The New York Times magazine profile of Mike Allen, the force-of-nature Politico reporter, has been much anticipated—at least in the Blackberry-dependent Washington media and politics crowd—and, after all the hype, author Mark Leibovich delivers a fun, gossipy read that will only reinforce Allen’s position in the center of this universe.
But the piece is most valuable for what it tells us about Politico culture, a culture that appears to be ascendant, despite the very real dangers it presents for journalists, journalism, and, yes, readers.
I know, I know, it’s just a profile of a reporter. (For CJR’s 2000 take on the guy, look here.) But still. The story is called “Mike Allen, the Man the White House Wakes Up To,” and there’s lots of good stuff in here about this Washington media star, like the revelation (it qualifies as one around here) that his father was “an icon of the far right in the 1960s and 1970s.”
He was affiliated with the John Birch Society and railed against the “big lies” that led to the United States’ involvement in World Wars I and II. He denounced the evils of the Trilateral Commission and “Red Teachers.” Rock’n’roll was a “Pavlovian Communist mind-control plot.” He wrote speeches for George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama and presidential candidate.
That’s quite a surprising bit of backstory for a journalist who insists that Playbook, his marquee early-morning e-mail, is “aggressively neutral,” and goes so far as to adopt that strange DC journo habit of refusing to vote. Leibovich also manages to maintain some of the mystery that surrounds Allen: Does he sleep? Where does he live? We still don’t know.
It’s a bit concerning, though, that, when talking to Allen about his family, Leibovich—who helpfully discloses that he’s known Allen for more than a decade and thus writes “from within the tangled web of ‘the community’”—is so easily dissuaded from doing a bit more reporting.
I asked Allen if I could talk to his siblings. He said he would consider it and maybe set up a conference call but never did. I did not press. It felt intrusive. Nor did I want to overreach for a Rosebud.
But what’s most insightful about the piece, and troubling for the rest of us, is the intertwining portrait of Politico and what it portends for the future of news.
The story sets out how Allen uses his vast network of “friend-sources”—in the White House, on the Hill, anywhere politics is spoken—to track the message, or messages, of the moment, and how Politico strives to be the go-to source for those same “influentials,” and to set the pace for the rest of the media.
If, say, David S. Broder and R. W. Apple Jr. were said to “influence the political discourse” through The Washington Post and The New York Times in the last decades of the 20th century, Politico wants to “drive the conversation” in the new-media landscape of the 21st. It wants to “win” every news cycle by being first with a morsel of information, whether or not the morsel proves relevant, or even correct, in the long run — and whether the long run proves to be measured in days, hours or minutes.
It goes about that with a decidedly macho culture, “predawn why-don’t-we-have-this? e-mail messages from editors,” and lots of updating. Some of it is pretty pointless.
Politico’s comprehensive aims can make it goofy and unapologetically trivial at times. A recent item by a Congressional blogger for the site consisted of the following: “Lights are out throughout much of the Longworth House Office Building, a denizen tells me. UPDATE: They are back on.”
We worry about the hamster-wheel-like productivity demands plaguing journalism, and the problem that poses for readers who will never know what exposes and investigations they’re not reading because reporters were too busy keeping the wheel spinning.
Leibovich mentions a recent web spoof that “gave voice to a belief that Politico’s cultlike mission demands a freakish devotion that only an action-hero workaholic could achieve. ‘A page-view sweatshop’ is how one Politico writer described the place to me.” Ouch. But wait, there’s more.
Several current and former Politico employees were eager to relay their resentment of the place to me, though with a few exceptions, none for attribution. “It’s not so much the sweatshoppery itself that I minded,” said Ryan Grim, a former Politico reporter who is now at The Huffington Post. “It was the arbitrary nature of how it was applied.”