Tag Archives: Politico

Ezra Klein and the problem with top-down control

Ezra Klein

Ezra Klein

This commentary was published earlier at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

What should a 21st-century news organization look like? A single entity, run from the top, with a common set of values? Or a loose network of related projects, sharing a brand and to some extent a mission but operating semi-independently?

With the likely departure of Ezra Klein from The Washington Post, the management of one of our last great newspapers might be showing signs of preferring the former approach. Klein, who founded and runs the widely read Wonkblog at washingtonpost.com, is reportedly leaving for a new venture, as yet undefined. According to Ravi Somaiya in The New York Times, Klein sought an eight-figure Post investment in the new project. Klein already has his own Wonkblog staff, but clearly he has something much bigger in mind — perhaps an all-purpose independent news organization along the lines of Talking Points Memo. (Although it wouldn’t be called Wonkblog — the Post owns the name and will be keeping it, writes The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone, who broke the news about Klein’s proposal last month.)

We can’t know everything that went into the decision. Maybe it came down to money. But Wonkblog generates a hefty amount of Web traffic — more than 4 million page views a month, according to a profile of Klein in The New Republic last February. “It’s ‘fuck you traffic,’” a Post source told TNR’s Julia Ioffe. “He’s always had enough traffic to end any argument with the senior editors.” Apparently, that’s no longer the case.

Significantly, the Times reports that new Post owner Jeff Bezos was involved in the decision to let Klein leave. Last September, shortly after announcing his intention to buy the Post for $250 million, the Amazon.com founder lauded the “daily ritual” of reading the morning paper — which led to some chiding by one of the Post’s own journalists, Timothy B. Lee. Despite Bezos’ well-earned reputation as a clear-eyed digital visionary, he appears to have some romantic notions about the business he’s bought into. And allowing entrepreneurs such as the twentysomething Klein run his own shop inside the Post might not fit with that vision.

What makes the likely Klein departure even more significant is that in 2006 the Post, under the ownership of the Graham family, allowed John Harris and Jim VandeHei to walk out the door and start Politico. Now, I have a lot of problems with Politico’s gossipy “drive the day” approach. But as Times columnist Ross Douthat has observed, much of the media conversation about Washington politics has shifted from the Post to Politico, threatening one of the Post’s franchises. It would have been enormously beneficial to the Post if Politico had been launched under its own umbrella. And Politico itself might be better.

So if the Post is reluctant to loosen the reins, are there any other news organizations that are taking a different approach? Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher walked away from their AllThingsD site at The Wall Street Journal and set up a new project called Re/code in partnership with NBC. Perhaps the most famous example is Nate Silver, who brought his FiveThirtyEight poll-analysis site to The New York Times a few years ago and then moved it lock, stock and barrel to ESPN. In that regard, I suppose you could say NBC and ESPN have embraced the network approach. To some extent you might say also that of The Huffington Post, as it combines professional journalists, unpaid bloggers (I’m one) and a dizzying array content — from Calderone’s excellent media coverage to the notorious Sideboob vertical.

Jeff Jarvis recently argued that Patch — AOL’s incredibly shrinking hyperlocal news project — might have stood a chance if AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong had taken a network approach. Rather than running cookie-cutter community sites from the top down, Jarvis asked, what if Patch had offered advertising and support services to a network of independent or semi-independent sites?

The problem with such scenarios is that media executives — and business leaders in general — are not accustomed to the idea of giving up control. Calderone reports that some Post staffers have long grumbled at what they see as “preferential treatment” for Klein, which suggests the depth of the problem. But entrepreneurial journalists like Harris and VandeHei, like Mossberg and Swisher, and like Silver and Klein have a proven track record.

Legacy news organizations need to find a way to tap into that success outside the old models of ownership and not worry about obsolete notions of employer-employee relationships. Reach and influence are what matter. And they are proving to be incompatible with the ambitions of young journalists like Ezra Klein.

More: After this piece was published at Nieman, Mathew Ingram responded at Gigaom with his own smart take.

Hold the uplift, and make that shower extra hot

9780399161308_custom-4ec8d3a4e862d4dbc42dedad106a97aecb8dda44-s2-c85Earlier this month my wife and I were watching the news when Patrick Leahy came on to talk about something or other — I don’t remember what.

Leahy, 73, has been a Democratic senator from Vermont for nearly four decades. Normally that stirs up feelings that, you know, maybe it’s time for the old man to go back to the dairy farm and watch his grandchildren milk the cows.

