How New Media Poisoned Politics

By Rich Danker

Is there a place where the vanity, self-promotion and fabricated affection on Facebook coalesce in real life? Mark Leibovich finds it in Washington. His book This Town, about the city's permanent political establishment, is part insider tell-all and part satire. It captures a moment in time when new media has elevated narcissism from the back rooms of the nation's capital onto cable and Twitter.

Leibovich, a longtime D.C.-based reporter who is national correspondent for the New York Times magazine, is known as the master of the political profile and for this project turned his genius on his own cocktail party circuit world of vainglorious flacks, money-hungry ex-politicos, and colleagues in the media who form "Suck-up City."

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In interviews the author has been asked what makes Washington degrading in contrast to other power centers like New York and Los Angeles. He's offered multiple explanations, including the notion that public service rather than fame and money is supposed to be the politico's calling and that in no other city do the riches flow directly from the taxpayers. But the most obvious answer in This Town is the capacity of new media to make the mediocre and the non-powerful "famous for D.C." and beyond.

This is due to the simultaneous explosion of social media and cable news, where anyone in D.C. with a claim to expertise or superficial connection to power can cultivate their "brand" by leaving the impression of outsize impact via online chirping, TV "hits," and presence at the right parties. It's no longer enough to be a legend in one's own mind or even peer group -- now that can be efficiently projected to the wider world.

The political-media phenomenon that Leibovich pays the most attention to is a conventional website and email newsletter. Politico and its Playbook email written by Mike Allen are shown to be the equivalent of the paper of record for "This Town." Most of the website's stories are about conflict, rather than policy, and therefore tend to be reduced to "snowflakes" that have little lasting importance (one about the preposterous idea of Joe Biden for president is singled out, with Leibovich tracking down a quote from Biden giving the publication effusive praise in return).

Playbook is an a.m. political tip sheet that is utilized by insiders to blast their own press releases. Allen eats it up while festooning each edition with birthday and marriage announcements, making it like a Facebook feed for grownups. The book grew out of Leibovich's prize-winning profile of Allen, and he describes him as the mayor of "This Town," a role previously inhabited by Tim Russert. "A big part of Allen's appeal, I'm convinced, is the volume of names he mentions," Leibovich writes.

For those curious about other "Famous for D.C." personalities, Leibovich has the dirt. Dealmaker Robert Barnett is a "walking conflict of interest" since he commonly counts both sides in a negotiation as his clients. Jack Quinn does not enjoy lobbying but needs the money to support his six children, two ex-wives, and current wife. A feature on Tammy Haddad, a hostess whose name rarely resonates beyond Playbook, meticulously documents how she threw herself into epilepsy fundraising to get close to Obama advisor David Axelrod (whose daughter has the disease).

Then there are the one-liners. On Terry McAuliffe: "To deprive McAuliffe of the words 'Bill Clinton' would be like depriving a mathematician of numbers." Ken Duberstein "spent six and a half months as Reagan's chief of staff and twenty-four years (and counting) dining out on it." On popular journalist Jeffrey Goldberg: "If in fifty years, for some reason, Jews decide to build their own airport in Bethesda, it will be named for Jeffrey Goldberg."

Leibovich balances his observations with deft reporting, particularly on the recent trend of ex-lawmakers and White House officials cashing in by lobbying for the sides they opposed in office. He also weaves a brilliant portrait of an out-of-control congressional aide who says he is a member of the "Opportunity" party rather than the Republicans or Democrats. Finally, no deconstruction of contemporary D.C. would be complete without an expose of the White House Correspondents Dinner, which patrons call "nerd prom" out of self-reverence rather than light mockery.

In a prior era, there would have been a natural internal pushback to all this ridiculousness. But new media has just made it more infectious. "Washington," Leibovich writes, "the most socially networked city in the United States, is a perfect incubator of a latter-day 'network effect.'" The larger the political establishment gets, the more it becomes like itself. Will this book cause it to temper its sins? No chance. But now the rest of the country has a clearer idea of just why it hates Washington.

Rich Danker is economics director at American Principles Project, a Washington policy organization.

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