The sale of Politico marks the end of a long duel between the Allbrittons and the Grahams

Katharine Graham believed that Joseph Allbritton hoped to take advantage of the 1975-’76 strike against The Washington Post. Photo by Reading/Simpson, noncommercial use permitted.

Robert Allbritton last week sold Politico to the German media company Axel Springer for $1 billion. Ben Smith, who was part of the launch back in 2007, wrote about the sale earlier this week in The New York Times. I wrote about the two-generation rivalry between the Allbrittons and the Graham family, who controlled The Washington Post until 2013, in “The Return of the Moguls.” Below is an excerpt.

Katharine Graham’s other crucial move was to endure a strike in 1975 in order to get the Post’s printing costs under control. So arcane were the work rules that when an advertiser submitted a finished ad (known in the post-hot-lead, pre-computer age as “camera-ready”), a union compositor still put together an equivalent ad, even though it would be discarded as soon as he was finished with it. In deciding to put a stop to such practices, Graham was fortunate in the viciousness of her opposition. At one demonstration, a leader of the union, Charlie Davis, carried a sign that read “Phil Shot the Wrong Graham,” a reference to Phil Graham’s suicide. On the night that the pressmen went on strike, some of them beat the night foreman and started a fire in an attempt to sabotage the machinery. Because of those actions they earned the enmity of the Newspaper Guild, which represented the reporters. With the paper’s journalists crossing the picket line, the Post was able to resume publishing after just one missed day, enabling them to break the strike. The benefits of being able to modernize production were immediate, as income grew from about $13 million a year to $24.5 million in 1976 and to $35.5 million in 1977.

Not all observers were sympathetic to the Grahams. Ben Bagdikian, a former Post national editor who spent much of his long, distinguished career after leaving the paper as an academic and a harsh critic of corporate journalism, wrote an article in the Washington Monthly attributing the strike to Katharine Graham’s earlier decision to go public. “The idiosyncratic publishers, whose integrity led them to ignore narrow economic arguments in favor of quality, and who as a result created America’s great newspapers, are disappearing,” Bagdikian wrote. “They were being replaced by profit-maximizing conglomerate owners. It is a forecast of trouble for independent journalism in the country’s most important news companies.” Graham recorded her response in a note to Ben Bradlee: “I am really embarrassed to think this ignorant biased fool was ever national editor. Surely the worst asps in this world are the ones one has clasped to the bosom.”

The Post’s rivalry with The Washington Star played a small role in the strike as well, a tidbit of interest mainly because of who owned the Star at that time: Joe Allbritton, a Texan who had acquired the paper from the Kauffmann family in 1974. Katharine Graham wrote that Allbritton declined to help the Post during the strike because, in her view, the only way the Star could stay in business was for the Post to fail. Allbritton sold the Star to Time Inc. in 1978, which closed it in 1981 even though Katharine Graham, Donald Graham and Warren Buffett had made overtures to set up a joint operating agreement under which both papers would be published.

The Allbritton family’s ambitions remained entangled with the Post for many decades to come. Years later, two Post journalists, John Harris and Jim VandeHei, were rebuffed when they proposed setting up a separate political website under the paper’s umbrella. They took their idea to Joe Allbritton’s son, Robert, who helped them launch Politico in 2007. With its hyperkinetic insider’s approach to covering politics, the site quickly established itself as a serious rival to the Post on one of its signature beats, although Politico was often criticized for emphasizing the superficial horse race aspects of politics.

Robert Allbritton also backed a site cheekily named TBD.com (for “to be determined”), edited by the former washingtonpost.com editor Jim Brady and the future Post media blogger Erik Wemple, which covered local news in the Washington area in conjunction with a television station the Allbrittons had owned since acquiring the Star. Fortunately for the Grahams, Allbritton lost patience with it within months of its 2010 launch, and in 2012 the site was shut down. Another Allbritton connection: About a year after Jeff Bezos bought the Post, he hired Frederick Ryan, a former Reagan administration official, to replace Katharine Weymouth as publisher. At the time that the move was made, Ryan was president and chief operating officer of Allbritton Communications and had served as Politico’s first chief executive.

The Post and Politico make for a fascinating contrast. Both companies are ensconced in brand-new headquarters on either side of the Potomac; Politico occupies part of an office tower in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Virginia. The missions of the two organizations are very different. The Post is a general-interest newspaper with a substantial print presence. Politico is aimed at people in the professional political community, and though it publishes a small print product (daily when Congress is in session; weekly otherwise), it’s mainly digital. Yet if the ancient rivalry between the Post and The New York Times is mostly journalistic and symbolic, the Post’s rivalry with the Allbritton family has involved serious competition over whose news organization will prove to be more financially successful in the long run.

