Insiders

Punchbowl and power in Washington, DC

A Friday morning last fall, in the subterranean labyrinth of the Capitol building, on either side of thick double doors: a throng of reporters and the House Democratic Caucus. No sound from the room could be heard in the hallway. There was a time, which I can remember from my days in the Washington press corps, when this would have been a scene about waiting. I worked for the Bergen Record in the late nineties, covering Congress; my job was to stand in the gantlet of regional reporters, hamburger stains on our lapels, and pounce on lawmakers as they stepped out of a conference. Times have changed. Members of the press were in covid masks, camped out while Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, updated her colleagues on negotiations over a $3.5 trillion budget plan. If passed, it would rebuild highways, bridges, and ports; better prepare cities for extreme weather; and create tens of thousands of jobs. Pelosi, trying to gauge support, asked who planned to vote for a competing bipartisan infrastructure bill. Seconds later, an update appeared on everyone’s phone.

It was 10:57am. Jake Sherman tweeted: “Pelosi is now having everybody who wants to pass the BIF stand.” (The “BIF” stood for “bipartisan infrastructure.”) Milliseconds later: “Almost everyone stood up.”

Sherman was not in the room. He was out in the gaggle of reporters. But someone at the meeting had been texting him updates, which he immediately shared with his 350,000 followers—including many of his fellow journalists, who were still standing around, and House members, not all of whom were happy to see a public play-by-play of their caucus as it was happening. Jared Huffman, a congressman from California’s Marin County, took the floor and asked that whoever was leaking to Sherman please stop.

11:12am. Sherman again: “@JaredHuffman has suggested to the room that people stop leaking because the meeting is being tweeted out.”

It was a small scoop—a scooplet, as they’re known locally—with instant gratification and swift pushback. If, during my tenure as a DC reporter, questions were often highly specific to a local readership that was far from the action (“Is money in the bill to fix the traffic-choked Route 3 bridge?”), a scooplet is highly specific to occupants of the Beltway—voraciously hungry for intel and gossip, which is their currency. Few journalists are better at serving up scooplets than Sherman and his longtime writing partner Anna Palmer, who started Punchbowl together last year. It is a newsletter that may telegraph the particular interests, excesses, and contradictions of Washington better than any other publication.

Sherman, a cherubic brown-haired thirty-six-year-old in a suit, is a Columbia Journalism School graduate who, when legislative news breaks, aims to be the fastest draw on Twitter. Palmer is forty, with straight blond hair and an almost regal bearing; colleagues describe her as the “impresario” of the pair; she has said that the worst advice she’s ever received is “Wait your turn.” The duo ascended to the top of the Capitol press heap and gained quasi–celebrity status in 2016, when they took over Politico’s Playbook, a daily tip sheet of scooplets and analysis that most of the city reads over their morning coffee. In 2019, Sherman and Palmer published The Hill to Die On: The Battle for Congress and the Future of Trump’s America, which became a best seller. They started Punchbowl with two former Politico colleagues: John Bresnahan—a curmudgeonly scribe known on the Hill as “Bres”—and Rachel Schindler, who had gone from Politico to work in news product at Facebook. Marketing materials tout the team’s ability to “focus relentlessly” on “events that will move political markets” and to deliver “News about the people that matter. For the people that matter.”

Punchbowl is avowedly agnostic with respect to partisanship, but devoutly observant of politics. Sherman and Palmer rise every morning in time to record a podcast at 5am, put out their first newsletter of the day sometime after 6am, follow that up with midday and evening editions for “premium” (paying) subscribers, and, on days when Congress has important votes or Punchbowl is hosting an event, work late into the night. In between, Sherman, Palmer, and the rest of the Punchbowl staff—there are now five reporters—are constantly on social media, selling their product and blasting out scooplets that are “not going to hold.” Sherman told me, “I think we are the best wired in covering the politics of governing.” Then he corrected himself: “I don’t have to think—I know that. I feel a hundred percent confident, every single day when we get up to Capitol Hill, that we will outwork, out-hustle, out-report, and beat everybody in our space.” In a town obsessed with power, the people behind Punchbowl are obsessed with being the most obsessive.

