New York Times Magazine correspondent Mark Leibovich has made waves in Washington, D.C. recently with the release of This Town, his tell-all account of the “universally disliked” culture in our nation’s capital. Leibovich appeared on Tuesday’s Morning Joe to promote his controversial book, and to discuss the breakdown of Washington journalism with co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.
Leibovich suggested he wrote This Town to “hold a mirror to the culture” of the nation’s capital, and that the ultimate takeaway of his work is that “everyone fundamentally is disappointed with Washington.” But Leibovich’s history of partisanship, as documented by NewsBusters, suggests that the reporter is very much a part of the dysfunction inside the Beltway. Leibovich has a history of praising Democrats and bashing Republicans, all in a day’s work at the left-wing New York Times.
“Journalism should be uncomfortable,” both “for the people being written about” and “for the people doing the writing.” Leibovich preached. The former Washington Post reporter argued that he was not “in the change and solution game,” but Leibovich seemed to hope his book could inspire a change in journalistic practices of the mainstream media.
For her part, Brzezinski questioned Leibovich’s motivation to write This Town:
And you're part of this cesspool – which you state in this book, to be fair. I mean, who isn’t, at this point, somehow attached by exactly the problem that you put on the table in this book, when you yourself – I venture to say you probably thought about how can you write about this, being in it?
Leibovich danced around the question, claiming he had thought about it “a little bit.” But Scarborough later seemed to agree with his co-host, jokingly claiming that reading the book was “kind of like looking at your own rash.”
Former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs, however, lobbed a softball at Leibovich, asking:
What do hope they take away, and what do you hope changes about this town?
Gibbs’s question gave Leibovich another opportunity to preach to Washington insiders, denouncing the “incredible amounts of money in politics” and the city’s “great disconnect with the rest of the country.” Of course, some might argue that Leibovich’s journalistic history has contributed to such a great disconnect.
But the most surprising part of the segment also involved Gibbs, as Leibovich levied some rare criticism against the Obama administration.
After the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein asked about the “Team Obama” effect on Washington, Leibovich criticized what he called the “complete myth” of “a changed Washington”:
But I do think the notion of a changed Washington was a complete myth. And it was obviously a very effective marketing strategy in 2008. I assume it was genuine then. But I also think that it's gotten a lot of people very, very wealthy. And I think that the whole circle of the revolving door that this team was supposed to stop has only been intensified.
Of course, Leibovich’s criticism was couched in praise for the Obama administration. Regardless, it’s rare to see a New York Times reporter raising any doubts about President Obama or his time in the White House – especially on the most Obamaphilic network of all broadcast and cable television.
See the full transcript below:
July 16, 2013
8:25 a.m. Eastern
MIKA BRZEZINSKI [to Mark Leibovich]: So you've been there [in Washington] 16 years yourself.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Yes.
BRZEZINSKI: And you're part of this cesspool – which you state in this book, to be fair. I mean, who isn’t, at this point, somehow attached by exactly the problem that you put on the table in this book, when you yourself – I venture to say you probably thought about how can you write about this, being in it?
LEIBOVICH: A little bit. But look – I knew this was going to be an uncomfortable book to write. It's always uncomfortable to give away the secret handshake and to write about people you're going to see again. But look, my feeling is that journalism should be uncomfortable. I think journalism in Washington should be a lot more uncomfortable than it is. It should be uncomfortable for the people being written about, it should be uncomfortable for the people doing the writing. To me this is an exercise in – not something that’s going on within the Beltway – this book was obviously of great interest inside the Beltway, but I want people outside the Beltway to read it. Because I think it does shine a light on a culture that has gotten really sort of very much – just really gotten too far away from its original moorings and has been given over to self-service.
JOE SCARBOROUGH: I can see how this is interesting to people outside of Washington, D.C. But I've got to say, being around here for a long time, it's kind of like looking at your own rash. You know it’s there.
BRZEZINSKI [laughing]: I thought you were going to say something else.
SCARBOROUGH: Like going in the bathroom – no, I know what my rash looks like. There's no need for me to look at it. Right? It's right here.
BRZEZINSKI: He said this yesterday, except it wasn't a rash.
SCARBOROUGH: It's just too obvious for insiders. I would think people outside of Washington, D.C., Robert Gibbs, would be absolutely fascinated by This Town.
ROBERT GIBBS: From the excerpts that have been in the newspapers and New York Times Magazine, I think people will be fascinated a bit to read this. I wonder, too, Mark you say you want people outside the Beltway to really read this. What do hope they take away, and what do you hope changes about this town?
LEIBOVICH: Well, look, I mean I think one thing to take away is that everyone fundamentally is disappointed with Washington. If you look at poll numbers about Congress, about the media. It's a fairly universally disliked city. I think what I tried to do is give a fuller cinema-graphic sense of what the carnival has come. I think there are really two big changes in D.C. that really weren’t in place as much, say 20 years ago. One, the incredible amounts of money in politics, just that’s been flooding into Washington. This is the wealthiest metropolitan area in the country. It's home to seven of the top ten counties in the country in terms of wealth, which is a great disconnect with the rest of the country. But also the way to which celebrity and new media has transformed the dynamic of politics, in a way that I think people don't fully appreciate when they do this shorthand reflexive we hate Washington. So look, I'm not in the change and solution game. But I hope at the very least as a journalist I can hold a mirror to the culture here.
SAM STEIN: Mark, you talked about making people uncomfortable, so let me make everyone uncomfortable here. One of the big themes of the book is how the team Obama people came to Washington with the idea they would change it, and then they themselves got changed by it. And I'm wondering if you can talk about how that influenced your reporting, why you thought that was a predominant theme, and maybe just address it to [former White House press secretary] Robert [Gibbs], who’s on my right.
GIBBS [laughing]: Mark, just so you know, that was AOL’s Sam Stein.
SAM STEIN [laughing]: I never sat at AOL.
GIBBS: Corporate America would like to know, on behalf of its web page –
MARK LEIBOVICH: It's interesting. That question does make a larger point, which is the notion that Washington is hopelessly divided is somewhat of a myth. Because people are hopelessly interconnected in many ways. But the Obama experience was fascinating. Because it really did begin in 2008 when my chronology begins. This was this massive change brigade, with these big ideas about changing Washington. And the president explicitly said that they failed. A very smart person is quoted in the book saying, sort of rhetorically, did we change Washington or did Washington change us? That very smart person is on this panel right now.
Look, the Obama administration has been sort of at the pinnacle of celebrity operatives. They have gotten a lot of attention. It’s obviously – it's gotten a lot done. The Obama agenda has been realized in many ways. Not fully, obviously. But I do think the notion of a changed Washington was a complete myth. And it was obviously a very effective marketing strategy in 2008. I assume it was genuine then. But I also think that it's gotten a lot of people very, very wealthy. And I think that the whole circle of the revolving door that this team was supposed to stop has only been intensified.