In mid-2005 I packed two duffel bags and took a train to Washington, where I hoped, as a young reporter, to better understand the city, and our politics and our country. As much as it was anyone’s, Washington was my city. I grew up there.
But when I arrived, I became aware there was a new don of Washington, one whose rules I would have to master. His name was Mark Halperin. He ran a chummy daily political newsletter, The Note, from his perch as political director of ABC News.
Three weeks ago, numerous women stepped forward to accuse him of extraordinary acts of assault: One said he masturbated in front of them at work; another said he slammed her against a restaurant window before attempting to kiss her (“I bear responsibility for my outrageous conduct,” Halperin said in an apology posted soon after). He lost his job, a book deal, and a movie contract. Case closed, it would seem: another predator, thankfully, out of a workplace.
But I’m not here to talk about that. I want to talk about the deeper, subtler, more insidious effect Mark Halperin had on our politics — one which we’ll be paying for for years to come.
The Note purported to reveal Washington’s secrets. In fact, its purpose was the exact opposite: to make the city, and US politics, appear impossible to understand. It replaced normal words with jargon. It coined the phrase "Gang of 500," the clubby network of lobbyists, aides, pols, and hangers-on who supposedly, like the Vatican's cardinals, secretly ran DC. That wasn't true — power is so diffuse. But Halperin claimed he knew so much more than we did, and we began to believe it.
Once you believe that, it’s not hard to be convinced that politics is only comprehensible, like nuclear science, to a select few. There were those chosen ones — the people who'd flattered Halperin to get a friendly mention in his newsletter, the ones he declared to be in the know — and the rest of us. Halperin wrote about Washington like it was an intriguing game, the kind that masked aristocrats played to entertain themselves at 19th-century parties: Everyone was both pawn and player, engaged in a set of arcane maneuvers to win an empty jackpot that ultimately meant nothing of true importance.
At the same time, The Note made it seem that tiny events — a cough at a press conference, a hush-hush convo between Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell in a corridor — held apocalyptic importance. Cloaked in seriousness, with the imprimatur of Peter Jennings' ABC News, in reality The Note was not news but simple gossip.
Gossip: The word comes from the old English for "baptismal sponsor” — a godparent — and Halperin positioned himself as the priest who stood between the layman and the sacred mysteries of Washington, only letting a person through in exchange for the corrupting coin of accepting your own personal idiocy. It required acknowledging, like a cult initiate, that you had to learn the Master's arcane knowledge before claiming to know anything at all.
The Note was a cult. Between bits of knowledge in each mailer, Halperin inserted birthday wishes to his gang, cementing the impression of Washington as a place where people are much more interested in buttering each other up than they are in the lives of the kind of Americans whose names Mark Halperin did not know.
As I said: Washington was my city. But it is a city for all Americans, as the seat of our democracy. For his efforts to make the city seem, instead, like a nonstop exclusive party to which almost nobody is invited, I dare say Halperin is the single journalist most responsible for Donald Trump. Think that's too bold? Name me another.
After all, what did Trump respond to? Most of all, two things: the sense among Americans that the language of politics has become an incomprehensible jargon of the elite, and the sense that a disaster or a dramatic change that will upend everything looms at every moment — hidden from sight, but still imminent.
We have an apocalyptic politics in part because Halperin helped promote an apocalyptic approach to political coverage. It made him and his little scoops seem hugely important: that conversation he overheard between McConnell and Schumer meant everything. The title of his career-making book, 2008’s Game Change — which sold over 350,000 copies and netted him and his coauthor John Heilemann a $5 million advance for a follow-up — says everything. Politics is a game and its rules are constantly being transformed. Its intentionally hyperbolic, breathless text presented details like the fact that Obama “woke up late … and went for a haircut with his pal Marty Nesbitt” the way an ancient monarch’s courtiers used to examine his every sigh for divine omens.
People often attribute our contemporary sense of perpetual crisis to social media, as scrolling newsfeeds monopolize our attention. But Halperin and his imitators set this bar for news before Twitter and Facebook took over the media. Their endless drumbeat of meaningless micro-scoops helped create the impression we are living at the edge of time, where the present is as momentous as anything that has ever occurred. The future, in this context, cannot take any time or energy to be properly imagined.
It was Halperin and the people who eventually superseded him — like the editors of Politico — that drove me out of Washington. For the three self-conscious and self-flagellating years I worked there, I felt absolutely convinced I could say nothing of insight about the city, and thus about politics or American life, unless I scored a rare invite to the politico-socialite Tammy Haddad’s backyard party. I thought insight was merely about access — about being able to immediately recognize whose initials were referred to in the top paragraph of that morning's Note.
Thus I shelved the freshest, most original thoughts and impressions I had about politics and logged weeks angling for an interview with the right aide, or an invite to the right party, both of which invariably left me feeling like I still hadn't scored the juiciest tidbit of info. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. I felt powerless, a hopeless bumbler and hick by dint of my own lack of cool at Georgetown dinners.
As the Halperin ethos spread, it corrupted or destroyed nearly every Washington media property that encountered it. I remember, in late 2007, being assigned to chase the news of whom candidate Barack Obama would pick as his running mate. I worked at the New Republic, a 100-year-old weekly magazine of mostly political essays, the best of which — and we did not always publish the best — were the product of years of observation and thinking. We were never going to compete with Halperin's insider access, and we were never meant to. But he fostered a monopolar atmosphere in which the one marker of success at political writing was to beat The Note.
I remember thinking: This is not really news! This is not like Watergate or My Lai, where if a dogged reporter doesn't out the truth, it will never be known. Obama fully intended to announce his running mate. The only scoop was to beat the other racers to the finish line, perhaps by minutes, in getting the name up on our website.
This helped create a media environment where we shot from the hip in an effort to get everything out as fast as possible — and because we were on the web, we rebranded all the inevitable mistakes born of way-too-hasty work as "updates" instead of "corrections." No wonder the media is so distrusted. We spent frantic days massaging sources to try to beat that announcement. We were like dogs slavering after a piece of meat, but we weren't in the wild eating for survival: We were participants in a dog show, prancing for medals.
Now, 10 years later, polarized Americans claw at each other to prove that the other side doesn't have the right information, destroying friendships and the fabric of our polity in the process. We live in Halperin's world, where we presume there is an inside to which a wise person must gain access in order to have anything to understand or to say. This is the antithesis of a democratic, free, and equal society. In truth, Halperin's purported "inside" only ever consisted of one person: Halperin himself.
Not long after the feverish vice president episode, I left Washington, moving as far away as I could get. I still feel sad. I wanted to understand the city so others could have a slightly richer vision of it. But I was playing a game I never had any chance of understanding or winning.
It's a pity. Washington deserves a press corps of as many outsiders as possible, not Halperin's self-appointed "Gang of 500." And the US deserves a Washington they feel capable of comprehending, if not now then someday. Instead, we got one whose journalistic don, in order to raise his own status, purposely made it incomprehensible.
Politics, in fact, is not hard to understand. That’s how anybody who cares about democracy, like Lincoln, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, would endeavor to present it. This is why Donald Trump, who grasps this fact, is mistaken by so many people for a person who cares about his democracy.
If you are part of a society, then you are a part of its politics. And the point at which politics becomes hard to understand is the point at which it is no longer politics but just competitive play, a Risk-style board game. Once there is only a handful of self-qualified players, we no longer qualify as a democracy, or perhaps even a polity. Mark Halperin played that game. The thing is, every night, as he cleared the pieces off the table to start afresh, the rest of the country was risking everything.
Eve Fairbanks is a writer at work on a book about post-apartheid South Africa.