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It’s a model that probably won’t do much to bridge the growing gulf between Americans and the lawmakers who represent them in Washington, or to reset political journalism in the aftermath of Donald Trump, a deadly insurrection, and other threats to democracy. “The number of words that are churned out every day inside the Capitol are more than there ever have been before,” Paul Kane, a political columnist for the Washington Post, said. “But those words often aren’t being transmitted out to readers in San Francisco, Des Moines, and Tallahassee. They’re being sent to people who are at trade associations here, to investors in New York, to corporate intelligence people, lobbyists.” Jonathan Salant, a former president of the Regional Reporters Association, is now, as Washington correspondent for the Newark Star-Ledger, one of the last remaining local journalists in town; he bemoaned a decline in substance. “There’s a lot fewer questions about policy, a lot less in-depth reporting on issues,” he told me. “It’s who said what, who got the first attack.” A happy customer: Bryan DeAngelis, a former Senate staffer who became a partner at a political consulting firm, Hamilton Place Strategies. As DeAngelis told me, “I think of Playbook now as kind of covering the broad ecosystem of DC. I think of Axios as covering the intersection of business and politics and a little bit of culture. Punchbowl allows me to understand the dynamics behind what is happening on Capitol Hill. I read all three.”

Annual “membership” to Punchbowl costs three hundred dollars; as of late 2021, at least three thousand people had signed up; around a hundred thousand got the free version. (Punchbowl declined to provide a current subscriber count.) If that seems a small audience, it is an especially powerful one, and on that basis the founders can sell valuable ad space and sponsorship opportunities to lobbyists seeking influence. Here, perhaps, quantity is quality. After their meeting, House Democrats streamed into the hallway; reporters clustered around, arms outstretched, the microphones on their smartphones vacuuming quotes. The last word from Huffman wouldn’t come for another couple of hours. At 1:37pm, he was back on Twitter, calling the “live leaker” a “schmuck” and a “coward,” suggesting that this person was deliberately pushing a “Democrats in disarray narrative.”

1:38pm: “No,” Sherman tweeted in response. “They like transparency.”

“We just want to do good reporting and have people read it,” Sherman said. “If carrier pigeons were the thing that people were reading, then we would have a carrier pigeon business. If we could be in the mailbox of everybody who’s important every morning—there’s no better platform in the world than that.”

By one Washingtonian’s count, “everybody who’s important” amounts to about eight thousand people. Robert Allbritton—the media mogul whose family owned eight television stations—gave me that number to describe “high quality” readers, the prime audience he sought when, in 2007, he started Politico with Jim VandeHei, a former Capitol Hill reporter, and John Harris, national politics editor of the Washington Post. VandeHei, who was once a sportswriter, talked about “winning the morning” (and the afternoon, too); Sherman recalled him as a “larger-than-life leadership reporter in the House.” Sherman started at Politico in 2009, after serving as an intern at the Wall Street Journal, and inherited VandeHei’s old beat. VandeHei advised: “It’s not a part-time job. You need to be there all the time.”

Sherman took those words to heart. “I don’t think that Jake has hobbies,” Blake Hounshell, a former Politico managing editor who now edits the New York Times newsletter On Politics, said. “He might be going to Phish concerts. But outside of that, he just really cares about the institution and is obsessed with it. He’s somebody who just loves Congress and lives for the micro-dramas of incremental movements on Capitol Hill.”

Sherman grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, the son of a nursery school teacher and an asset manager. He got his first experience in journalism working at his high school newspaper. (His first job was at a sleepaway summer camp.) He knew what he wanted to do for a living by the time he arrived in DC, to attend George Washington University, and he never really left, except to take internships at various newspapers and magazines and to attend journalism school for a year.

Palmer was, from a young age, equally focused. Born in Le Sueur, Minnesota, she grew up in North Dakota; in the Palmer home, watching the evening news was a family activity. When she was in the second grade, she resolved to become a journalist. By the time she was sixteen, she’d made it to Washington, where she spent her junior year of high school as a page for Senator Kent Conrad, of her home state. At St. Olaf College, she ran the student newspaper; when everyone else headed out to a bar, she stayed around, polishing the copy until 3am. Eventually, she scored a summer internship at the New York Times’ DC bureau, and after graduating, with a dual major of political science and English, she came back to town with “waitress shoes and résumés.” She wouldn’t need the shoes—Palmer quickly landed a job at a trade publication, where she covered lobbyists.

