Within a small, insular Beltway circle, Politico's Mike Allen has always been a figure of minor controversy, the charge against him usually being that he personifies journalism's shift toward valuing speed and hype over substance. With Allen the subject of a wonderful profile by Mark Leibovich in this weekend's New York Times Magazine, the circle of critics is growing. The criticism has always struck me as off the mark, so let me weigh in for the defense.
As Politico's most visible component, Allen seems to me to get a lot of misdirected flack from people upset by the publication's tendency toward hyberbole and trend-spotting--the Drudge bait. This is a legitimate complaint, but it doesn't apply to Allen's Playbook column (the bulk of his work). Allen is speedy, yes, but speedy in delivering a useful tip sheet and guide to elite Washington thinking. That it includes unfiltered partisan spin ("West Wing Mindmeld," etc.), a complaint aired in the Times piece, is not a detriment but a service to anyone who thinks and writes about Washington. "Transactional journalism" is only pernicious if you're unaware of the transaction; Allen's readers are clued in. The "lack of substance" charge also misses the mark because it misunderstands what Allen is doing--he's a conveyor, not a producer. He doesn't write weighty magazine profiles of major administration figures. He writes about the profiles.
So the acid test with Allen is what he chooses to convey from his powerful perch. And most of what he conveys is legitimate and worth reading. Think of it this way: partisan hyperbole dominates the blogosphere and, increasingly, mainstream outlets straining for relevance like the Washington Post (Erick Erickson, et al). That stuff really does coarsen the discourse, feed the vapid cable culture, and generally militate against all that is right and good.
But it's never celebrated in Allen's work. Serious magazine pieces, on the other hand, like those that appear in the Atlantic, New Yorker, Times mag, etc., get major and frequent play, which puts them front and center before the White House, editors, bookers, and other disseminators who make up Allen's readership. I've experienced this firsthand several times. When the Washington Post previewed this piece, I got eager phone calls and emails. A day later, when someone (to my great annoyance) leaked Allen an early copy, satellite trucks rolled up to my house. They were there to cover the new issue of the Atlantic. In an age when all publications are striving for relevance and readership, this is a good thing.