Vanity Fair's Broken Washington: A Few Solutions

Todd Purdum has a feature in Vanity Fair this month that is so rich with insight, color, and analysis regarding the communication challenges facing the Obama administration that I immediately plugged the article into my graduate course syllabus for the semester.


“The sheer growth of the federal government, the paralysis of Congress, the systemic corruption brought on by lobbying, the trivialization of the ‘news’ by the media, the willful disregard for facts and truth, these forces have made today’s Washington a depressing and dysfunctional place,” writes Purdum in the subscription protected article. “They have shaped and at times hobbled the presidency itself.”

Purdum describes what’s historically different today about Washington even in comparison to the Clinton era. He relates the loss of civil discourse, the structural dysfunction of redistricting that enables House members to be ever more hyper-partisan, and the roadblock of the filibuster. He also focuses on the loss of bi-partisan socializing among Congressional members, as Republicans sleep in their offices rather than maintain a home and social ties in Washington, DC , avoiding the risk of being “polluted” by the Capital’s “cozy culture.” And of course, there is the ever stronger influence and financial might of lobbyists.

Yet Purdum saves his strongest critique for the news media, journalists, and the contemporary culture of social media and blogs. As he writes:

Now, thanks to cable, the Internet, Twitter, and Facebook, there is no such thing as a “news cycle” in Washington—only one endless, undifferentiated full-color stream of fact, opinion, and attitudinizing, where lies and misinformation flourish equally with truth…..The pace of events has picked up, sure, but the capacity to assert, allege, and comment is now infinite, and subject to little responsible control….[Obama] faces the most hyperkinetic, souped-up, tricked-out, trivialized, and combative media environment any president has ever experienced.

Part of the media dysfunction, argues Purdum, is driven by the absence of experience among today’s Washington reporters, an inexperience paired with a culture of youthful snark:

The life experiences—and thus the sense of perspective, history, and balance—of today’s Washington reporters are qualitatively different from those of their predecessors. An entire generation has come of age being taught that the way to succeed is to be smart—if not smart-alecky—young thing.

Addressing these institutional and cultural problems, particularly those of the media and broader communication system, is a topic that will be of chief focus here at Age of Engagement. I don’t pretend to have the exact solutions, but I do have a few modest proposals, initiatives that are already underway and that deserve greater investment and attention.

In the video interview below with Big Think, I describe these three ideas which include:

a) New models of non-profit and localized public affairs media;

b) Widespread adoption of media literacy curriculum from high school through college;

c) New models for direct public participation in government and collective decision-making.

What do readers think? Is Purdum’s diagnosis accurate? Are these ideas worth pursuing?

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