News & Politics

Former Washington Reporter Miraculously Survives to Tell His Sorry Tale

A former Reuters correspondent wants everyone to know what a lousy time he had in Washington.

City of alleged horrors. Photograph by Flickr user Chris Tank.

Washington stinks, according to a guy who doesn’t live here anymore. In an essay for Politico Magazine titled “Take This Town and Shove It,” Sam Youngman, a former political correspondent for Reuters, tells all of his colleagues still stuck here to “get out of Washington. It’s messing you up more than you know.”

Ninety-five percent of the immediate reaction has been laudatory, with tweets from many of Youngman’s fellow journalists—many of them brave enough to still practice their craft in Washington—urging their followers to read his woeful tale. According to Youngman, we are all living in a horror show; only by moving back home to Kentucky has he managed to see the error of this city.

Youngman’s story is full of clever zings, dismissing a list of attractive Hill staffers as, “Washington hot, which is a step above rehab hot and two levels below jury duty hot.” It also has pathos, as he confesses that his nine-year stint in DC was full of drinking (he even admits to a stint in rehab), one-night stands, and an apparent addiction to Twitter. Those activities are certainly important, but if that was the extent of Youngman’s Washington experience, it’s not difficult to say he was probably doing it wrong.

For all his desperation about “This Town”—DC’s often seedy, always incestuous melange of media and political professionals skewered in Mark Leibovich’s recent book of the same name—Youngman comes off as a victim of his own naïveté. Did he really come to Washington expecting to cover honest brokers and work alongside other young journalists who aren’t trying to race up the career ladder? Should we be mortified to discover there is more to the White House than, as he puts it, marveling at aircraft carriers and honoring college basketball teams? In 2012, Youngman found himself “reporting on battles of snark between Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom and Obama strategist David Axelrod while ignoring the actual war we are still fighting in Afghanistan.” 

Washington, like any other beat, is what you make of it. It’s not tough to find a good story in Washington, it just takes a bit of effort. There’s no rule that says all fresh-faced reporters who come here have to become horserace hacks who ignore the life-and-death issues that Youngman says he lost sight of. One of the boys on the bus, he surely had his opportunties to ask Fehrnstrom and Axelrod about their candidates’ plans for Afghanistan.

In the entirety of his screed, at any rate, there is no evidence he ever tried to escape the This Town lifestyle. But if you’re going to spend every evening sightseeing at the Hay-Adams or picking off interns at the Capitol Lounge, you probably weren’t planning on getting out of the proverbial bubble in the first place. Even now, he makes a point that he can’t remember every one-night stand’s name—cool, Draper-esque brag, bro.

To be fair, there are a few common sins Youngman identifies, like tweeting at other reporters to get the attention of better-known colleagues, snarking about political races you’re not even covering, and making endless references to Game of Thrones. I’m as guilty of those as anyone (especially the Game of Thrones part). Many of my Twitter conversations include people who have earned that stupid blue checkmark signifying a “verified account.”

But there’s no need to nuke the whole town for these silly distractions, or even to decamp to Kentucky. There’s an obvious irony, too, in writing about the useless carnage in Politico, the publication that has done more than any other to stoke the notion of politics as bloodsport. (Perhaps it’s an act of epic trolling on Youngman’s part, but I’m guessing the purpose of his piece is not to take Politico to task in its own pages.)

By the way, what did Youngman, now the political reporter at the Herald-Leader, find when he moved back to Lexington?

“At least once a week, I hear conventional wisdom from D.C. or New York upended by words directly from the mouths of a Kentucky voter. Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes’s campaign is described as strong nationally, but it looks like a hot mess up close. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), often mocked by cable news, is cheered and encouraged to run for president at small restaurants in impoverished mountain towns throughout Eastern Kentucky.”

Rand Paul? Has anybody in this town ever heard of that guy?

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.