The Tattler

Amy Argetsinger dishes about dishing at “The Washington Post” and her time at “The Declaration.”

By Christina Tkacik (History ’08)
This is an image of Amy Argetsinger

Amy Argetsinger
Photo courtesy of Amy Argetsinger

From The Declaration, March 13, 2008

If you’re from the D.C. area, you probably already know the name Amy Argetsinger (Political and Social Thought ’90). Along with Roxanne Roberts, Argetsinger pens the “The Reliable Source,” the must-read daily gossip column in The Washington Post. But “gossip column” may be a misnomer; this ain’t Page Six, it’s a family newspaper. And Gossip-wise, D.C. is not New York or L.A.; it’s wonkier, and often weirder, if only because this is all happening within meters of the White House. Ben Bernanke shops at Whole Foods. Dave Chappelle does a surprise show in exchange for cigarettes. Michael Chertoff is obsessed with 24. From the charming to the absurd, Argetsinger reports it all.

I was lucky enough to meet Argetsinger at a Washington Post staff happy hour at the Big Hunt last summer while I was an intern at Technically, I don’t think interns, especially lowly unpaid dot-com interns, were supposed to go to the staff happy hours, but the invite got sent to my inbox, so I decided to stop by.

I nervously stepped down into the basement of the bar with the realization that I only knew the names of reporters for the Style section. (“Ah, yes. … Dana Milbank, I’ve heard of you somewhere….”) Fortunately I soon spotted a chic, petite woman laughing with a big group of people.

I had a hunch it was Amy because in my experience regular journalists aren’t very friendly looking and don’t have cute hairstyles like that. So I introduced myself. True to appearances, Amy was ridiculously easy to talk to—like manna from the heavens at a happy hour where you don’t know anyone.

We bonded over U.Va. and life at The Dec. Turns out, Argetsinger got her start here and cut her teeth writing stories about the husband of the woman who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia (the happy couple lived on U-Circle).

Then we became Facebook friends, and I decided to do a series of interviews with interesting Dec alumni since I’m graduating from U.Va. this year and need some inspiration. [Ed. Note: This story first appeared in March; Tkacik graduated in June.] This entire interview was conducted via Facebook messages. (See: “journalistic professionalism,” below.)

[According to Wikipedia] you got your start at the Moline Daily Dispatch in Illinois. What was that like?
Yeah, crazy, huh? I grew up inside the Beltway in Alexandria, so that was a pretty exotic move for me. Working on The Dec made me realize I wanted to go into journalism, but coming out of college most of my clips were feature-type stories, and I wanted to give news reporting a try. So I sent out 150 resumes to papers around the country and the folks at the Rock Island Argus and Moline Daily Dispatch were the ones who called. I was there for four years. A good journalism experience, a great life experience, though maybe not the most fun place to spend my early 20s.

You have a very diverse beat: one day you’ll be at a club opening with Ludacris performing and the next day, a society ladies luncheon. How do you act nice to everybody? And how do you know what to wear?
This is what I love about my job. It’s always been the case in my newspaper career that my beats have allowed me to be in a lot of strange rooms, and that’s even more the case now. It’s never boring. It’s not necessarily about being nice—it’s about being polite and professional and genuinely interested in what you’re seeing and who you get to meet.

Knowing what to wear: that IS the tricky part. You worry about being underdressed, about being overdressed. This is my excuse for sometimes not getting into the office until noon, because I’ve been agonizing over the options.

Traditionally, journalists are big drinkers (or so I’ve been told) but most of them don’t have to write about nights out and remember people’s names every day. Do you drink at events?
Yes. In moderation, of course. (Remember the whole thing about being “polite and professional”?) Even sober, I can never remember anyone’s name anyway.

Do you ever get nervous going to a party?
Yes. Or maybe it’s more “free-form dread.” Don’t you? It helps to remember that everyone else there feels the same way.

How many hours a week do you work? How do you have the energy to do it all? (And who does your hair?!)
I don’t know. Fewer than 40 hours a week stuck behind a desk, but that’s not counting the going-out stuff, which varies week to week. And at that end, there’s a lot of overlap between “work” and “fun.” Still, it tends to not leave much time for things like cooking and laundry.

Who are some of the coolest people you’ve met on the job?
Sean Penn. Easily the most attractive man I had met in a month, which surprised me, because I had never been a big fan. Otherwise, I’ve always had the most fun talking to the B-listers, seriously. Omar from The Wire, Tim Daly, Fantasia Barrino, Valerie Bertinelli, Isaiah Washington—those have been the weirdly memorable ones—or, like, some guy you end up sitting next to at dinner for 20 minutes before you realize he’s a congressman or Cabinet secretary. That’s where you can have a real conversation.

What drew you to The Dec back in the day?
The Dec—it was just the most fun! The most cool. And funny. I think Poodah Corner was what drew me in. Not that I was ever very good at writing humor. They still have that, right?

What was a typical night out for you in Charlottesville when you were in college?
Early on, standing around with my suitemates at terrible fraternity parties. Later, ordering pitchers of Long Island Iced Tea with my sister at Macado’s. Later, pitchers at the Garrett or St. Maarten’s with Dec people. None of those places exist anymore, do they?

Never heard of Macado’s or the Garrett, but St. Maarten’s is still there, as wood-
paneled and windowless as ever.
Yeah, the Garrett was this great old cheesy pseudo-Tudor place, a weary 1970s version of an old English pub, upstairs above the record store on the Corner at 14th Street. It got replaced by a fake-hipster billiards place more than a decade ago. No idea what went into Macado’s’ spot. When you’re there in college, you think all of these places have always been there and always will be, but none of them have a lifespan of more than five years, it seems. (Though who’d figure St. Maarten’s? Even in 1990 it already looked as dated as an episode of Three’s Company.)

Are bloggers and journalists friends or foes?
Both! Hate ’em and love ’em. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. And they feel the same way about us.

Are you more or less idealistic as a journalist than you were when you graduated?
Oh, probably more, actually. No offense, but when you’re in college, you don’t really have any sense of journalism standards—you let all kinds of sloppy writing and reporting get out, you don’t fully understand ethics and what really matters. It takes a bit of life experience to “get” all that, and also to realize what an honor and privilege it is to work in this field.

If you were the graduation speaker at U.Va. this year, what would be your advice to the class of 2008?
Don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses. And be flexible. Also: the semester system is over. You aren’t going to just automatically progress to the next level every four months—you have to make it happen. (I only mention this because it took me a few years to realize this.)