• You’ll Never Eat Lunch… A Review of “This Town” By Mark Leibovich

    By • Aug 24th, 2014 • Category: Food for Thought, Latest, Pure Content

    In Julia Phillips’ 2002 People magazine obituary, Joni Evans, her editor for the raucous 1991 memoir, “You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again,” says,

    “Where some of us glow, she burned.”

    Phillips, an Oscar winner at age 29 as a producer of The Sting, and the first women to do so, burned bridges for sure. But she died, at age 57 of cancer, with no regrets, according to her daughter Kate. I read Phillips’ book in 1991. The paperback is still on my shelves. I remember thinking that someday I wanted to write with the same ferociousness and the same freedom.

    Mark Leibovich’s “This Town” is billed in the flap copy of the dust jacket as, “a blistering, stunning —and often hysterically funny— examination of our ruling class’s incestuous ‘media industrial complex.’” Others have written tell-all books about Washington DC, lobbyists, and the revolving door between the legislative and executive branches of government and the media, regulators and industry—especially “shadow regulator” consulting firms.

    I previously reviewed Dean Starkman’s book, “The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark. It’s got plenty of criticism of “access journalism” and what he believes was a softening of coverage by the business press leading up to the financial crisis. That couldn’t have made him too popular amongst his journalism peers, although his position as an editor of the Columbia Journalism Review means they have to talk to him.

    Jeff Connaughton, who is mentioned briefly in Liebovich’s book, wrote a book about Washington DC and the negative influence of lobbyists and their client’s money that even he, a former lobbyist, said was a bridge-burner. Connaughton’s book, “The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins”, reviewed here, has more mentions of the auditors and their role in the crisis, although not by name or related to a specific case, than any other post-crisis book I’ve read.

    I’m as guilty as anyone of looking for my name and the names of the Big Four audit firms in the index of any business book about the financial crisis. Few mentioned the auditors at all but my name has started showing up. However, the back of the Leibovich book jacket has a warning to readers: The book contains no index.

    “Those players wishing to know how they came out have to read the book.”

    Cheeky.

    I guess Leibovich, like Starkman, is confident they’ll have to talk to him anyway and maybe even continue to break bread with him. That’s because Mark Leibovich is the chief national correspondent of the New York Times Magazine. He came to the Times in 2006 from the Washington Post, where he spent nine years.

    His book is notable for how current it is—it was published in 2013— and yet how out of date it is already. Leibovich mentions many key players who moved from media to industry, government to industry, and even government to media. In less than two years since the book was published, however, several more have gone through the revolving door.

    The Wall Street Journal on August 22, 2014:

    Everyone has to make a living, so far be it from us to complain that David Plouffe, President Obama’s former chief political strategist, is joining a private business [Uber] to fight government regulation.

    Many of Leibovich’s New York Times colleagues, mentioned in the acknowledgements, are already gone from the paper. His opening vignette about “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert’s memorial service “networking opportunity” in June of 2008 puts his replacement, David Gregory, front and center in the narrative. Gregory just lost that job, without even an “Ann Curry moment” to say goodbye.

    It’s like Gregory died, too.

    “This Town” utilizes two techniques that were widely used by journalists writing about the financial crisis:

    • The well-chosen vignette structure (A metanarrative “is a global or totalizing cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience” according to John Stephens and Robyn McCallum, as cited in Wikipedia.)
    • The heavy reuse of your own previously published work tactic.

    Leibovich organizes his meta-narrative around some colorful characters.

    (Selfish aside: I recently heard the term “narrative” described, in a “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” episode, as a postmodern concept. I did not know that so I looked it up. From the “Encyclopedia of Marxism”:

    Grand narrative or “master narrative” is a term introduced by Jean-François Lyotard in his classic 1979 work The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, in which Lyotard summed up a range of views which were being developed at the time, as a critique of the institutional and ideological forms of knowledge.

    Narrative knowledge is knowledge in the form of story-telling.

    Keep this in mind when an editor tells you that an investigative piece or whitepaper has to tell a story.)

    Richard Holbrooke, one of Leibovich’s vignette subjects, died in December 2010, two years into the Obama presidency. James Mann’s The Obamians, published in 2012 and excerpted in Slate, said Holbrooke was “of the wrong generation, serving at the wrong time” in the Obama administration. Another vignette tells the story of a top press aide for Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. He lives a Cinderella story, becoming a top advisor to the congressman, but leaves in a scandal about his own loose lips, only to get his job back before the book ends. That staffer, Kurt Bardella, is now CEO of his own “crisis communications” firm, Endeavor Strategic Communications.

    The vignette I like best, though, is about Tammy Haddad and her “Tam Cam”. Haddad is a former cable TV producer who now acts as a Washington “social convener”, in Leibovich’s words, on behalf of paying clients like Politico, Bloomberg, Condé Nast and HBO.

    From her website:

    Haddad’s “Tam Cam” handheld video interview series, launched for Newsweek and appeared in Politico, has made headlines and Drudge sirens.  Her guests include major public figures from candidate Senator Barack Obama to Robert DeNiro. She is the Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of WHCInsider.com, the White House Correspondents Insider website covering political and media culture.

    Haddad is such a Washington, DC institution that Christopher Buckley made her a character in his best selling novel about Washington, Thank You for Smoking, calling her “a force of nature.”

    Haddad is still doing what she does, most notably hosting one of the hottest tickets during Correspondent’s Dinner Weekend in Washington. But Haddad is one of those Leibovich softly parodies when he says, “You know you’ve made it in D.C. when someone says … ‘It isn’t clear what he does’ about you.”

    Leibovich does what any smart journalist would do to get a book written quickly these days: he borrows heavily from his own previously published articles. I’m not knocking it, just saying that’s how Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote the timely tome “Too Big To Fail”, how Bethany McClean and Joe Nocera wrote “All The Devils Are Here”, and how Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner put together “Reckless Endangerment”.

    I read “This Town” in the time it took me to make two round trips between ORD and LGA. It’s very quick read for 368 pages but it is a book politics and media junkies will like the most. I’d love to see a book that’s an inside baseball look at business journalists and their post-crisis beat in the last few years.

    That book would be an extension of the Dean Starkman book. Leibovich mentions so many who have gone from political journalism to government and PR. Who has a list of business journalists gone to the dark side post-crisis, to PR and industries such as financial services as corporate communications chiefs? What does that long list, I presume, say about Starkman’s stinging critique of access journalism?

    Main page photo is of Bibiana in Washington DC.

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