Journalism and the Death of Hildy Johnson

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Megan McArdle writes today about our elite class and its growing lack of connection to the working class world:

Since I moved to Washington, I have had series of extraordinary conversations with Washington journalists and policy analysts, in which I remark upon some perfectly ordinary facet of working class, or even business class life, only to have this revelation met with amazement.

….Then there was the time I responded to the now-standard lament that graduates of elite schools tend to gravitate to banking and consulting by pointing out that traditional management rotation programs frequently involve less-than-glamorous stints in line jobs; one of my friends from business school ended up running a call center for a telecoms firm. Another very smart, very wonky person who I deeply respect argued that this was an idiotic misuse of an elite MBA, for both the company and the MBA. Which is just 100% wrong. It is not a waste to have a smart, well-educated person in telecoms  management. And senior executives at a telecom should have run a call center, or done something very similar: that’s where you learn to understand your customers, and the core challenges of your business.

But many of the mandarins have never worked for a business at all, except for a think tank, the government, a media organization, or a school—places that more or less deliberately shield their content producers from the money side of things….In fact, I think that to some extent, the current political wars are a culture war not between social liberals and social conservatives, but between the values of the mandarin system, and the values of those who compete in the very different culture of ordinary businesses—ones outside glamor industries like tech or design.

Without endorsing every word in this essay, I can say that I’ve certainly felt a bit of this myself, even though (like Megan) I’m not exactly some sort of hardscrabble coal-miner’s son who overcame a life of poverty to get to my current exalted position as a blogger for a lefty magazine. Still, I spent a couple of decades in the business world before I became a pseudo-journalist, and it does seem to make a difference in my outlook sometimes.

(Not enough of a difference, I’m sure my conservative readers would say. Nonetheless, a difference.)

As it happens, I don’t have a lot to add to this. I just thought it was worth linking to. In a way, it’s an ancient complaint—book learning vs. street smarts—and the big question I have is whether anything about today’s elites is really very different from yesterday’s. It’s the same question I had after reading Chris Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites.

However, there’s certainly one profession that I think elitism has changed a lot, and probably not for the better: mine. Reporters of the past were a mix of everything from Walter Lippman to the working class strivers from The Front Page. But there aren’t many Hildy Johnsons left today. That may not be an unalloyed bad thing, but on balance it’s a loss. No matter how hard you try, it’s tough to really empathize with the common problems of half the population if you don’t have, and have never had, any real connection to them. I suspect that our modern trivia-centric, narrative-obsessed style of DC journalism owes a lot to this.

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