But I had been reading Mark Leibovich’s “This Town.” And so I felt a tiny measure of admiration for Leahy stirring up inside me. He hadn’t cashed in. (His net worth — somewhere between $49,000 and $210,000 — makes him among the poorer members of the Senate, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.) He hasn’t become a lobbyist. He apparently intends to die with his boots on.

That amounts to honor of a sort in the vomitrocious Washington that Leibovich describes in revolting detail — a town of sellouts and suckups (“Suckup City” was one of his working titles), a place where the nation’s business isn’t just subordinate to the culture of money and access, but is, at best, an afterthought.

If you plan to review a book, you shouldn’t “read” the audio version. I have no notes, no dog-eared pages to refer to. So consider this not a review so much as a few disjointed impressions of “This Town,” subtitled “Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital.”

Mark is an old acquaintance. He and I worked together for a couple of years at The Boston Phoenix in the early 1990s before he moved on to the San Jose Mercury News, The Washington Post and, finally, The New York Times. (Other former Phoenicians who’ve reviewed “This Town”: Peter Kadzis in The Providence Phoenix and Marjorie Arons-Barron for her blog.)

There are many good things I could say about Mark and “This Town,” but I’ll start with this: I have never known anyone who worked harder to improve. It was not unusual for me to leave the Phoenix in the evening while Mark was working on an article — and to come back the next morning to find him still at it. The result of all that labor is a finely honed sense of craft that most of us can only aspire to.

As virtually every reviewer has pointed out, “This Town” begins with a masterful description of the funeral service for “Meet the Press” impresario Tim Russert, an ostensibly mournful occasion that provided the media and political classes in Washington with an opportunity to carry out the real business of their community: talking about themselves and checking their place in the pecking order.

There are so many loathsome characters in “This Town” that you’d need an index to keep track of them all. And Leibovich puckishly refused to provide one, though The Washington Post published an unofficial index here. For my money, though, the lowest of the low are former senator Evan Bayh and former congressman Dick Gephardt — Democrats who left office but stayed in Washington to become highly paid lobbyists. Bayh, with his unctuously insincere laments over how broken Washington had become, and Gephardt, who quickly sold out every pro-labor position he had ever held, rise above (or descend below) a common streetwalker like Chris Dodd, who flirted not very convincingly with becoming an entrepreneur before entering the warm embrace of the film industry.

Also: If you have never heard of Tammy Haddad, Leibovich will remove your innocence. You will be sadder but wiser.

Because Mark is such a fine writer, he operates with a scalpel; those of us who have only a baseball bat to work with can only stand back in awe at the way he carves up his subjects. Still, I found myself occasionally wishing he’d grab his bat and do to some of these scum-sucking leeches what David Ortiz did to that dugout phone in Baltimore.

Mike Allen of Politico, for instance, comes off as an oddly sympathetic character despite the damage he and his news organization have done to democracy with their focus on politics as a sport and their elevation of trivia and gossip. (To be sure, Leibovich describes that damage in great detail.) I could be wrong, but it seems to me that that Mark was tougher on Allen in a profile for the Times Magazine a few years ago.

Thus I was immensely pleased to hear Mark (or, rather, narrator Joe Barrett) administer an old-fashioned thrashing to Sidney Blumenthal. It seems that Blumenthal, yet another former Phoenix reporter, had lodged a bogus plagiarism complaint against Mark because Blumenthal had written a play several decades ago called “This Town,” which, inconveniently for Sid Vicious, no one had ever heard of. More, please.

I also found myself wondering what Leibovich makes of the Tea Party and the Republican Party’s ever-rightward drift into crazyland. The Washington of “This Town” is rather familiar, if rarely so-well described. The corruption is all-pervasive and bipartisan, defined by the unlikely (but not really) partnership of the despicable Republican operative Haley Barbour and the equally despicable Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe.

No doubt such relationships remain an important part of Washington. But it seems to me that people like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and their ilk — for instance, the crazies now talking about impeaching President Obama — don’t really fit into that world. And, increasingly, they’re calling the shots, making the sort of Old Guard Republicans Leibovich writes about (Republicans like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, for instance) all but irrelevant.

But that’s a quibble, and it would have shifted Mark away from what he does best: writing finely honed character studies of people who have very little character. “This Town” is an excellent book that says much about why we hate Washington — and why we’re right to keep on doing so. Hold the uplift. And make sure the shower you’ll need after reading it is extra hot.

Media Nation’s top 10 posts of 2012

be02f758328311e2b55612313804a1b1_7Work-force reductions at The Boston Globe. The end of WFNX as an over-the-air radio station. “Local” news from the Philippines. Possible bankruptcy at GateHouse Media.

