The New York Times Magazine's Mark Leibovich profiles Politico's Mike Allen, touting his -- and Politico's -- success in driving the daily conversation among the political and journalism elite. Leibovich paints a rich portrait of Allen's thoughtful gestures toward friends and sources and his hyperkinetic workaholic tendencies. But in more than 8,000 words, he devotes little more than passing attention to questions about the quality of Politico's journalism. Tellingly, Leibovich doesn't quote or refer to a single media critic or journalism professor -- his entire portrait of Politco appears to be based on his own observations and conversations with political operatives and reporters. It is a piece about the author of Politico's "Playbook," written by a self-described member of the Playbook "community," and reliant entirely upon interviews with other members of that "community."
An astonishing 6,585 words into the profile, Leibovich finally raises a key question:
Harris and VandeHei have clearly succeeded in driving the conversation, although the more complicated question is exactly where they are driving it.
But Leibovich doesn't linger long on that question -- and hardly applies it to Allen, the subject of the profile, at all. If Leibovich is right about how influential Mike Allen and his Playbook are in setting the agenda in the nation's capital (and I'm not prepared to argue against that premise), Leibovich's decision not to explore this question is a glaring omission. Leibovich writes that the Playbook is "the cheat sheet of record for a time-starved city," but pays no attention the question of whether it should be -- whether, for example, Allen compiles and writes his Playbook in a way that points its Very Important Readers toward thoughtful analysis of important policy questions and ground-breaking investigative pieces, or toward horse-race journalism, dime-store political analysis, and gossip.
There's an odd assumption among many political reporters that Republican attacks on Nancy Pelosi are some sort of silver bullet in the GOP's campaign attack arsenal. Time's Jay Newton-Small, for example, writes today:
In 1994, the GOP had Gingrich, an outsize personality whose Contract with America manifesto gave congressional Republicans a simple and accessible platform around which to rally voter discontent. This time, there's no clear-cut, dynamic leader to spearhead the charge and challenge Obama the way Gingrich challenged Clinton. On the other hand, in 1994 no one knew who Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley and Democratic Senate majority leader George Mitchell were. These days, the faces of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are plastered all over GOP attack ads.
But Republicans have been attacking Nancy Pelosi for three election cycles now, with little evidence it has ever helped them win a single campaign. Yet again and again, the media assume it'll work this time, apparently forgetting the last time Republicans made a show of attacking Pelosi. And the time before that. And the time before that ...
Maybe it will work this time. But shouldn't reporters be a little more skeptical after all those failures?
(And just for the record: Despite Newton-Small's suggestion that the "Contract with America" was a key to the GOP's 1994 victory, it was rolled out just a few weeks before election day and had very little to do with the GOP's gains that year. Yes, 1994 -- not, as the Tea Party Patriots would have it, the 1980s. You'd think a group backed by Dick Armey's FreedomWorks would know that ...)
Yesterday, an RNC aide sent reporters an email listing a bunch of mundane DNC expenditures -- money spent on hotels and travel, mostly -- in an apparent attempt to draw some sort of equivalence between staying at the Hilton and visiting a sex club. As Time's Jay Newton-Small put it, the DC expenditures are "very milquetoast" and "none of them were particularly controversial."
Naturally, Politico's Jonathan Martin posted the list -- the entire list -- under the over-heated headline "RNC drops oppo on DNC high-falutin' expenditures." Because, as you may know by now, Politico really is just a GOP bulletin board. Martin breathlessly explained:
RNC spokesman Doug Heye just blasted out raw oppo detailing the fact that the other guys also drop some cash for fancy purposes (mostly to stroke donors).
Writes Heye above the research goodies: "I thought you might find the list below of DNC expenditures of interest."
Wow, "Blasted out raw oppo" really makes it sound impressive, doesn't it? But it was just a list of payments to hotels. Not many "research goodies" there. And Heye's I-thought-you-might-be-interested line? Was that really quote-worthy? Basically, Heye sent around a whole big pile of nothing, and Politico's Jonathan Martin tried desperately to hype it into something.
