Washington, D.C. has no “J” Street. It has an “I” Street (often miswritten as “Eye”) and a “Q” Street (which U.S. Postal Service computers often think is “O”), but no “J.” Whatever the letter or number, the view of the nation from the government’s company town is very different from what it is elsewhere. This came home to me with a rush last week, when I visited Washington for the first time since moving to J Street in Eureka, on the Northern California coast this last summer.
In Washington, political reporters are immersed in Congressional elections. The so-called Mainstream newspapers, the Washington Post and New York Times are salivating at the prospect of the Democrats taking over Congress. It shows in their story selection (and the many “echoes” they give stories unfavorable to Republicans, such as Virginia’s Senator George Allen), in the headlines they write and in the slant of some stories (reporters’ opinion pieces, for example, are run on the front page as “News Analysis”).
The evening news program of the television broadcast networks build their daily story budgets on what the Times and the Post have published that morning. The cable news channels, with their ever-pressing need to fill 24 hours of time daily have politicos, pollsters, and pundits traipsing through their studios to slice and dice every Congressional race and every poll and, for all we know, give us the result of their reading of chicken entrails and tea leaves.
Much of the obsession with politics of Washington’s journalism fraternity stems from its insularity. Journalists talk with other journalists a great deal. Sometimes they use one another as sources. They socialize with one another and, in many cases, marry one another. It is not quite a closed loop, but it’s not far from it.
The view from J Street — and the thousands of away-from-Washington streets like it around the nation — is very different. Our small city of about 30,000 has two intensely competitive daily newspapers. Their pages are — and have been for weeks — filled with political news every day.
Ninety-eight percent of it is local. The mayor is up for reelection. Four city council races are being fought over, as is one County Supervisor’s seat. There are miscellaneous boards and commissions and a ballot measure to extend a utility surtax. Then there are the municipal elections in several nearby smaller cities to be covered (Eureka’s are the only daily newspapers in the county).
It seems as if there is a televised debate nearly every night, all dutifully reported in detail. Candidates are interviewed. Features tell of their hobbies and families. The letters-to-the-editor columns are filled with ordinary citizens urging votes for this or that candidate. One of the newspapers, while it runs some nationally syndicated columns, welcomes op-eds columns from locals. Some are more skillfully argued and written than others, but it is a first-class case of vox populi.
The state Assembly candidates for the local district have come through town, as have the State Senate candidates, so they have had sporadic coverage. The U.S. House of Representative for the district, a garden-variety liberal (with a strong registration advantage) will win reelection handily, but is taking no chances. He comes through regularly, his visits are well covered, and he is careful to get his name attached to any legislation that appears to favor the sprawling district’s economy.
What we don’t see from J Street is the endless repetition of the journalistic narrative of the Beltway writers and the playing out of their agendas. The Mark Foley story rated a few two-inch stories of wire service copy. While there are nearly daily stories about Iraq (wire copy), they are straightforward and not assembled to make the Bush Administration appear to be all thumbs.
What are people talking about in the area surrounding J Street: health, education, the utility tax, affordable housing, waterfront development, job creation — the sort of bread-and-butter issues most people care about.
When Washington reporters drop in on the nation’s J Street towns to take the local political pulse, they talk to a few people, look around for 24 hours, then jet back to the Beltway. The point they often miss is the one made by the late Speaker of the House, “Tip” O’Neill, “All politics is local.”