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.