These were a few of the top 10 Media Nation posts of 2012 as determined by Google Analytics and WordPress’ own internal statistics.

Most people who read Media Nation come in via the home page, which means that any notion of a “top 10” is dubious. Usually it means that a particular post got retweeted a lot on Twitter or was linked to by a popular media website such as JimRomenesko.com.

But the list isn’t entirely without meaning — and one takeaway for me is that Media Nation’s role as an aggregator and a curator may be its most important. I’ll keep that in mind in the year ahead.

Here is my top 10 for 2012.

1. The Boston Globe keeps on shrinking (July 23). Despite some encouraging signs in the form of rising digital-subscription numbers and a continued commitment to first-rate journalism, The Boston Globe, like nearly all daily newspapers, continues to struggle financially. Last summer Media Nation obtained a memo from Globe publisher Christopher Mayer announcing another wave of downsizing at the Globe and its sister paper, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester.

2. Donna Halper on the future of radio (May 17). Friend of Media Nation Donna Halper was kind enough to write a guest commentary, and her post turned out to be the second most popular of 2012. Halper wrote following an announcement by the Phoenix Media/Communications Group that it would sell WFNX’s broadcast frequency, 101.7 FM, to Clear Channel. Fortunately for local music fans, by the end of 2012 WFNX and the Globe’s RadioBDC were engaged in a spirited competition of online-only local music stations — the real future of radio.

3. Long-distance “local” journalism (July 5). The public radio program “This American Life” and the journalist Anna Tarkov reported extensively on Journatic, which helps community newspapers cuts costs by outsourcing some of their local coverage. At its worst, news was being compiled by underpaid Filipino workers writing under fake bylines. Dubbed “pink slime” journalism by one former practitioner, Journatic underscored what debt-ridden corporate chains will do to survive — and thus demonstrated the importance of independent local journalism.

4. And Joe Scarborough thinks “Morning Joe” is awesome (Jan. 1). A full-page ad in The New York Times for the wretched MSNBC program “Morning Joe” started the gears whirring when I noticed one of its celebrity endorsers was Tom Brokaw. Who, uh, appears on “Morning Joe.” I got to work, and soon found that Politico, which was quoted as praising the program, had an undisclosed partnership. The ad even stooped to using seemingly positive quotes from two reviewers who actually didn’t like it much at all. Disingenuous, to say the least.

5. More bad news for GateHouse Media (March 19). By now it’s not exactly news when executives at GateHouse Media, struggling with $1.2 billion in debt, pay themselves handsome bonuses. (Nor is that unusual at newspaper companies.) In 2012, though, there was a wrinkle at the chain, which owns some 100 community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts. Jack Sullivan of CommonWealth Magazine paged through the company’s financial disclosures and discovered that officials were openly raising the possibility of a bankruptcy filing.

6. David Gregory debates himself (Oct. 1). The host of “Meet the Press” was brought in to moderate the second televised debate between Republican Sen. Scott Brown and his Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren. Unfortunately, it was all about David Gregory. Good thing the candidates were forced to weigh in on whether Bobby Valentine deserved a second year as Red Sox manager. Warren blew the question but won the election.

7. From Newtown, a plea for media restraint (Dec. 17). I republished an open letter from John Voket, associate editor of The Newtown Bee, to his colleagues at the New England Newspaper & Press Association following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Voket wrote about “reporters and media crews invading the yards and space of grieving survivors, school staff and responders,” and asked editors “to remind your correspondents that most are still requesting to be left alone.” A heartfelt message from ground zero.

8. Calling foul on politicians who lie (Aug. 30). It would be hard to come up with a more falsehood-laden performance than U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention. Ryan’s lies prompted me to wonder how far the balance-obsessed media would be willing to go in labeling them for what they were.

9. At CNN, getting it first and getting it wrong (June 28). My instant reaction to CNN’s false report that the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act. At least CNN executives flogged themselves in the public square. As we later learned, Fox News made the same mistake — and refused to apologize.

10. An unconscionable vote against the disabled (Dec. 5). My reaction to Senate Republicans’ rejection of a United Nations treaty on the rights of the disabled — a treaty modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act, championed by President George H.W. Bush, a Republican.

Ghosts of 2011. Oddly enough, the single most popular post of 2012 was one I wrote in 2011 — a fairly terse item on Jay Severin’s return to the Boston airwaves, a comeback that proved to be brief. As I wrote last year, I’ve put up several Severin posts that have generated huge traffic, and I have no idea why.

