I think there’s a real problem of source capture in D.C. journalism, even bracketing the shady quid-pro-quos involved with high-level access. But I doubt a press corps composed largely of snarling misanthropes would be much better. If you want to really understand a particular beat, and be good at covering it, you ultimately have to spend a lot of time socializing with the people you cover. A good reporter isn’t going to become best buddies with the folks he’s writing about, but some minimum level of amiability is going to be required if you expect to get wind of scuttlebutt or know what people in a particular industry or agency are thinking. There are plenty of stories that only get broken because two people happened to get a casual beer at the right time. It’s also, frankly, hard to write effectively about people you can’t empathize with at least somewhat, even when you come to criticize. So for all that I share the disdain for D.C. schmooziness—and for all that I probably fell a lot more into the misanthrope category myself as a reporter—it’s worth acknowledging that there’s a tradeoff involved.
The rewards for schmoozing that characterize the DC beat are fairly unique. I can’t think of many other beats where reporters even bother to socialize with the people they cover — certainly the ones I know in Rochester don’t. Yet these reporters are effective, in part because their sources know they aren’t interested in currying the favor of the people they cover.
Sources for big stories are often minor players: a patrol cop who knows about a bad bust, or a secretary in the school administrator’s office who sees millions of dollars in fraud. These people care about their jobs, and they place an immense amount of trust in a reporter’s confidence. Are they going to chance giving their information to a glad-hander who boozes it up with the Police Chief, or plays golf with the School Superintendent?
These reporters aren’t devoid of empathy — I’m sure they feel for the single mother secretary who risks poverty to expose fraud or abuse. But they sure as hell aren’t throwing lavish fêtes, complete with court-jester skits, for the city elite. And, yes, I think a few of them do spit whenever the Mayor’s name is mentioned.