It gets worse.
Politico then followed up with an article about the email, in which reporter Andy Barr listed several of the "research goodies" the RNC provided, just in case anyone missed Martin's blog post. For example: "During the past year and half, the DNC has paid $4,464 to the limousine service Carey International." That should just about lock up a Pulitzer, don't you think?
Interestingly, Barr vouched for the accuracy of the RNC's email, writing "the data the RNC presents is accurate." Why is that interesting? Because Time's Newton-Small wrote that "the RNC couldn't provide the Federal Election Commission links to each of the searches and the DNC disputed at least one item: the catering charge at the Elysian which wasn't at the Bahamian beach resort but, rather, the Elysian Hotel in Chicago." Barr didn't address that discrepancy.
Gee, you don't think Politico's Andy Barr affirmatively vouched for the accuracy of the RNC email without first checking the information himself, do you? Because that would be dishonest and wrong.
Believe it or not, there was a time when reporters didn't simply re-print opposition research without checking into it first -- particularly when the research in question is as mundane as a list of car companies and hotels. And when affirmatively proclaiming the accuracy of partisan political attacks without actually looking into them would get a reporter in some hot water.
Media have falsely claimed President Obama, members of his administration, and certain congressional staff are "exempt" from the recently enacted health care bill. In fact, the bill subjects the White House, members of Congress, and their staffs to the same reforms and requirements as the rest of the American people.
Early this afternoon, the Politico's Chris Frates posted a breathless story about a "memo obtained by POLITICO" that had been "sent Thursday to Democratic staff" in Congress.
Frates' story -- which coupled the memo with Republican allegations that "Democrats were playing a shell game" with the cost of health care reform and the so-call "doc fix" -- said nothing about where he got the memo and in no way suggested that there were any doubts about its authenticity.
Any reasonable reader would have assumed that since Frates simply wrote that the memo had been sent to "Democratic staff," a Democrat had leaked it to Politico.
As it turns out, that's apparently not what happened.
An earlier post in this spot detailed what was purported by Republicans to be an internal Democratic memo regarding the upcoming health reform vote Sunday. Democratic leadership has challenged the authenticity of the memo. POLITICO has removed the memo and the details about it until we can absolutely verify the document's origin.
So only now, after its story has been challenged, is Politico acknowledging that its source for the memo was unnamed "Republicans." That detail appeared nowhere in Frates' original story.
This is particularly significant since Politico also appears to be acknowledging that it posted the story without having "absolutely verif[ied] the document's origin."
In other words, two days before one of the biggest votes in recent memory, Politico published this article based only on Republican sources -- a fact it failed to disclose -- and without confirming that it was accurate. Moreover, they apparently rushed it up just in time for Rush Limbaugh to talk about it on his radio show, which he did. At length.
This has now become an issue not about whether the memo is real, but about the Politico itself.
As the right-wing American Spectator's Phil Klein wrote on Twitter, "Even were it to turn out to be real at this pt, they've just said that they dont verify stuff b4 posting."
Just how predictable is it that Republicans would peddle the idea that attacking Nancy Pelosi is their silver bullet -- and that Politico would dutifully write it up? Take a look at some previous headlines:
GOP pushes Pelosi as boogeywoman (11/1/08)
GOP ready to link Obama to Reid, Pelosi (7/29/08)
GOP slams Pelosi in new ad campaign (5/23/07)
At least once, though, Politico has realized that the GOP hasn't exactly been successful with this strategy in the past. That November 1, 2008 article reported:
For more than two years, Nancy Pelosi has played a starring role in Republican attacks on Democratic congressional candidates.
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) warned of the liberal horrors of a Pelosi regime in the runup to the 2006 elections, and so far this year Republicans have tried to use the current House speaker against Democratic challengers in House races in Mississippi, Louisiana and North Carolina.
