Why We Need to Break Up the Washington Press Corps

Journalists were once outsiders looking in, says Gay Talese, but today their proximity to Washington makes them myopic; they'd be wiser to disperse and keep their eyes on the horizon.

Gay Talese: It was alleged that the newspapers were not aware the large percentage of the population of American citizens were unhappy with the ruling establishment, did not feel their voices were being heard and they voted against what everybody thought was the leading candidate and instead voted for this rank outsider, a very unpredictable and generally unpopular person, this businessman, this egotist, this rakish character named Donald Trump.

I thought what was missing from the newspapers, and I think more than that from Americans in general who watch television, who read books, who teach in universities, who are among the educated classes, which almost includes everybody these days.  The reason I say that, in my lifetime born in 1932 and becoming a journalist in the 1950s and at the time I became a journalist in the 1950s we journalists, whether we worked for the New York Times or the Philadelphian Inquirer or the Chicago Tribune were generally the first of our family to have gone to college.  And when I say college I do not mean Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, I mean Brooklyn College or in my case the University of Alabama.  We were not going to the elite colleges, if we went to college at all we were considered scholars in our family.  But what we were, not true today, but what we in the mid 20th century America we were outsiders.  We journalists were of the outsider class whether we were Italian heritage as me or Jewish or African-American or Spanish, whatever.

And we did have courage because most of us had come from parents or grandparents who had first-hand knowledge of persecution in foreign countries and who came to this country on the run and brought with them the spirit of unfairness.  And we as the inheritors of their spirit in journalism we were the children of those people, we brought not cynicism but skepticism of power.  And it was never our ambition to be part of power because we were chroniclers of power, we were critics of power, we were viewers of power, we were outsiders.  Well those days are long, long, long gone.  What we have now, 50 years beyond what I'm talking about, is a group of journalists who go to the same elite schools as the most privileged people of power. 
Obama was a college professor, a Harvard man and he was teaching while president for the two terms essentially teaching class to the higher classes, including the journalism of his time.  Now you have this rank foul-mouthed,  God with his awful blonde hair becoming elected and then people in journalism oh god it's so embarrassing.  It's like they were so stunned it's like having their world is shattered. Why are you so shattered?  Why are you so stupid?  Don't you realize that you journalists are so blind?  You don't know as journalists anything except being educated from the time you're privileged little kids.  I mean even the poor people, black people, Hispanic still want to be like the privileged white people. 

And what I'm getting at in a long-winded way is that we journalist have failed.  We're a failed profession.  The pride that my generation took being strong as a force against the powers of prerogative, the powers of privilege doesn't exist anymore.  It doesn't exist anymore.  The journalists now want to be part of a power game.  They want to get on Air Force One.  They want to join Trump at 21.  They want to have dinner at 21 with him.  They want to be clustered in Washington, which is the most decadent city. It's the most evil empire.

If I were running Washington, boy do I sometimes have grandiose ideas in the middle of the night if I was running Washington.  I would get half of those reporters out of Washington, break up the Washington press corps, send them all over to the state capitals.  We have 50 states; put two reporters in every state instead of covering Congress or the cabinet or whatever, let the people who are from these states report the mood of the states, report the feelings, the findings, the personalities that are in parts of America that are not in the mainstream in the mainline.
And we tell our story not from the powerbrokers that are clustered in Washington those privileged power and generally rich people, but we tell something about the results of law, the results of privilege, the results of ignorance, the results of bad decisions and war, we'd cover injured soldiers, we'd cover the life of farmers, we'd cover a grease mechanic a guy some redneck sheriff somewhere.  And if we knew the America that way we would not be surprised by such an election as we had in the aftermath of Obama's eight years. 

Journalists today don’t report like they used to, and they sure as hell don’t dress like they used to either. Gay Talese, a defining figure in literary journalism, here reconstructs the mentality of journalists in the 1950s, when his career began. Compared to now? It’s no wonder the media was shocked by the election results, Talese says. Today’s journalists are glued to Washington D.C, under the influence of the same potion that has seen the rise of celebrity: power, luxury, elitism. Talese suggests the Washington press corps disperse out to the 50 states and report on the end result of policies – how it affects people on the coast and the heartland – as much as they report on the formation of those policies the nation’s capital. Perhaps with an ear to the ground, the next election won’t take everyone for such a ride. Gay Talese's most recent book is High Notes: Selected Writings of Gay Talese.


Bill Nye's most recent book is High Notes: Selected Writings of Gay Talese.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.


Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.