Devoting long hours, Sherman said, is “not a bummer when you love what you do.” Besides, he pointed out, Punchbowl has no weekend edition, which allows him to spend time with his three children and his wife, Irene, a former Senate staffer and Obama administration official who now works as an attorney at DLA Piper, a powerful lobbying firm. Sherman insists that he has hobbies—he’s a runner—though in truth he attends concerts only infrequently. (“Phish doesn’t tour that often, so it’s not like I’m running around the country, bagging out on the weekends. That’s not my thing.”) Palmer likes to entertain. Last June, she married her longtime boyfriend, Patrick Mellody, a political consultant; lately, they’ve been spending time together in their basement, packing Punchbowl merchandise.

Before they were colleagues, Sherman and Palmer were friends; Palmer was at Roll Call when Sherman helped recruit her to Politico. They quickly became a team, working the “inside-outside game,” as Palmer put it. “He really knew House Republicans and a lot of the leadership,” she said. “And I had a lot of the context of industries and how they were trying to influence and shape what was happening in Washington.” They shared a common sensibility: “Jake and I are both extremely competitive people. I think we both want to outwork people.” They broke big stories, independently and together; they are credited, notably, with helping hasten the downfall of Aaron Schock, a rising-star congressman who was forced to resign amid allegations that he misused public and campaign funds to subsidize luxury hotels, private jets, and fancy cars. (An anonymous tipster dropped off a box with Schock’s personal calendars on Palmer’s doorstep.) The pair also worked closely with Bresnahan, who was then Politico’s senior congressional correspondent.

In 2016, when Mike Allen, the longtime author of Playbook, decided to move on—to Axios—Sherman and Palmer pounced. They were not obvious successors; they had strong reputations but were less established than Allen, and where he followed the presidency, they covered the Hill, considered a less glamorous beat. Their pitch was to transform Playbook into something new, something that played to their strengths, by turning its attention on Congress—which, they argued, was DC’s real seat of power. “There was no guarantee that they would succeed,” recalled Carrie Budoff Brown, who was then an incoming editor. “But I knew they would die trying.”

Allbritton brought a television-news mentality to managing his top talent: “You pay your stars a lot of money because they bring people to the newscast,” he said. “If you’re dealing with an intelligent, well-read audience, like you are in DC, they know the reporters. They know the bylines. So you can use that same star principle.” To bolster Sherman and Palmer, Politico’s publicity department kicked into gear. Sherman became a regular MSNBC commentator; Palmer began appearing on Meet the Press. Within a year, Playbook subscriptions increased by 35 percent; the number of readers who opened the email every day rose by 10 percent. After two years, when Sherman’s and Palmer’s contracts came up for renewal, the pair had become known as “Jake and Anna”—the Joe and Mika of congressional newsletters, brands with an agent at CAA. Their new salary, according to multiple people familiar with the amount, was $400,000—more than double, and in some cases more than quadruple, the sum their fellow reporters were paid. (Palmer and Sherman dispute that number but declined to provide details.)

What followed was a familiar trajectory: a sense of ownership in their work that made them, increasingly, an island unto themselves. Playbook Island,” Allbritton said. “It started rubbing people the wrong way.” They declined to respond to emails from colleagues, neglected to tell editors about an interview with Donald Trump they’d conducted for their book. They insisted, through the 2020 presidential campaigns, that Playbook maintain a laser focus on Congress. “He’s super aggressive professionally,” Allbritton said, of Sherman. “Some people can find that offensive.”

