From Michelle Lancaster. Talk to me on Twitter @MichLancaster.
When we found out that Harry Jaffe had moved to the Borderstan area, we knew he’d be perfect for one of our Q& A profiles of interesting residents. A blunt, combative journalist and columnist for local media (some assuredly call him a gadfly and cynic), he currently writes for The Washington Examiner and Washingtonian magazine. His specialties are the D.C. government, crime and the local media itself (he writes a column on The Washington Post called “Post Watch”). Jaffe is currently known for his prolific stories and columns on crime and the DC police.
Along with WRC-TV reporter Tom Sherwood, Jaffe co-authored Dream City: Race, Power and the Decline of Washington, D.C. in 1994. As Washingtonian describes it, the book “remains the definitive tale of Marion Barry’s rise and fall, from 1965 to 1994.” You really should read it.
Here’s Jaffe in his own words: he talks about moving to Borderstan, the journalism business and some of his colleagues in the media — and Marion Barry, too.
Borderstan: Housekeeping chores! Thanks for agreeing to be on the ‘other’ side of the desk, Harry! Let’s start with the basics: what brought you to D.C. and when?
Jaffe: I arrived here in 1978 to work as a press secretary for Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. I lasted less than a year on the “flak” side of the news game before I switched to States News Service and then a host of news outlets, including Regardie’s Magazine and then Washingtonian.
Borderstan: What has kept you in D.C. as a journalist?
Jaffe: I have always preferred local reporting rather than covering national politics; it’s more of a contact sport where you write about people and places that you can see and feel. I have been lucky enough to find news outlets in D.C. that will pay me to write about the local scene.
Borderstan: How did you end up in our neighborhood?
Jaffe: Call it a typical story of downsizing: I had raised my three daughters in Chevy Chase, D.C.; once they had moved on to college and such, I was in the market for a smaller homestead. I had lived in the Dupont Circle neighborhood back in the early 80’s, but moving back was not an option. Way too expensive. So my wife and I searched for a neighborhood where we could walk to stores and bars, which had bike lanes, where the architecture was genuine. Then she found a great place at a good price.
Borderstan: The journalism business has changed tremendously in the last decade. What is your prediction for the future? Are the claims of its death premature? What will keep it alive?
Jaffe: Journalism is more alive than ever. Borderstan is testament to that vibrancy. The business model that made newspapers profitable is dead, but journalism — the basic practice of reporting and publishing news — is still the bedrock of our democracy. Things will settle out; quality journalism will survive; we might even find a way to pay for it.
Borderstan: The rise of social media, local bloggers and the instantaneous news cycle have created some interesting hybrids in local journalism. Can reporters and bloggers co-exist? Can they be a hybrid like TBD.com attempted to do?
Jaffe: Coexistence is a cinch. Everyone is trying to get the news out on different platforms. Whatever the medium, reporters cannot sacrifice accuracy for speed. The entire enterprise is based on trust. Can you believe what you read or hear or see? If a blogger reports facts and writes them well, he or she will succeed. If the quality of reporting at The Washington Post suffers, readers will leave. Quality will survive.
Borderstan: Since you’re a well-known local journalist, tell us about your peers. You and Post columnist Mike DeBonis have a friendly disagreement over cops — how did it start and what keeps it going?
Jaffe: Friendly? Mike is terrific reporter. He loves covering local D.C. politics. We share the same fascination with the players and their shenanigans. As a columnist for the Examiner, I get to advocate for positions I believe are crucial to the city’s well-being. For me, that’s public safety. I revere street cops. So, yes, I come down on the side of the police in most instances. DeBonis is captive of the soft-headed set that sees the sweet boy behind every carjacker and rapist. He’ll grow out of it.
Borderstan: We have to ask. What did you think when you heard Courtland Milloy’s comments on young people, Twitter and the changes in D.C.? We’re asking because you’re a journalist that uses a lot of platforms to share your stories, not to fan any flames… promise.
Jaffe: Courtland has been popping off in columns that reveal his racist side for years. If a Caucasian columnist characterized black people the way Courtland writes about white folk, he or she would be out on the street. Courtland reflects the anger and frustration that many poor and black Washingtonians feel, as the city changes and they feel forced out, dare I say betrayed and dispossessed. Belittling newcomers, regardless of color, might feel good for a minute, but it doesn’t shine any light on the unsettling changes we all see.
Borderstan: Most positive trend you have been able to cover in D.C.? Least positive?
Jaffe: I see two positive trends: first the schools, both the new and improved buildings and grounds — and the higher teaching standards. Second, I see integration where others see gentrification. Blacks, whites and Latinos are coexisting well in neighborhoods such as Borderstan, Columbia Heights, Shaw and others.
I think we are doing well with transportation, too. Look at all the bikers, the Circulator buses, the Metro, when it works. The downer has to be political leadership. Mayor Vince Gray still has yet to find a way to lead, and he’s dogged by scandal. The city council is in disarray because so many members have been tainted by the hint of corruption. Why can’t we get leaders who want to make the city government function better, period, without the BS and drama?
Borderstan: You have a fascinating book on the rise and fall of Marion Barry. Now that he’s risen yet again, what kind of meaning or metaphor does it have for the city?
Jaffe: I adore Marion. He’s brilliant, surprisingly astute, stunningly tone deaf when it comes to obeying the law. He still serves the role of reminding us that we must take care of the less fortunate, yet he has done so little for them in all his years in office.
The metaphor? Talk is soothing but does not amount to much. Yet some people will always listen to Marion, because it makes them feel good. Most Washingtonians realize they need leaders who can do more than talk. I will marvel at Marion for his remaining years in the political game.
Borderstan: Crime and local police is obviously an important topic for you. If you were allowed one day to make executive decisions in D.C., what would be your top agenda items?
Jaffe: First, I would stiffen penalties for criminals regardless of age; juveniles who shoot cops, such as the 15-year-old who plugged an officer three times last month, need to be punished — and their names should no longer be kept secret. Second, I would lengthen the school day and require students to participate in after-school activities. Next, I would require all elected officials to make their federal and local tax returns public. For starters.
Borderstan: Fun stuff! Top 5 Favorites: 1) happy hour spot; 2) casual dinner pick; 3) next book deal signing celebratory dinner pick; 4) place to pick out a unique gift; 5) spend time on a Sunday afternoon.
Jaffe: 1) Bar Pillar; 2) Arucola (on Connecticut Ave.); 3) Citronelle; 4) Not much of a shopper… wife loves Muléh! 5) Biking around D.C., meander down to Haines Point, grab a beer on 14th Street on the way back.