Monday, July 29, 2013

The obliviousness to the insularity

David Weigel is an excellent journalist and I'm a great admirer of his political reporting, but he is also very much part of the culture of the journalistic elite and that means he is not immune to some of the issues we've been discussing:
Sure, we're divorced from the rest of America. Lots of Americans who don't live here manage to have opinions about Washington. You don't see us going into Beast Mode about it. But I see Payne's point, and wish he had more of an argument than this:

Romney’s native Bloomfield Hills is a long way from Detroit, though it may not look that way from the beltway.

Yeah, it's in the suburbs. I defer to Payne, of course, but is it so strange to hear people who live on the outskirts of a city, who root for its sports teams and fly out of its airport, to identify with the city? You won't find many people in Skokie, Illinois or Downey, California distancing themselves from Chicago and Los Angeles. Eminem has been the star of Chrysler ads, asking Americans to stand up for Detroit, but the guy lives in Rochester now, not far from Bloomfield Hills. Anyway, that wasn't my point—emergency managers and top bureaucrats often arrive in struggling cities from somewhere else entirely. Stephen Goldsmith's eventual reward for a successful career in Indianapolis was a job in Mike Bloomberg's city hall, though this ended poorly for reasons orthogonal to policy.

Weigel provides here one of those perfect passages where a writer disputes an argument then unintentionally proves it a few words later. Unless they are discussing something involving governance, even if they actually use the word 'city,' when people say "Los Angeles" they normally are referring to Los Angeles COUNTY.

It's worth noting that the LA section of the iconic "I Love LA" starts:

Rollin' down the Imperial Highway
With a big nasty redhead at my side
Santa Ana winds blowin' hot from the north
And we as born to ride

Imperial connects the east and west sides of the county but it only briefly crosses through the city proper.

LA County Incorporated Areas Los Angeles highlighted

LA is a weird patchwork of cities and towns that often confuse even natives ("Is that a town or a neighborhood?"). What the natives do keep track of is counties. If you live in Downey, you're an Angeleno. If you live in Fullerton,  you're behind the Orange Curtain.

As mentioned before, LA's distinctive type of sprawl is very different from the concentric urban, suburban, exurban dynamic of a city like Atlanta.  As far as I can tell, there is no LA analogue to Alpharetta. The result is that lessons learned in one city often don't generalize to this area. Of course, you can make a similar point about Atlanta and Chicago, a city of any number of unique historic and cultural attributes, or, while we're at it, Detroit. And this brings us back, inevitably, to the dangers of an insular political/journalistic class.

A greatly disproportionate amount of news and policy is shaped by a surprisingly small number of people with similar backgrounds and overlapping social circles living in relatively close vicinity. Under these circumstances, it is almost unavoidable that the natural tendency to see other people's lives as less complex will grow into a group-belief that people who live in the rest of the country have simpler lives with largely interchangeable problems.

And what about Weigel's charge that this cuts both ways? Aren't people in Little Rock, Arkansas as ill-informed and yet as opinionated about DC and NYC as people in those cities are about Little Rock? To put it bluntly, no and no. For the first point, since so much of the press is NYC and DC-centric, much of what what normally be classified as local interest there gets national coverage. Growing up in a small Southern town, I regularly read a number of publications from those cities including the NYT, the Washington Post, the New Yorker and New York Magazine (mainly for the critics -- I was a big fan of Denby and I found Simon generally but interestingly wrong -- but often cover to cover). Of course, this didn't make me all that knowledgeable about these cities but, and this brings me to the second point, it gave me some sense of what I did and didn't know.

The concern here is not just the insularity; it's the obliviousness to the insularity, not being aware of your own provincialism. When a group of high school seniors from a small Delta town sit around discussing what life might be like in a NYC or LA, they are acutely aware of how limited and inapplicable their experience is; they deal in known unknowns.

With the current journalistic and political establishment, though, we have seen accumulating evidence of unknown unknowns, of people like Weigel who are not only drawing conclusions too far outside of their expertise but who are entirely unaware of how thin the ice has gotten. This is a trivial example -- Weigel's grasp of LA's idiosyncrasies is not in and of itself that big of a deal -- but it is worth noting partially because Weigel is one of the best journalists working that beat but mainly because many examples of this phenomenon are not  trivial at all.

Weigel was, after all, using Downey to support the idea that cities (implicitly, I think, in "the rest of the country") are similar enough that a statement that holds for the others should hold for Detroit. Detroit, a unique and enormously complex city historically, economically, culturally and politically.

And we have more troubling cases. The New York Times published a major series on urban policy that  backed up one of its major arguments by treating Harris County in Texas as analogous to Westchester County in New York. When McDonald's issued a suggested budget for its workers, the criticism from largely upper middle class, Northeastern journalists (who live in a world of easy employment and costly housing) was mostly directed at a fairly realistic rent estimate while the almost impossible requirement that the worker find a second part time job was often ignored. And those are just a couple of examples that happened to wash up on this blog; you can easily find a dozen more in a typical day's papers.

As mentioned earlier, greatly disproportionate amount of news is shaped by a surprisingly small number of people. They decide what stories are important and how they should be framed. That has always been the case, but in many ways, this uniformity has gotten worse recently and it's lead to serious problems with group think and a dangerous arrogance. The less they know the more confident they become.

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