Sherman and Palmer considered moving to Substack, but that seemed too small-time. One day in late 2020, Sherman had an exploratory phone call with Aryeh Bourkoff, a dealmaker at the investment bank LionTree, which funded The Athletic. After hanging up, Sherman called Palmer: “I think I just raised us a million dollars.” Soon, the two summoned Bres to Sherman’s house. It was winter, at a scary peak in the pandemic; Irene asked them to meet in the backyard. On the day, there was a snowstorm, and Bres had shown up in cargo shorts. Sherman and Palmer delivered their pitch to him anyway, out in the cold. “We were convinced that this is a very habit-driven space,” Sherman said. “People were always reading us, and they knew that we would come with something new every day. We think stories are too long. They’re too boring. And we think that people are reading newsletters.” Palmer would spend 95 percent of her time running the business. Sherman would spend 95 percent breaking news. Bres would be a “force multiplier” on the Hill. Schindler agreed to join them.

Sherman and Palmer wrote their last Playbook newsletter on December 31, 2020. On January 4, 2021, they sent out the first dispatch from their new outlet: pink, black, and white, its logo was the Capitol dome upturned and filled with party punch. “The core of Punchbowl is simple: Power, People, Politics in Washington,” they wrote. “That’s our North Star, and the nucleus of what we will cover and chart: How power is exercised in Washington, who is exercising it, why and how.”

 

An afternoon last December on Capitol Hill. Bres in the cavernous, fluorescent-lit basement, waiting with other reporters for the electric trams that ferry senators around. He is bald, gleaming, and intense, with dark brown eyebrows; he had on thick-rimmed glasses, a boxy navy-blue sportscoat, a button-down shirt, khaki pants, and black sneakers. A train pulled up; Ron Wyden of Oregon, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, stepped out. The press surrounded him, Bres in the center. Wyden seemed to welcome the attention, fielding questions on, among other subjects, diabetes-drug pricing and the income cutoff point for state and local tax deductions.

Next up: Senator Ted Cruz of Texas on the tram. The journalists lurched. This time, no stop-and-chat. Cruz strode by and headed toward the elevators. No one followed him—except for Bres, trailed by one other reporter. Bres caught Cruz just as he reached the elevator bank.

Cruz had been blocking the Senate from confirming thirty-two ambassadors and State Department nominations, demanding a vote on whether to impose sanctions on a Russian company for going ahead with plans to build a natural-gas pipeline to Germany called the Nord Stream 2 (a vote, the Washington Post would later complain, that Cruz had no chance of winning, and that seemed to be engineered purely for political theater). Bres: Could Cruz confirm that he’d been discussing a deal with Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that would give him incentive to lift his holds?

Cruz said that he’d discussed lifting “a number of holds I currently have in place in exchange for a vote on sanctions.” The elevator arrived. Cruz stepped inside.

Bres kept going: “Menendez says you would remove all holds. Is that a sticking point?”

“Well, if that’s what he said, he’s not going to get any of his ambassadors, so that’s not what he says,” Cruz replied. The elevator doors slammed shut.

The other reporter, who hadn’t gotten a word in, now spoke: “Wow.”

That evening’s edition of Punchbowl featured a story—headlined “Menendez gives update on ambassadorial nominations”—in which Cruz was quoted saying that he was in negotiations but unwilling to give up all his holds.

It seemed pretty incremental to me. But when I talked with Punchbowl subscribers, several told me that this was precisely the sort of minutia that makes the newsletter useful to them. Judy Hafner—a former congressional staffer, now a principal at a lobbying shop called Vantage Point Strategies—told me that Punchbowl helps her discern whether a piece of legislation is going to move, and if not, what’s holding it up. Even if a bill is irrelevant to her clients, floor time is limited; Punchbowl gives her a sense of lawmakers’ priorities. “Their newsletter in the morning? Incredible—it gets to the right depth and insider information,” Hafner said. “My clients want me to keep them updated on things on a regular basis.” Each installment is an impressionistic download, with bullet points declaring what “everyone is talking about,” summarizing “the basic gist” of a White House memo, and alerting readers about “what to expect” from a congressional vote. There are Q and As with lawmakers and analyses of their motivations; spilling down, there are event listings with the names of expected attendees, newspaper front pages, and upcoming political “moments” (briefings, conferences). It is a guard against fomo for insecure political beasts.

