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What It's Like Writing About Politics
A little time away from writing about politics is a reminder that writing about politics is madness. I'm making some changes—including where I write.
Breaks are restorative—and dangerous. Time can bring perspective, for better or worse. I just finished taking two weeks off. Really off. Away from the news. Away from social media. Away from everything and everyone that wasn’t a loved one, friend, book, video game, television show, or film. At that distance, politics is a dim light, just visible if you look, but easily enough avoided for the most part. It was glorious.
Some politics writers seem to thrive around the news and fervently take up their pen to transform the latest current event into a sparring match. That sort of writer becomes deflated when away from the up-to-the-minute happenings of the day. I’m not that sort. For me, the news is a necessary part of the gig, same with the experts, contacts, acquaintances, events, and e-mails that constitute contemporary politics writing. When it isn’t there, I don’t miss it. In fact, I’m often glad to be away from it. Very glad. For the most part, I hate reading the news. It’s depressing and maddening. If you don’t find it both of those things, I’m not sure you’re reading it very well.
Professional politics writing is also depressing and maddening, not to mention intensely cynical. The pressures of the industry demand speed and heat. Something happens and you’ve got to respond to it, whatever “it” is that day, and fast. And your take had better be spicy. All the better if it pisses someone or lots of someones off. Let them have at it in the comment section or Twitter or wherever. All the better to drive clicks. There’s little time for reflection, little space for nuance, and little reward for either. You’re paid a modest (or worse) amount and, as if on tour, you’re here today (Hello, Spokane!) and gone tomorrow (Hello, I want to say…Belleville?). Most readers aren’t there for the long, deep reads anyway, we’re told—as if the menu’s offerings don’t condition what gets ordered off it. Make it short and spicy. Like Joe Pesci.
There are good politics writers who find ways within the industry to write smart, informed pieces. They’re the sorts who write in full sentences and paragraphs, take the time to pick up the phone and call experts and others for interviews, weigh the nuances of the issues they take on, and change their mind from time to time. They might even admit to being wrong if the stakes are low enough. They have editors and outlets that encourage that and make space for it. I try to fall into the category and often enough I do. Sometimes I don’t. I try hard to work with outlets that give me that space, and often enough I find it possible to do so. Not always. But often.
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Substack offers an opportunity to try to things a bit better and on your own terms. You set your own timeline and act as your own gatekeeper. But you’re still under pressure to respond to your audience, to give folks what they want, and to produce enough to scale returns. Plus, you tend to operate without the benefit of an editor. A good editor is writing life itself. There’s nothing better in the business.
I’ve been lucky to have never had a bad experience with editors and publications. Not really. Neil Gaiman, in his Make Good Art speech, available by video and a lovely, short hardcover book, talks about how freelancers get and keep work. In short, they do it by delivering good work, on time, and being likeable. He notes that two out of three often gets the job done. I try to follow that advice and it’s worked for me. But the industry is brutal nonetheless because the structures and incentives built into it—build into our social, political, and economic institutions—make it brutal.
Spending your time writing about politics means spending your time reading about, talking about, and thinking about politics. Doing so, one gets the sense that any hope that the moral arc of the endeavour bends towards better is about to be disappointed. Politicians and their people tend to be nice enough, some even become friends, but as a rule at best they’ll tell you some version of their truth in private only to turn around and betray that in public. More than once I’ve had a politician admit a candid truth to me (one senior Conservative once told me Canada can’t procure worth shit, for instance, regardless of who is in charge), and then turn around and bullshit by saying the exact opposite in public (The Liberals can’t, he said. His party can. Ok bud.). That public, of course, knows something is up. They’re not getting the straight goods. They end up bitter and distrustful. And they should be. Politics writers end up in the same way.
Getting close to power gives you better access but may compromise your work. It’s harder to hold feet to the fire when you like their owner. The cocktail parties, dinners, events, panels, etc., etc., etc. draw people in and complacency follows if you’re not careful. It happens…a lot. So, writing about politics is also about managing interpersonal politics and entails constantly rolling the dice with your integrity. Risky business.
The news media is made up of good journalists, bad journalists, and mediocre journalists. Like any profession. Some will go out of their way to torque stories, juice up headlines, and float clickbait nonsense to drive their outlet’s brand—and their brand. Because journalists need brands to stay competitive. Some of them are plain old stupid as a smashed turnip (someone just came to mind, right?) As humans, there are people they like and people they dislike, and sometimes that shows. As humans, they are under pressure, time constraints, fatigued, probably underpaid, and probably at risk of extinction. On balance, the ecosystem is not the healthiest, especially as local media days, legacy media languishes, and socila media exacerbates the worst tendencies we harbour. None of that helps and the good ones are constantly giving their all to push back against the encroaching sea.
In a bid to better control what I write, how I write it, and when I write it, I’m trying to shift as much of my politics writing as I can to this space. My time as a contributing columnist at the Washington Post is coming to an end this month and I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about my priorities—and preferences—and what I want to do with the platform, capacity, and trust I’ve built. In time, (no time soon), I may end up reducing most of my politics writing to this space. I don’t know yet. My years at the Post, as a columnist, has been a blessing despite what I’ve written here and the people I worked with there have been wonderful. I learned a lot. I was lucky. Not everyone is so fortunate. But ending that gig (their choice, as the paper re-prioritizes and does what papers do over time) has given me a chance to reflect on what I do, how I do it, and why I do it.
At sweet last I’m working on a second book, long overdue, and will soon have some exciting news to share about my first book. If I could write books full time, I would. But book writing is, alas, another tricky industry—more shoals than deep, open water. Nonetheless, I’m going to give it a serious shot. I’m also joining a new outlet, pitching in to help write on North American issues for them from time to time. More on that soon. In the meantime, I’m going to try to hold myself to a high standard wherever I write, including this space, which I hope to fill with politics writing that I can be proud of and that you will find adds some value to your life, too.