Is Mike Allen Really That Powerful?

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As a co-founder of the Note and a former Hotliner and an unindicted co-conspirator in several other endeavors - and now as someone who moved away from the moment-to-moment grind, I want to take a moment to discuss Mark Leibovich's much-discussed profile of Politico Brand X / senior political correspondent Mike Allen.

In this incarnation of Mike life, he is fulfilling a space that powerful decision makers do need -- they want curated aggregation because they don't have time to read 100 pieces a day, much less the time to choose those pieces. (I would much rather have Mike aggregate for me than Matt Drudge.)  They share a sensibility with Mike. Indeed, it is a transactional sensibility.

I don't know whether President Obama reads the Playbook. I do know, thanks to selected White House leaks, that he's fond of long magazine articles and profiles, and thoughtful bloggers, and Ron Brownstein's analysis. The president's staff may need curation, but the man himself has different curatorial preferences. 

Mike's reporting/aggregating/curating is useful to a subset of people, and it's also transparent in its motivations and intentions. And despite the fact that it merits a New York Times magazine cover story, despite the fact that it may influence morning meetings at TV networks, there are many other sources of influence. Chuck Todd has more influence over how politics will be covered on the NBC Nightly News that Mike Allen. (Allen might influence Morning Joe's coverage, but then, Morning Joe's audience is Mike Allen's audience  -- so who is influencing whom?) 

Mike's powerful voice is one among many.  Heck, a well-written New York Post headline can drive entire news cycles even today. So can a Glenn Greenwald column about Elena Kagan. So can, as I discovered, a late night blog post about some dumb remark Harry Reid made. 

Politico, in fact, recognizes its reputation for policy coverage is not great, and is in the process of hiring folks with policy heft. John Harris and Jim VandeHei have transformed their industry by figuring out how to monetize what Brownstein calls "snowflake" coverage -- the type of "breaking news" that dissolves by the time it hits the ground.  They've also built a locker room full of excellent, if occasionally underutilized reporters.  Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin, two friends, are anything but sycophantic in their coverage. Smith is particularly inventive.  (Disclosure: I had an informal chat or two with "VandeHarris" about joining Politico when it was still the Politico.)

This is not a binary thing. You can appreciate that there is a small circle of insiders who like to know where Mike Feldman was AND at the same time be critical of that circle's insularity AND respect that similarly situated human beings (powerful DC decision makers) will share a common culture that Mike is chronicling.  AND -- my fourth and -- understand that access journalism is but one style of journalism, and by no means the only style of journalism worth doing and validating.

A few words about Mike Allen himself:  he's every bit as unusual and sympathetic as he comes off in the piece. He's whip smart about policy, having spent years as a beat reporter in Virginia and Washington, D.C. He knows his stuff -- he's not writing about the intersection of politics and policy without a firm grounding.

And this is not meant as a knock against Mike, but as a way of pulling everyone out of a trap: as influential as Mike is, and he knows this, a page one New York Times story by Peter Baker on a subject will set the agenda far more than Mike's daily messaging will.  The White House understands this, too. 

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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