That, in turn, makes the newsletter a prime spot for anyone seeking to buy the attention of lawmakers and their aides. According to a memo sent to investors and obtained by Axios, subscriptions account for only a million of the roughly ten million dollars that Punchbowl generated in revenue during its first year; the remaining 90 percent came mostly from event sponsorships and the sale of ad space to lobbyists for Facebook, Google, HCA Healthcare, ExxonMobil, and other companies. (Sherman and Palmer declined to discuss revenue numbers with me.) Ads are woven seamlessly into Punchbowl’s reporting. In a March edition of the newsletter, for instance, between coverage detailing the confirmation hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson and deliberations over a new Russia-sanctions bill, was an item “presented by the American Edge Project”—a political advocacy group formed by Facebook to oppose consumer-privacy, antitrust, and other regulations. (The backers of the American Edge Project were not mentioned anywhere in the newsletter; I read about them elsewhere, in a Washington Post dark-money investigation.) “Some politicians in Washington are pushing new laws that will weaken American technology, threaten jobs in our community, and make our economy more dependent on China,” the ad stated. Punchbowl readers were invited to click on “Clayton’s story,” which linked to a slickly produced video of a business owner from Corinth, Mississippi, in a white oxford and fleece vest, who warned that some members of Congress were pushing “anti-innovation laws.”

Targeted spon-con of this kind has existed in various forms since at least the eighties, when Jim Glassman transformed Roll Call from a flimsy bulletin-board-like newsletter into a must-read scoop machine. By “unleashing far more reporting firepower on previously unaccountable dark corners of the Washington power game,” Susan Glasser, a former top editor at Roll Call and founding editor of Politico Magazine, wrote for the Brookings Institution, Glassman discovered that “he had scores of companies and lobbying groups eager to buy what was now branded ‘issue advocacy’ advertising.” Until then, lobbyists had been paying fifty thousand dollars or more for a full-page ad in the Post to reach “those whose attention they sought—members of Congress and their staffers—along with hundreds of thousands of readers who were basically irrelevant to them.” Roll Call “undercut the competition, at first charging as little as a few thousand dollars per page to target, far more efficiently, the audience that the advertisers wanted.”

The success of that approach spawned an array of niche publications, including Politico, which last year generated somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty million dollars from the sale of ads, mostly to lobbyists, in Playbook; even more money—Politico’s total revenue was $200 million—came from PoliticoPro, a specialty service that provides lobbyists with up-to-the-minute reporting on legislation. Last year, Axel Springer bought Politico for more than a billion dollars. Axios was recently valued by investors at $430 million. General-audience publications, including The Atlantic and the Post—which not so long ago was condemned for, and ultimately had to cancel, a “salon” that would have granted lobbyists off-the-record access to top lawmakers and editors—have embraced the paid-events business.

All of that feels accordant with Washington, which has always been a transactional place, where people are hired to regulate companies that once employed them, and press secretaries become cable news commentators. The line between source and sponsor, audience member and subject, can often be hard to see. Even so, Punchbowl is remarkable—there may be no line. Palmer is the CEO, a role in which she manages the sale of ad space and event partnerships with lobbyists; until recently, she was also, on most days, listed as an author of the newsletter. Her byline, a former colleague suggested to me, ensured that potential advertisers wouldn’t ignore her sales calls. (Last month, while I was reporting this story, newsletters all took on the byline of “Punchbowl News Staff.”) The Punchbowl website touts that “Punchbowl News members include some of the most important political figures in Washington” and features their profiles (Brendan Buck, credits: “Top aide to Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan”; Niki Christoff, credits: “Salesforce, Google, Uber, and Sen. John McCain”; Jeff Roe, credits: “Adviser to presidential candidates, senators, and more than 100 members of Congress”). At events, Sherman and Palmer conduct interviews with high-ranking officials—Mitch McConnell, Susan Collins, Pete Buttigieg—and then summon a representative from the event’s corporate sponsor, for what they call a “fireside chat.”

