By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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.

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  1. Julie Manganis

    Just want to point out that the Washington Post publisher who came up with the “salon” idea is Katharine Weymouth, the granddaughter of Katherine Graham. (No need to publish this comment if you just want to correct the entry).

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Julie: Good grief. I am really showing my age. Thanks.

  2. charles pierce

    Leibo let Allen off the hook here much too easily.
    Do you really believe that Allen “didn’t know” that his father was a primo Bircher and a speechwriter for George Corley W.?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Charles: What Allen said wasn’t credible. You or I would have gotten out the sledgehammer and driven the point home 10 or 12 times. Mark didn’t do that, but I got it, and so did you.

  3. L.K. Collins

    “Katharine Graham’s Weymouth’s”

    How, Dan, does this differ from someone calling our President “Barack Hussein Obama”?

    It seems as though you believe in a double, or is that triple, standard?

    Bitch all you want about others’ use of someone’s full name, but be very cognizant that you elect to use the same technique when you find it convenient to your purposes.

    Selfish? Mean spirited? Politically motivated?

    Or just plain terminally sloppy?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @L.K. Go back and read the comments. Read what @Julie Manganis wrote, and then read my response. Your eagerness to turn everything into a personal attack is absolutely mind-boggling.

      I wish Fish would return. Now there was someone who knew how to disagree without being consistently disagreeable.

  4. L.K. Collins

    Poor Dan, doesn’t like to be called for his foibles.

    You know, the difference between you and the other participants on Beat the Press is you are bitter, they are not.

    Is this a pattern for you?

  5. Al Fiantaca

    “Leibovich reveals that Allen, like retired Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr., does not vote, lest it compromise his neutrality.”

    Just because a reporter claims that he doesn’t vote, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it excuses him from political biases for or against a candidate or issue. In fact, I don’t see it accomplishing anything but the loss of his franchise as a citizen.

  6. BP Myers

    @L.K. Collins says: Katharine Graham’s Weymouth’s

    Hilarious, and as I’ve long suspected.

    At best, an unserious person. At worst, a mere troll.

    Personally, I hope it’s the latter. I can deal with that.

  7. L.K. Collins

    You may wish to look a the body of Dan’s work here on his blog to see his foibles and inconsistencies…not to mention his not-so occasional excursions into entitlement and eliteness.

    His on-camera snide chuckles are a dead giveaway.

    Ask Dan if the barbs have struck home.

    And what sort of a media critic might Dan be if he is unable to tolerate the type of critiques that he offers of others?

    Now which are you, serious, unserious, or just a cool-adi drinker?

  8. tobe berkovitz

    Politico is a good read. It has a decent mix of reportage/opinion/insider trading. I advise my students to use a wide range of resources when trying to understand and evaluate the political environment. No one should place too much stock in any one source of information. As for Mike Allen, we always need a flavor of the month.

  9. BP Myers

    L.K. Collins says: You may wish to look a the body of Dan’s work here on his blog . . .

    A simple, “Yeah, I got that one wrong. My bad” would have been the human response.

    You may also wanna ask yourself as well if you don’t sometimes react in a similar kneejerk fashion to some of the other things you read on this blog.

    Just sayin’.

  10. Julie Manganis

    Oh my goodness! Such a fuss over a simple boo-boo! For the record, Katharine Weymouth’s middle name is not Graham.

  11. Tom Underwood

    Thank you, Julie for pointing that out. Anyone who even skimmed this thread would have realized that. L.K. doth protest too much about thin-skin and all…

  12. charles pierce

    You don’t let a subject get away with an obvious lie just because the readers will “get it,” Dan. That has proven to be a very dangerous assumption over the past 20 years.

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