Martin Austermuhle spent the last 12 years covering the inner workings of District politics and local affairs—first as a blogger for DCist, more recently as a reporter for WAMU. He’s now left for his home country of Switzerland, where he lived before his parents’ careers took him to Latin America. (He’ll be doing communications for an environmental NGO.) Something many don’t know about Austermuhle: Before he was a journalist, he was a communications consultant for the embassies of Venezuela and Afghanistan. He tells us how that spun into a passion for local news—and DC statehood.
“I got out of grad school, and job prospects weren’t great for someone with a master’s in Latin American studies. But I’d lived in Venezuela, and their embassy was like, ‘We need someone to come in and teach diplomats how to deal with journalists.’ To put it diplomatically, [the relationship between the US and Venezuela] was complicated. To put it undiplomatically, it was a shitshow. I was there when Hugo Chávez called George W. Bush ‘the devil.’
“People would see me and be like, ‘Who’s the blue-eyed redhead and whats he doing here?’ I feel like half my friends assumed I was a spy. The other half had their own security clearances. They’re like, ‘Great, I play on an ultimate-Frisbee team with you, so now I have to put you down on this list I submit to the government so they know I’m hanging out with a foreign national who works for an adversarial government.’ It never destroyed friendships, but it made friendships a little strange.
“My first stint at the Venezuelan Embassy, I wasn’t as busy as I wanted to be. At the time, DCist had just been birthed. I emailed the editors and said, ‘Hey, I’d love to write about DC.’ And they took a chance. I’m working on all these issues happening thousands of miles away—why don’t I know more about stuff happening three blocks from my house?
“[One thing that struck me right away about DC] was that it doesn’t have representation in Congress and often gets railroaded by folks on the Hill. Coming from different countries, that just wouldn’t have been acceptable. How does this make sense in what’s supposed to be a champion of democracy in the world? My favorite stories were ones that highlighted the weird ways that played out. I did one about the fact that if you get convicted of a felony in DC, you’re not sent to state prison, because one doesn’t exist. You’re sent to federal prison. I think most people in DC are offended by the reality they live in.”
This article appears in the September 2023 issue of Washingtonian.