It didn't work in 2006, and it's not working this year, yet many Republicans continue to use Pelosi power as the ultimate threat to American governance.
And yet here's Politico, once again reporting that Republicans plan to run against Pelosi -- and failing to note that the GOP has tried this repeatedly, without success.
Politico hypes a classic dog-bites-man story:
Wait: Republicans are attacking Nancy Pelosi? You don't say.
This passage is typical of the article:
Still, GOP challengers are convinced the anti-Pelosi campaign is a winner given the strong opinions that many voters hold about her leadership.
I know I'm repeating myself here, but: No. GOP challengers say they are convinced the campaign is a winner. What else would you expect them to say? "Yeah, we don't know if this will work, but we figure it's worth a shot"? Come on.
Incredibly, Politico never got around to mentioning that Republicans announce a plan to run against Democrats by attacking Nancy Pelosi every few months -- and every time congressional elections role around, it doesn't' work.
If you're going to call yourself "Politico," shouldn't you have some ability to put political strategy in context?
You might think it's impossible to out-do Politico when it comes to granting political operatives anonymity so those operatives can lob partisan attacks at the other team that they'd be unwilling to put their name behind. (Here's a recent example.)
But it turns out Politico is a bunch of amateurs compared to Tucker Carlson's Daily Caller, which has decided to cut out the middle man entirely. Rather than typing up some GOP operative's (anonymous) attack on the Democrats, then dashing off a few paragraphs as filler, Daily Caller took a much more efficient approach: It ran a column equating Eric Massa And Mark Foley -- a column written by someone identified only as "Mr. GOP, a former House leadership staffer, [who] is writing under an assumed name to protect his identity."
Aside from the obvious absurdity of granting a political operative an anonymous column to hype a scandal in the other party, you have to love the circularity of the Daily Caller's explanation for why "Mr. GOP" wanted that anonymity. He's "writing under an assumed name to protect his identity"? Gee, you don't say? Why else would someone write under an assumed name? The real question isn't why "Mr. GOP" wanted to "protect his identity" -- it's why The Daily Caller wanted to.
Politico rushes to hype the Weekly Standard's baseless speculation that the White House tried to win Rep. Jim Matheson's support for health care reform by nominating his brother to a judgeship, under the header "Some Republicans criticize judge pick."
But Politico could only come up with one such Republican, Rep. Michele Bachmann. By contrast, Politico had two Republicans who praised the nomination, including one who directly debunked the conspiracy theory.
And, of course, Politico didn't mention that The Weekly Standard, where this baseless allegation originated, has a history of making dubious claims about White House efforts to win health care votes.
Instead, Politico concluded: "As pressure mounts on Democrats to pass reform, look for Republicans to pounce on anything that looks like a backroom deal because those previous deals were key to helping sour the public on reform."
Yeah -- and look for Politico to help them do so, no matter how shaky the ground from which the Republicans are pouncing.
If you were writing an article headlined "Republicans cast doubts on Senate parliamentarian," would you wait 16 paragraphs before mentioning that the Senate Parliamentarian was elevated to the job when Republicans fired his predecessor for ruling against them? Would you omit any mention of the fact that, having done so, Republicans then threatened to fire him?
If not, you just aren't cut out for Politico, which reports:
Senate Republicans are waging a pre-emptive strike against the Senate's parliamentarian - a hitherto little-known official who could determine the fate of the Democrats' health care reform efforts.
In interviews with POLITICO, several Republican senators and aides cast Parliamentarian Alan Frumin - a 33-year veteran of the Senate - as someone who is predisposed to side with the Democrats if they attempt to use the reconciliation process to pass parts of their bill.
The Senate GOP's previous behavior towards Senate parliamentarians, including Frumin, would certainly seem to undermine their "pre-emptive strike." Maybe that's why Politico glossed over it?
Politico comes through with an extraordinary example of mind-reading:
Health care: Pelosi and other top House Democrats say publicly that they have the votes to push through a comprehensive package, but privately, they know they don't.
