbs are but a few signs of how much that aspect of Washington has changed, a consequence, again, of the federal government’s growth. All of these changes both reflect and cause an ever more inhospitable environment both for federalism and for good journalism.

Given all the changes that have occurred since Novak entered Washington politics, is there anything that can fix our warped political-media environment? Well, first off, it would be prudent to embrace federalism. That means supporting efforts by the states to claw back their powers from the federal government. It would also involve getting the federal government to return powers to the states. Encouraging aspiring journalists not always to aim their career directly at Washington would also be wise, especially when the aftermath of Covid has increased general workplace flexibility about location for journalists. Even then, however, it might not do such journalists much good if there are no local institutions for them to cut their teeth or even to make careers. And the appetite of national outlets for local news is limited (though they should consider expanding it, albeit without looking simply to subordinate local happenings to national agendas). So some salvaging of local news, either through conscious reader decisions to keep such outlets alive, or by more experimentation from nontraditional journalistic outlets, such as the Texas Tribune, will be essential.

What’s needed, above all, is a recovery of the idea that local and state politics matter, period, and not just to the extent they affect or feed into what is national. National politics has its place; indeed, to some extent, it is unavoidable. But even in a time of attenuated federalism such as our own, many, if not most, of the governing decisions that affect us happen not in some D.C. Senate office building, but rather as close to us as our state capitals — or sometimes, even closer. Washington will always be there, and so will its drama. Yet so long as people remain people, there will be politics and a need for people to cover it everywhere. Even — especially —  in Columbus.

Jack Butler is submissions editor at National Review Online, media fellow for the Institute for Human Ecology, and a 2022–2023 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at the Fund for American Studies.

Authored by:Jack Butler


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