Globe versus Herald: Elizabeth Warren edition

Politico posted a feature late Sunday afternoon on the state of the rivalry between the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald over Elizabeth Warren’s questionable Cherokee roots. I’m quoted near the end.

And is it just me, or have things between the two papers been heating up since the Globe began printing and distributing the Herald earlier this year?

MSNBC slings it in full-page ad for “Morning Joe”

"Weird"! "Completely unnecessary"!

We can assume any advertisement that quotes selectively from what people have said about the product being touted is going to be at least somewhat deceptive. But I was so taken aback by one quote in a full-page ad for MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in today’s New York Times that I thought I ought to do some digging. The ad, titled “The Most Influential Political Show in America,” appears on the back page of the Sunday Review.

I can’t say I’ve seen a lot of “Morning Joe,” as I’ve never been someone who turns on the TV set in the morning, even when I’m home. I caught a bit of it when I was recuperating from elbow surgery last year, and was put off by the smug, insidery tone. The participation of tired, predictable pundits like Mike Barnicle and Mark Halperin, Salon’s Hack of the Year (and the co-author of a book that used anonymous sources to slime the terminally ill Elizabeth Edwards), doesn’t exactly lure me in any deeper.

The quote in the Times ad that caught my eye, “the best morning talk going,” is from Tom Brokaw, which is innocuous enough — except that Brokaw is, well, a regular on “Morning Joe,” as well as a longtime member of the NBC family. Perhaps that’s not quite as bad as quoting Scarborough as saying that “Joe Scarborough is the sharpest political analyst on television,” but it’s close. So let’s keep going, shall we?

Politico, the ad tells us, wants us to know that “Morning Joe’s team has become the insider’s insider.” I cannot find that particular quote anywhere. What I can find, though, is a 2010 story from the Associated Press informing me that Politico and “Morning Joe” are business partners.

That same AP story is the source of yet another blurb from the ad: “An important wake-up call for political and media leaders.” The full quote doesn’t quite contradict that, but nevertheless places it in a rather different context: “An affiliation with Politico that began about six months ago helped cement the program’s status as an important wake-up call for political and media leaders.”

Speaking of different contexts, the ad also blurbs the phrase “appallingly entertaining,” taken from the New Yorker. I looked that one up, and here’s what Nancy Franklin wrote in 2008: “It’s a weird, completely unnecessary show, and it’s appallingly entertaining.” OK, not a 180-degree contradiction of “appallingly entertaining,” but you will note that MSNBC did not grab “completely unnecessary” for the ad.

Moving right along, the ad cites Forbes as referring to “Morning Joe” as “the hottest morning show.” I tracked that one down to a column written for Forbes.com by veteran journalist James Brady in 2008 — who sounded none too pleased with that development. Bear with me, because this one needs a little air to breathe:

Is the media now really the story? Are journalists now the stars? Is all this incestuous, or is it clever reporting? Just consider these recent examples, a few weighty, some trivial, others clearly absurd:

“Morning Joe,” a couple of hours of political dish on MSNBC hosted by a glib onetime congressman, is the hottest morning show around. Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live for a time was getting more ink than the candidates with her wickedly spot-on devastation of Gov. Palin. Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post backs McCain and blasts Obama while Rupert himself calls Obama “a rock star.” Larry King gets interviewed and reveals to columnist Cindy Adams that his own first great interview was with Eleanor Roosevelt when her husband was still president. Since FDR died in April of 1945, we learn the precocious Mr. King interviewed the First Lady when he was 12.

It doesn’t seem to me that Brady is describing “Morning Joe” as must-see TV.

In 2009, Newsweek described “Morning Joe” as “a serious-minded evening show still wearing its bathrobe and its slippers.” The ad, naturally, does not tell us — as Media Bistro does — that the writer, Colter Walls, had previously worked for MSNBC; that Newsweek and MSNBC were content partners; and that the then-editor of Newsweek, Jon Meacham, was a regular on “Morning Joe.” The conflict-of-interest trifecta!

Some of the blurbs are legit. The New York Times and the American Journalism Review really did give “Morning Joe” a thumb’s up. And some of them are too wonderfully strange for me to want to check. For instance, when you see a quote from Parade imitator USA Weekend calling something “the thinking viewer’s choice,” you just want it to be true.

My bottom line: “‘Morning Joe’ is a … show about politics.”

Photo (cc) by Dave Winer and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Politico’s no-names, no-details attack on Cain

Herman Cain

I’m sure we haven’t heard the end of this, so no need to wade in too deeply just yet. But if you haven’t heard, Politico yesterday posted a story claiming that the National Restaurant Association had paid settlements to two women who said Herman Cain had sexually harassed them while he and they worked there.