Correction: I have learned that the elder Albritton’s legal name was Joe, not Joseph. Unfortunately, it remains wrong in the book.

Four years later, getting to the bottom of the Steele dossier

The alleged Moscow hotel room where it all didn’t happen. Photo (cc) 2017 by quapan.

The New York Times on Sunday published an excerpt from “Spooked: The Trump Dossier, Black Cube and the Rise of Private Spies,” by former Times reporter Barry Meier. The excerpt makes explicit something that has long been obvious: that the much-ballyhooed Steele dossier contained little that was actually true.

You remember the Steele dossier, right? Compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele as opposition research on Donald Trump, first paid for by anti-Trump Republican interests and later by the Hillary Clinton campaign, the dossier contained all kinds of salacious details, including an alleged romp in a Russian hotel room involving Trump, prostitutes, urine and a bed the Obamas had once slept in.

The value Meier brings to the tale, other than a wealth of details, is a reality check: How could Steele, who had been hired by the private intelligence firm Fusion GPS, know so much that had eluded everyone else? Here’s a particularly telling passage:

Over dinner in Moscow in 2019, Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign, offered her take on the matter. Ms. Veselnitskaya had worked alongside Mr. Simpson when she represented a Russian-owned real estate firm called Prevezon Holdings and said she regarded him as a skilled investigator. [Glenn Simpson, a former journalist, is the co-founder of Fusion GPS.] As for Mr. Steele and the dossier, she had nothing but contempt.

“If you take this fake stuff for real, then you just have to be brave enough to believe, to completely dismiss all your special services, all your intelligence staff,” she said rapidly through an interpreter. She suggested how odd it was that all those people and agencies “were never able to find out what that talented person found out without ever leaving his room.”

No kidding. Meier also reminds us that when the identity of Steele’s informant was finally revealed last year, he turned out to be less than impressive — Igor Danchenko, a Russian-born lawyer living in the United States whose “contacts within Russia appeared to be not Kremlin A-listers but instead childhood friends, college buddies or drinking pals.”

As Trump was taking office in January 2017, CNN reported that both Trump and outgoing President Barack Obama had been briefed on the Steele Dossier’s contents, giving it a shiny aura of believability. BuzzFeed News went one step further, actually publishing the entire dossier. As I said at the time, I thought BuzzFeed made the wrong call, explaining:

The documents reflect raw intelligence of the sort that is often wrong. Apparently a number of news organizations have had this material for quite some time, and none of them published because they could not verify their truthfulness…. Essentially BuzzFeed played right into the narrative being pushed by Trump and his supporters — that the media cannot be trusted and are out to get him by promoting “fake news.”

Interestingly, the editor of BuzzFeed News at that time was Ben Smith, who is now the Times’ media columnist.

As Meier suggests, Trump was so flagrantly corrupt that journalists were willing to believe anything about his ties with Russia. The trouble is that not every bad thing you hear about a bad person is true.

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Baron was right to stop Woodward from exposing Kavanaugh’s duplicity

Bob Woodward. Photo (cc) 2010 by Miguel Ariel Contreras Drake-McLaughlin.

There is a lot to chew over in Ben Smith’s deep dive into The Washington Post, which — like news (and non-news) organizations everywhere — is struggling with issues of diversity. But let me keep the focus narrow here, because Smith leads with a blockbuster anecdote about something that unfolded during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 2018. Smith writes in The New York Times:

Bob Woodward, the Post legend who protected the identity of his Watergate source, Deep Throat, for 30 years, was going to unmask one of his own confidential sources. He was, in particular, going to disclose that Judge Kavanaugh had been an anonymous source in his 1999 book “Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate.”

Mr. Woodward was planning to expose Mr. Kavanaugh because the judge had publicly denied — in a huffy letter in 1999 to The Post — an account about Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton that he had himself, confidentially, provided to Mr. Woodward for his book. (Mr. Kavanaugh served as a lawyer on Mr. Starr’s team.)

What Kavanaugh allegedly did pretty much defines one of the circumstances under which a reporter might consider exposing an anonymous source: he told the truth (apparently) to Woodward and then lied about it in public. And the stakes were high, as Woodward’s story, if published, could have presented yet another obstacle to Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

But executive editor Marty Baron intervened, according to Smith: “Mr. Baron and other editors persuaded Mr. Woodward that it would be bad for The Post and ‘bad for Bob’ to disclose a source, one of the journalists told me. The piece never ran.”

