Marc Ambinder needed a break. He’d been productive, having written a book about the Joint Special Operations Command and broken new ground in his reporting on the death of Osama bin Laden, as well as covering the Obama era for The Atlantic. Not to mention serving as National Journal’s White House correspondent. That was his last gig before moving out of D.C. His last byline on its website came in January of this year, and rather than waiting until after the election for a restorative vacation, Mr. Ambinder departed for the West Coast, with his husband, a Mattel executive, in tow.
“After 11 years living in Washington, D.C., part of me is just sick of this swamp,” Mr. Ambinder wrote in GQ. Good-bye to all that humidity!
Out in Los Angeles (dry heat), Mr. Ambinder took meetings with the goal of producing a drama or reality series based on issues of interest to him, particularly national security. He declined to go into many specifics, given the drawn-out and often random process of television production, but his Twitter bio is guardedly optimistic: “Sort-of TV producer.”
“At some point in everyone’s life, you owe yourself the chance to do what you want for a while,” he told Off the Record. He was also writing a bit for GQ and working on a book deal, but came to miss the news cycle. “It’s hard to completely step away from it. You get addicted to the arousal of it!” Mr. Ambinder noted.
Along came The Week, which this week announced its hiring of Mr. Ambinder as editor at large and blogger for The Compass, a one-man show akin to Andrew Sullivan’s vertical at The Daily Beast or Ta-Nehisi Coates’s at The Atlantic.
The blog isn’t going to be updated exhaustively, though. “A bunch of other publications had come to me after I left National Journal and asked me to join full time,” said Mr. Ambinder, “and they put together fairly attractive financial packages. The problem was, it would degrade my capacity to do the things I’m out here to do. It sounds weird for me to say this, but I’m working on developing TV shows based on long-form subjects I’ve already written. The development process is [an] endless series of meetings. There will be days when my mind and attention needs to be occupied by those.”
But even thoughtful blogging—the site’s first two days featured three posts, all somewhere between long-for-the-Internet and #longreads—can tend to plunge one into a frivolous, all-consuming news cycle. Mr. Ambinder, who cites Matt Yglesias (Slate), David Frum (The Daily Beast) and Ezra Klein (The Washington Post) as writers he admires, doesn’t seem concerned, having escaped the Beltway echo chamber. “After the 2008 election, it was hard to imagine covering anything else as exciting as that,” he said. “Covering Washington for the next four years and the toxicity of virtually everything in Washington kind of got to me. Maybe I had a fight-or-flight response on an existential level. I kind of got tired of just covering … politics!
“I couldn’t find myself writing about what Rush Limbaugh said today … I did not want to cover the 2012 campaign as a daily journalist. I didn’t have the intestinal fortitude.”
At The Week, though, he’ll be able to inject voice, opinion and even doubt into his columns, rather than the authority of a dispassionate correspondent. “You’re kind of telling the story but letting the reader know you’re not, and can never be, 100 percent sure of yourself and what you’re saying. It’s kind of a good trait in someone who’s writing frequently. The more you know, the more you really don’t know.”
He added, “There’s a corollary there with people in Los Angeles, where, they say, nobody knows anything.”
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