It is a curious story, to say the least. There are no names — Politico says it’s protecting their identities, as though we were talking about rape victims. And though Politico reports that it has seen the documents, the details it presents are murky, to say the least.

As Dan Gillmor says, “I will believe Politico’s story when they name an actual source or two, or show documentation. Until then, it’s pure BS in my mind.”

Meanwhile, consider the headlines on these two follow-up stories:

If details and/or names aren’t forthcoming, then the far more interesting story is who dropped a dime to Politico, and why. The site has a reputation for being well-connected to what’s left of the Republican establishment. No doubt there are elements within that establishment who want Cain out of the way as soon as possible. Is this the best they’ve got?

Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

The superficial world of Politico

Maybe my old friend Mark Leibovich is too subtle. Maybe it’s true that any press is good press. But I experienced some severe cognitive dissonance last night as I watched Charlie Rose and Ken Auletta congratulate Mike Allen of Politico over Leibovich’s cover profile of him in the forthcoming New York Times Magazine.

Earlier in the evening I had read Leibovich’s story, and was both repulsed and fascinated. Leibovich, with whom I worked at the Boston Phoenix in the early ’90s, operates with a scalpel. But in his precise, dauntingly well-reported way, he drew gushers of blood, portraying Allen — whose duties include writing “Playbook,” an influential daily e-mail — as the leading exemplar of the Politico sensibility: superficial, insidery and deeply biased in favor of power.

Politico produces good work. Allen produces good work — it was he who broke the story last summer about Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham’s Weymouth’s plan to hold paid salons in her home with lobbyists, Post journalists and government officials. There is a lot of talent and smarts at Politico, and I’m not suggesting that we ignore it.

But the overall sensibility of Politico is perhaps best described by Allen himself, who told Rose and Auletta last night (I’m paraphrasing) that his readers aren’t satisfied merely to know the score; they want to keep track of the entire game, inning by inning. You wonder if it has ever occurred to Allen that politics might not be a sporting event.

Leibovich reveals that Allen, like retired Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr., does not vote, lest it compromise his neutrality. This is house-of-mirrors stuff. Politico’s ongoing celebration of the status quo, of Washington as it is, of a worldview in which Democrats and Republicans are players who should be covered ESPN-style, makes it every bit as biased as Talking Points Memo or National Review Online, only less substantive.

I was particularly taken with this Leibovich tidbit:

“I’ve been in Washington about 30 years,” Mark Salter, a former chief of staff and top campaign aide to John McCain, says. “And here’s the surprising reality: On any given day, not much happens. It’s just the way it is.” Not so in the world of Politico, he says, where meetings in which senators act like themselves (maybe sarcastic or short) become “tension filled” affairs. “They have taken every worst trend in reporting, every single one of them, and put them on rocket fuel,” Salter says. “It’s the shortening of the news cycle. It’s the trivialization of news. It’s the gossipy nature of news. It’s the self-promotion.”

The shame of it is that a pioneering online-mostly news organization like Politico turns out to represent the perfect distillation of every bad trend in political journalism.

Politico’s goal, Leibovich tells us, is to “drive the conversation,” and it has succeeded at that to a considerable degree. Too bad Allen and company neither know nor care where they’re headed.

Tell us something we don’t know

I just spent, oh, the last hour and a half reading Roger Simon’s dauntingly well-reported piece for the Politico on how Barack Obama managed to beat the Clinton juggernaut. (Chuck Todd was praising it on Tom Ashbrook’s show this morning. Do we really believe he had time to read it?)

Like Joshua Green’s Atlantic article on what went wrong with Hillary Clinton’s campaign, it is full of insight and nuance. And, like Green’s piece, I ultimately found it unsatisfying. Here’s the problem: No one other than a political junkie is going to read such a story. And we political junkies have been living all this in real time for many, many months.

Both Simon and Green remind us of details we might have forgotten, skillfully weave a mass of information into coherent narratives and come up with some previously unreported nuggets. (Green: Mark Penn is smarter and more awful than we thought. Simon: Obama’s brain-trusters actually believed they could knock Clinton out in the opening weeks of the primary season.) In the end, though, they don’t do much more than tell us what we already know.

If there’s one thing of value I learned from the two accounts, it’s that no one should believe the Democrats would be in better shape today if Clinton had won the nomination — especially if she had won it easily, and had not had to put her dysfunctional campaign staff to the test.

OK, two. I think it’s a pretty good bet that Simon and Green are going to write books about this historic campaign. At nearly 16,000 words, Simon’s article is already about a quarter of the way there.