It’s tempting to frame the debate between Bill Keller and John Harris—yep, the exchange provoked by Gabe Sherman’s much-discussed treatment of Politico in The New Republic, the exchange whose content was surprisingly and almost amusingly acerbic—in fairly epic terms. Institution versus upstart, old media versus new, pedigreed DNA versus hybrid vigor…et cetera.
To wit, the substance of that debate:
Harris: We are not the AP or The New York Times. … If we ONLY do what those two great organizations do, WE WILL NOT SURVIVE AND WE WON’T HAVE JOBS.
Keller: Politico has focused on an inside game. I’m not sure if it translates to an outside game. I’m not sure how they get scale, and, if they don’t, I’m not sure what the business model is.
Harris: I greatly admire Bill Keller and the New York Times, but I was not really surprised by the shots he took at Politico. The truth is we have placed starkly different bets about the future of the news media and what type of journalistic and business models will prosper in the years ahead.
Keller: So you’re saying the Times won’t prosper?
Harris: Read my lips, Billy. Game on.
Keller: John, I don’t understand. Why are you being so mean?
Harris: What are you talking about? I said I greatly admired you, didn’t I?
Keller [groaning, and waving a copy of the Times]: But, you…I mean…ugh, Politico sucks!
Harris [brandishing his BlackBerry]: No, the Times sucks!
[They proceed to engage in a slapping fight. Nobody wins.]
So, okay…that was basically how the debate went. A bit of artistic license is in order, I think, not only because of the rather dramatic manner in which the debate escalated—from Keller questioning Politico’s business model and Mike Allen’s caps-happy “Playbook” emails, to Harris’s fairly trenchant notation “that Politico stories have been cited by the Times, in its paper version, on more than 100 occasions suggests we may be doing something right”—but also because both editors are themselves engaging in such license. Keller and Harris, in their debate, are trafficking in both aggrandizement and reduction. Of themselves…and of each other.
Take Politico itself, the “hybrid” that doubles, per many accounts, as The Future of Newspapers. On the one hand, the outlet’s Gossip Girl sensibilities and Drudge-tastic trajectories are of dubious merit. On the other hand, though, Politico’s obsessive chronicling of Washington provides aggregate value, if for no other reason than the sunlight principle. And the outlet, to be fair, provides much more than Washington gossip. Politico stands not just despite its identity as a house divided, but because of it: though Sherman’s piece broadly focuses on Politico’s tabloid tastes, those by no means characterize all—or even the majority—of the journalism the outlet produces. “I think that there are actually two Politicos,” Greg Sargent wrote this morning.
There’s the good Politico, which offers big-picture, reported pieces that genuinely change the conversation, and boasts bloggers who regularly offer useful info and valuable insights. The good Politico is doing a better job of using Web-based journalistic techniques in a “non-ideological” setting than the Times. The other Politico does, in fact, play the “inside game” in unsightly ways. It fetishizes Drudge and consciously strives to break the kind of catty gossip that will reverberate inside the cable bubble.
Agreed. Only I’d say that there are even more than two Politicos. That there are, in fact, myriad Politicos: there’s reporting-on-Congressional-legislation Politico; there’s gossip-item Politico; there’s reporting-on-the-media Politico; there’s political-commentary Politico; there’s blog Politico; there’s video Politico…et cetera. In some ways, there are as many Politicos as there are Politico products. And even if that’s taking it too far…the fact remains that “The Politico” as a rhetorical entity—as a term in a broader cultural conversation—is both overly expansive and overly reductive to be of any real value. As is, as a rhetorical entity, “The Times.” On the business side, sure, we can fairly group the varied components comprising a news organization together; as things now stand, to borrow from a journalistic truism, the Times’s civic-minded journalism and its Style section will rise and fall together. But when it comes to discussion of the editorial content of Politico versus that of the Times (and, indeed, even finance-focused discussions must take the editorial side into account), reductive binaries are no more helpful than they are in any other context.