In December, Punchbowl invited a group of prominent lobbyists to join Sherman in a luxury skybox to watch the Washington Commanders play the Dallas Cowboys. Among those in attendance: pharmaceutical representatives, oil industry executives, someone from the National Restaurant Association; Blackstone, a private equity firm, sent an emissary. Running down all the names, The American Prospect winced: “Basically every single lobbyist listed represents a firm that has lobbied legislators on the text of the Build Back Better, bipartisan infrastructure, and American Rescue Plan acts over the last ten months.” That these figures had “posed for some toothy photos” with Sherman—and not paid for their tickets—seemed an obvious ethical violation. Punchbowl declined to comment.

But Sherman, speaking with the Columbia Journalism Review last year, defended access journalism on principle, and described the reality for DC reporters who are intimately close with the people they cover. “We call it a news community, because we live among our readers,” he said. “We live in the Capitol, and we exist among our readers in a physical and a kind of a metaphysical and theoretical sense.” When I spoke to Sherman, he asked: “Who in DC doesn’t have a stake in the outcome of anything? I mean, are we supposed to just hang out with, like, artists from Boston?” That’s life in the swamp. Still, in our conversations, Sherman and Palmer repeatedly declined to engage on questions of ethical messiness—even after I cited the concerns of other journalists on the Hill, who said the Washington Commanders game made them uncomfortable. Closeness can be great, unless it means myopia.

 

The 2022 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner was the first since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and DC was ready to party. To kick off the weekend, the Punchbowl team invited revelers to their new headquarters, a stately red-brick townhouse across from Stanton Park. Sherman and Palmer bought the place in November, property records show, for three million dollars. (When asked where the money came from, they said only that they “own the house in a personal capacity.”) The staff had just finished moving in. Tastefully renovated and comprising thirty-one hundred square feet, the building has five bedrooms, seven bathrooms, and a roof deck with views of the city peeking through treetops. The soiree that afternoon—meant to celebrate women leaders in politics, media, technology, and business—was sponsored by the Female Quotient, an organization that works with Fortune 500 companies on “equality services,” and Blackstone, which provided a “Blackstone Store,” offering products from Spanx and Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine. On hand were representatives from Google, Binance, Meta, NGP Energy Technology Partners, and Goldman Sachs. Flowers adorned the entranceway and the banister; Palmer stood on the steps to welcome guests, then turned the mic over to Kathleen McCarthy, the global co-head of real estate at Blackstone. Drinks flowed. Punchbowl swag was available for free, though there was a price list posted for Congressional staff seeking to avoid an ethics violation (tote bags: twenty-two dollars).

The Correspondents’ Dinner—a spring stew of elected officials, wonks, reporters, and random celebrities—is always an ethically questionable affair. But for Punchbowl, which considers events integral to its business, the idea from the start has been that journalism need not be at odds with comingling. “Washington is a contact sport,” Palmer told me. “Through the pandemic, there were limited opportunities for senior-level people to gather. We think this is a real opportunity for us. We remain very focused on building a community and want to take advantage of our ability to convene Republicans and Democrats at the highest level.” To that end, the townhouse is meant to double as an office and a “clubhouse” for exclusive events. Among them is the “Punch Up,” a series focused on racial equity and sustainability, sponsored by Target. (Per the website: “Punchbowl News will facilitate this evolving discussion through a mix of in-person events, private dialogues with selected industry experts, profiles of thought leaders in these areas, a special edition newsletter and podcast.”) There is also a virtual gathering space: Punchbowl launched a Slack channel in which paying subscribers can talk about legislative developments with one another and members of the news team.

Going to a Punchbowl event challenged my comparatively conventional notions of editorial independence; it seemed impossible to reconcile the contradictions between reporting information and selling the Punchbowl platform to special interests trying to shade the debate. On a Wednesday morning at the Roost, a trendy food hall a mile from the Capitol, a stage was decorated to look like a talk show set, with three director’s chairs placed in front of a backdrop that juxtaposed Punchbowl’s logo with that of the event’s sponsor, IBM. In the audience, several rows of earnest-looking students from the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service sat among lobbyists; more viewers tuned in via livestream. Sherman and Palmer were joined by Gina Raimondo, the secretary of commerce, who discussed US reliance on Taiwanese-made semiconductors, China’s rise, and the urgent need to pass a gargantuan bill that would shower America’s technology companies with $52 billion in subsidies and incentives to build chip foundries. “We are in a dangerous situation,” Raimondo said. “Intel, Samsung, TSMC are going to build more facilities. Whether or not they build them in America and make our economic national security secure depends entirely on the policies. We have to get it done.”

