What We're Talking About When We Talk About Politico

Every few months, for reasons that only they can really know, Politico founders submit themselves to questioning from publications that not so secretly hate them.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Every few months, for reasons that only they can really know, Politico founders submit themselves to questioning from publications that not so secretly hate them. The latest is an interview by The New Republic's Isaac Chotiner (the same magazine that published a look at Politico's inner workings in 2009 under the headline "The Scoop Factory") of editor-in-chief John Harris and executive editor Jim VandeHei who suffer through 34 questions, nine of which were premised on the idea that Politico is an amoral morass of rapacity. For instance: "You say you 'cover' Washington. Does Politico consider itself merely an observer of Washington or a participant?" "But what is the larger mission, besides bringing this news to your niche audience?" "Do you want good government? To keep politicians honest? What?" "You don’t think there is any public calling to be perhaps boring if pensions are being stolen?" "If Washington, on a given day, is caught up in total nonsense, is there real value in covering total nonsense?"

The Politico editors give a robust defense of covering nonsense. But it appears none of the parties actually wants to be involved in the interview:

TNR: OK, but what is Politico’s role specifically? 
Harris: We are edited for those who live in our world.

The anxiety of such Politico pieces, whether the principals submit to a grilling or not, all seem to be based on the same core thesis: Politico is a trivial b.s. factory sustained by cheap Internet tricks. What usually goes unstated is that the outlet resents whatever relevance Politico has out of jealousy or mere tedium of having to play along (or catch up). The traits we hate most in others are often the traits we see in ourselves. These articles hint at an uneasy recognition that Politico is just like us, only more shameless. Take, for example, this parenthetical from Gawker's Tom Scocca in February:

"This is an arguably dangerous development," The Politico explains.

(Here we pause to invoke the old and useful rule, promulgated by the columnist Alex Beam, that "arguably" is a synonym for "not.)

Or this observation, from Alex Pareene in The Baffler, on BuzzFeed, which is edited by Ben Smith, who became nationally prominent as a Politico blogger during the 2008 campaign, and is the more fashionable object of journalistic contempt (TNR is a little late to the Politico-hating game): 

“Did President Obama Just Make a Blowjob Joke?” went the headline, back in June. Experienced news consumers know to mentally add a “no” to the end of all headlines posed as yes-or-no questions, but this one was immune to any sort of reading as a traditional news article.

Only hardened purveyors of cheap Internet tricks would be so bothered by such a shameless use of cheap Internet tricks. Some media people see the news site as a place that reports on dumb trivial things and trades flattering coverage for access to information minutes before it goes out wide as a press release. But this is how the rest of the country sees all of media. Politico paranoia peaked in 2010, after Mark Leibovich called Mike Allen "The Man the White House Wakes Up To" in The New York Times Magazine. (Columbia Journalism Review's review of the article was headlined, "The Future? We Hope Not.") It had not quite ebbed in the summer of 2012 when the Huffington Post went "Inside the Cult" and found a newsroom likened "to The Hunger Games, in which young people fight to the death for the enjoyment of a privileged class." But the beach was nearly clear by that fall, when Politico picked a fight with The New York Times' Nate Silver over whether poll averages or gut instinct and anecdotes were a better predictor of who'd win the election. Silver won.

In the TNR interview, Harris said he doesn't read Silver's work, saying he "gets up on his high horse quite a lot."  Responding at Talking Points Memo, Silver said, "It's not that they are too 'insidery' per se, but that the perceptions of Beltway insiders, which Politico echoes and embraces, are not always very insightful or accurate. In other words, the conventional wisdom is often wrong, especially in Washington."

Leibovich explained how this conventional wisdom was created and promoted in 2010:

Political operatives I speak to tend to deploy the word “use” a lot in connection with Politico; as in, they “use” the publication to traffic certain stories they know they could not or would not get published elsewhere. I was also struck by how freely VandeHei threw out the word “market” in connection with how newsmakers and sources interacted with Politico. “If you want to move data or shape opinion,” VandeHei wrote to me by e-mail, “you market it through Mikey and Playbook, because those tens of thousands that matter most all read it and most feed it. Or you market it through someone else at Politico, which will make damn sure its audience of insiders and compulsives read it and blog about it; and that it gets linked around and talked about on TV programs.”

This does not seem unique to Politico. Think how well The New York Times worked for those selling the Iraq war a decade ago. At least Politico offers some transparency. Pareene, however, found the problem is not the transactional nature of Politico's coverage, but that Politico was getting so little out of the deal:

To call this craven performance a study in access journalism is an insult to the storied sycophantic practitioners of that low craft. Sure, echt-insiders like legendary New York Times columnist James Reston might lease out their bylines to war criminals like Henry Kissinger—but such ceremonial deference at least took place under some vague aura of a quid pro quo. Politico, by contrast, was in this instance publicly whoring itself out for no purpose beyond its all-too-palpable craving for a slightly more incremental monopoly on meaningless bits of information that even paid campaign flacks are apt to forget the day after they race through the overstimulated nervous system of the D.C. media.

At TNR, Chotiner writes, "The dominant mode of Washington journalism tends to both reflect and entrench the values of its era... The Washington of today runs at warp-speed and hums with sound bites, and the current head of the pack, Politico, has only made it go faster." Here is a link to a TNR slideshow.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.