The Future? We Hope Not

NYT’s Politico profile paints a scary picture

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.”

For top Politico brass, the best defense looks like more offense:

Kingsley, the Politico executive vice president, e-mailed me an unsolicited defense: “In my experience, the people who whine about working at Politico shouldn’t be at Politico,” she wrote. “They likely lack the metabolism and professional drive it takes to thrive here. For those of us who love a fast pace and a tough challenge, this place is a calling, not a job.”

[Co-founder John] Harris readily acknowledges that Politico is “not for everybody,” and [co-founder Jim] VandeHei said they have begun focusing their recruiting on New York, because “the city produces reporters who are fearless, fast and ruthlessly competitive.”

Yeah. We’re pretty soft here in Washington. Taking a break now.

Okay, I’m back. It’s also unsettling to read about the odd, almost passive role Politico seems happy to be playing. It’s a bit of a paradox, when you think about how hyperactive the place is.

Just as many sources talk to Woodward because they assume everyone is, the White House will leak early talking points to Allen because they know that, for instance, Dick Cheney seems to have made Allen the go-to outlet for many of his criticisms of the current administration. Like Woodward, Allen can be tagged with the somewhat loaded moniker of “access journalist.” Clearly the political and news establishments love him. The feeling is mutual and somewhat transactional. They use him and vice versa (“love” and “use” being mutually nonexclusive in Washington). He seems to know everyone and works at it.

Allen may be the “go-to outlet,” but that doesn’t make it good journalism. I remember seeing this Politico story last year, and wondering about it:

Former Vice President Dick Cheney accused President Barack Obama on Tuesday of “trying to pretend we are not at war” with terrorists, pointing to the White House response to the attempted sky bombing as reflecting a pattern that includes banishing the term “war on terror” and attempting to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

“[W]e are at war and when President Obama pretends we aren’t, it makes us less safe,” Cheney said in a statement to POLITICO. “Why doesn’t he want to admit we’re at war? It doesn’t fit with the view of the world he brought with him to the Oval Office. It doesn’t fit with what seems to be the goal of his presidency — social transformation — the restructuring of American society.”

They posted his statement in full, but without any follow-up questions.

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that DC sources are happy with that format. But should Politico go along with it?

Political operatives I speak to tend to deploy the word “use” a lot in connection with Politico; as in, they “use” the publication to traffic certain stories they know they could not or would not get published elsewhere. I was also struck by how freely VandeHei threw out the word “market” in connection with how newsmakers and sources interacted with Politico. “If you want to move data or shape opinion,” VandeHei wrote to me by e-mail, “you market it through Mikey and Playbook, because those tens of thousands that matter most all read it and most feed it. Or you market it through someone else at Politico, which will make damn sure its audience of insiders and compulsives read it and blog about it; and that it gets linked around and talked about on TV programs.”


The Times piece nicely captures why Allen has become a star in this environment. “[K]nown as an unfailingly fair, fast and prolific reporter,” he hated it when editors at The Washington Post, where he used to work, told him they didn’t have space for his stories. But he “struggled to write the front-page analytical stories that were the traditional preserve of newspaper ‘stars.’ Harris, who wrote many of these during his 21 years at the Post, says that the whirling production demands of today’s news environment have caught up to Allen’s sleepless, spaceless peculiarities.”

The business side is happy, too.

While most Playbook subscribers live around Washington, significant numbers work on Wall Street, in state capitals and at news and entertainment companies on both coasts. Major retailers (Starbucks) and obscure lobbies (Catfish Farmers of America) pay $15,000 a week to advertise in Playbook, a figure that is expected to rise.

Ka-ching! Encouraged by its success on the national politics front, Politico’s parent company is set to launch a local Washington news site soon.

But does that make it a model?

“I’ve been in Washington about 30 years,” Mark Salter, a former chief of staff and top campaign aide to John McCain, says. “And here’s the surprising reality: On any given day, not much happens. It’s just the way it is.” Not so in the world of Politico, he says, where meetings in which senators act like themselves (maybe sarcastic or short) become “tension filled” affairs. “They have taken every worst trend in reporting, every single one of them, and put them on rocket fuel,” Salter says. “It’s the shortening of the news cycle. It’s the trivialization of news. It’s the gossipy nature of news. It’s the self-promotion.”

Ouch. Don’t think I could have said it better.

But please, don’t miss this Leibovich note:

Salter asked that if I quoted him, I also mention that he likes and respects many Politico reporters, beginning with Mike Allen.

Put differently:

“Playbook is D.C.’s Facebook,” VandeHei concluded. “And Mike’s the most popular friend.”
That’s fine. But the future of Washington reporting? I hope not.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at