After a Q and A, Sherman and Palmer invited Darío Gil, senior vice president and director of research for IBM, to the stage.

“How crucial is it that this happen sooner rather than later?” Palmer asked, referring to the legislation.

The funding, Gil replied, “is existentially—incredibly important.” A portion of the bill would funnel billions toward research and development, he added. “And this needs to be a long-term, sustained commitment.”

Gil offered some compelling details, like how long it would take to set up new chip-manufacturing plants and research facilities. He highlighted a global research hub in Albany, New York. But when, after the event, I did a little research, I discovered that IBM had been lobbying aggressively to persuade Raimondo that Albany—rather than sites in Texas or Ohio—would be the best place to build a multibillion-dollar National Semiconductor Technology Center. That fact was not stated during the event; nor was it mentioned that IBM is partnered with the research hub he’d talked up, which is focused on “enabling next-generation chips” for AI. Instead, I realized, most of the questions tossed out by Sherman and Palmer had simply allowed Gil to recite the same talking points his company had been using in advertisements and position papers—now in direct proximity to Raimondo and her staff.

When I asked Sherman and Palmer to explain this, they replied, not unreasonably, that they were simply following the practices pioneered by other Washington outlets. They also emphasized that they see themselves as performing an important public service by using their platform, and the relationships they have cultivated, to serve as “conveners.” In a town that has become, with every passing year, more ferociously partisan, they view themselves as helping curb hostility by creating space to exchange ideas and convey essential information. Sherman and Palmer like to say they are doing more than just running a newsletter, they’re building a “community.” Of course, that characterization suggests that Punchbowl is a fundamentally collegial forum—in which subscribers, sources, reporters, conveners, and advertisers can talk among themselves—not an adversarial one.

That doesn’t do much for those outside the townhouse. “I grew up with the belief that broad public illumination is the goal of a journalist,” Edward Wasserman, a professor of journalism and former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, told me. “Political coverage historically has always been kind of the governing class talking to itself and the rest of us eavesdropping. But that eavesdropping was really important, because that was the element of accountability. That’s the way the rest of us found out what was going on. Some of that seems to be being relinquished now. Success looks very different now for the journalists who are undertaking this.”

Sherman and Palmer are coy about how they define success for themselves. Palmer said revealing any specifics about their future plans might tip off Punchbowl’s competitors—that would constitute a leak of information more sacred, apparently, than the action at a Democratic Party huddle. More than a decade of obsessing over Washington politics surely has an effect on the mind; it’s not hard to see how professional journalists can become conditioned to think in certain ways about what they do and who they are. The shocking, not-surprising horrors of the Trump administration seem not to have rattled the city’s press corps fundamentally; the Joe Biden years have unfolded with an eerie sense of normalcy, in which political news is reported with a basic level of trust that American democracy will endure. In June, Congress got underway with hearings into the insurrection of January 6, 2021—when, according to testimony, Trump accosted a Secret Service agent, wrestling for the wheel of the presidential car, as he tried to join a violent mob storming the Capitol. From day one, Punchbowl gave the story this frame: “We’re going to focus this morning on what’s at stake for both parties going into the hearings, which begin just over five months before the 2022 midterm election.”

I asked Palmer how she felt about how Punchbowl was doing. “I think this is the most gratifying part of my career,” she said. “We’re building something I hope is at the vanguard of what DC journalism can be. And we have a company where everybody is really excited and feels like they’re invested. It’s super invigorating.”

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Adam Piore is a freelance magazine journalist and the author of The Accidental Terrorist, The Body Builders: Inside the Science of the Engineered Human, and, most recently, The New Kings of New York: Renegades, Moguls, Gamblers and the Remaking of the World’s Most Famous Skyline.

TOP IMAGE: Photo illustration by Darrel Frost