Not only is Politico -- for reasons unexplained -- certain that Democrats don't have the votes to pass health care, Politico is certain that Democrats "know" this.
Don't ask how Politico knows this. They just do.
Reporting on the Democrats' possible use of the reconciliation budget process to pass health care reform, media outlets have advanced the Republican criticism that reconciliation is "an end-run around the normal legislative process." However, the procedure has been used repeatedly by Republicans, and, as NPR has pointed out, reconciliation has been used to pass major changes to health care laws.
Yesterday, Politico published a navel-gazing piece by editor John Harris, explaining the decision to allow reporter Jonathan Allen to return after a brief stint working for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz -- roughly a month. Harris wrote that one of his concerns in taking Allen back was that "it seemed likely that Allen's brief tenure with a Democrat might open us to shots at our fairness by Republicans."
As I pointed out yesterday, it's a little odd that Harris would write such a line about someone with twenty years of work as a reporter and one month working for a member of Congress without noting that another Politico reporter, Jonathan Martin, worked on a Republican gubernatorial campaign, two congressional campaigns, and spent more than three years working for a Republican member of Congress. Martin left his job as press secretary to Rep. Rob Simmons in October 2005 and joined Politico upon its January 2007 launch.
Well, today, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz praises Harris' piece. After quoting both Allen's own explanation for his decision to return to journalism and Harris's concerns about bringing him back, Kurtz writes:
While television has practically obliterated the line between party insiders and pundits, I do think Republicans--and Politico readers--might be wary of someone who was so recently in the employ of a Democrat. But I give Allen and Politico major points for transparency.
Kurtz, like Harris, is concerned about a reporter who was "so recently in the employ of a Democrat." And Kurtz, like Harris, doesn't say a word about Martin. Keep in mind: Allen has twenty years of experience as a journalist, and a month of working for a member of Congress. Martin, on the other hand, came to Politico barely a year after spending more than three years with a Republican member of congress and working on at least three GOP political campaigns. And not only does Kurtz fail to mention Martin while expressing wariness about Allen's one-twelfth of a year working for a Democrat, he actually praises Harris for "transparency" after Harris omitted any mention of Martin. Incredible.
(Speaking of transparency: Harris and Kurtz were colleagues at the Washington Post before Harris left to start Politico.)
Politico's John Harris has a weird navel-gazing article about Jonathan Allen's return to journalism -- and Politico -- after a brief stint working for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Actually, it's about Politico struggling to decide whether it should take Allen back -- not because of doubts about his skills as a journalist, but because they feared a month working for a politician would irrevocably taint him:
It was a couple of weeks ago that we heard from Allen again. After a month on the job, he decided he had made a mistake. He concluded that his talents and temperament were those of a journalist, not an operative. He wanted to come back to POLITICO, if we would have him.
Ugh, again. Two thoughts were immediately at war: "Damn right, we want him," and "I'm not sure we can take him." Some critics would say he was too compromised by his brief sojourn in politics - in which he publicly aligned himself with Democrats and made a modest contribution to Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln - to return to straight reporting. I wasn't sure the critics were wrong.
I have no doubt about Jonathan Allen's ability, or my own ability, to separate personal or ideological views from reporting.
But I am enough of a traditionalist to be wary of the revolving door between politics and journalism. And it seemed likely that Allen's brief tenure with a Democrat might open us to shots at our fairness by Republicans. I viewed this as a matter of perception, not of reality.
So, Harris didn't have any doubt about Allen's ability to separate his personal views from his journalism, but worried that hiring a reporter who had a month of experience working for a Democratic politician might "open us to shots at our fairness by Republicans."
Huh. Seems like a good time for Harris to mention that Politico reporter Jonathan Martin previously worked for a Republican Virginia gubernatorial candidate, two Republican congressional campaigns, and a Republican congressman, for whom he worked for more than three years.
But Harris never mentioned Martin. Weird.