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.
Even when he stumbles across an obvious entree into a discussion of those questions, Leibovich seems not to notice. Here's how he described a recent critique of Politico:
In early March, a Web site called Xtranormal featured a spoof about life at the "Politicave," starring computerized automatons of VandeHei and Allen (dressed in a superhero costume). After the VandeHei cartoon addressed Allen as "Mike," Allen replied: "Jim, for the last time, I am not Mike Allen. I am News Cycle Man, here to win the morning!" Allen went on to inform VandeHei about "that unpaid intern who is still crying about when you told her she would never make it in this business if she insists on taking bathroom breaks every day." The spot 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.
Is Leibovich kidding with this? Watch the video yourself:
The video is obviously an indictment of Politico's content, of the journalism it produces -- yet Leibovich portrays it only as a critique of Politico as a work environment. That's typical of Leibovich's avoidance of content-focused criticisms of Politico. Here's Politico's Patrick Gavin's take on the profile:
The piece, to some extent, will be viewed positively by POLITICO management, if I had to guess, as it reinforces how central the publication is to Washington's blood stream, a goal for any publication. But, let's focus on the criticisms lodged by some in the piece for a second... The standard critiques of POLITICO are well-worn and not terribly newsy: Reporters are expected to work hard. POLITICO reports at a hyper-pace. The newsroom could be more diverse. As Leibovich notes, POLITICO management is aware of these things and, where they seem room for improvement (say, diversity), they note it. And where they think the critiques miss the mark, they note that, too. [Ellipsis in original]
In an 8,200+ word profile about a news organization that is highly controversial for its content, the primary critiques seem to be of the newsroom work environment and whether reporters are asked to work too hard. Those critiques presumably have some resonance with the reporters who will make this the most-talked-about article of the month, though they have little relevance to the question of whether Politico is "driving" the conversation in a constructive direction.
Hmmm ... a profile that focuses on aspects of a news organization sure to create buzz among the chattering classes rather than a substantive assessment of its quality and priorities? You'd think that would be something produced by Politico -- not something about Politico.