Among those siding with Baron is Matt Storin, his predecessor as editor of The Boston Globe, where Baron served for nearly more than a decade before moving to the Post. “I’m not in a position to render judgment on a lot of this piece, but @PostBaron absolutely did the right thing on the Woodward issue, supporting any reporter in the future who needs an anonymous source,” Storin tweeted.

I agree with Storin — and, thus, with Baron. Unless Woodward promised Kavanaugh he’d keep his identity confidential only if he subsequently told the truth in public about their exchange, then Woodward had no business breaking their agreement. It’s a tough call, and the fact that someone of Woodward’s stature wanted to go the other way shows that good people can differ on this. But Woodward, pressured by Baron, ultimately did the right thing.

It’s not like Kavanaugh is the first source to tell a reporter one thing in confidence and then say something else publicly. It’s happened to me, and I’m sure most reporters would tell you the same thing. But that’s one of the risks you take when grant anonymity to someone.

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How Google destroyed the value of digital advertising

New York Times media columnist Ben Smith reports on efforts to compel Google and Facebook to turn over some of their advertising revenues to the news organizations whose content they repurpose without compensation.

The debate over what platform companies owe the news business goes back many years and has come to resemble a theological dispute in its passions and the certainty expressed by those on either side. Indeed, longtime digital-news pundit Jeff Jarvis immediately weighed in with a smoking hot Twitter thread responding to Smith.

I’m not going to resolve that debate here. Rather, I want to offer some context. First, something like 90% of all new spending on digital advertising goes to Google and Facebook. Second, Google’s auction system for brokering ads destroyed any hopes news publishers had of making actual money from online advertising. How bad is it? Here’s an except from my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls”:

Nicco Mele, the former senior vice president and deputy publisher of the Los Angeles Times, who’s now the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School [he has since moved on], explained at a Shorenstein seminar why a digital advertising strategy based on clicks simply doesn’t work for news organizations that are built around original (which is to say expensive) journalism. “Google has fundamentally shaped the future of advertising by charging on a performance basis — cost per click,” he said. “And that has been a giant, unimaginable anchor weight dragging down all advertising pricing.”

For example, Mele said that a full-page weekday ad in the LA Times, which would reach 500,000 people, costs about $50,000. To reach the same 500,000 people on LATimes.com costs about $7,000. And if that ad appeared on LATimes.com via Google, it might bring in no more than $20. “Models built on scale make zero sense to me,” Mele said, “because I just don’t see any future there.” Yet it has led even our best newspapers to supplement their high-quality journalism with a pursuit of clicks for the sake of clicks.

From $50,000 to $7,000 to $20. This is why the advertising model for digital news is broken, and it’s why newspapers have gone all-in on paid subscriptions.

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No reason for BuzzFeed to apologize for that explosive Michael Cohen story

I want to take a brief look at a very small wrinkle within the much larger story of the Mueller Report. A number of observers have taken note that the report disputes an article that BuzzFeed News published back in January claiming that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen told prosecutors the president had “directed” him to lie before Congress about the Trump Organization’s attempts to build a tower in Moscow.

At the time, Mueller’s office took the unusual step of denying BuzzFeed’s story, and the release of the redacted Mueller Report on Thursday appeared to back that up. For instance, here is how NBC News puts it:

While Mueller acknowledged there was evidence that Trump knew Cohen had provided Congress with false testimony about the Russian business venture, “the evidence available to us does not establish that the President directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony.”

BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith addressed the matter Thursday night, acknowledging that the Mueller Report contradicts what his journalists had claimed. CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, in his daily newsletter, notes, “Smith stopped short of expressing any regret for the story.” But should he have? I don’t think so. Crucially, Smith also writes this:

On Feb. 27, Cohen testified before a congressional committee that Trump “told” him to lie to Congress “in his way,” using a coded style of speech that Cohen said was familiar from past interactions.

Indeed Cohen did. We all saw him do it. I took it at the time, and I still do, that BuzzFeed’s reporting was essentially correct. Cohen by his own testimony told Mueller’s office that President Trump had made it clear he wanted him to lie. BuzzFeed interviewed two unnamed prosecutors who passed that information along. If Mueller has now concluded that didn’t actually amount to Trump directing Cohen to lie, it doesn’t change what Cohen perceived or how BuzzFeed’s sources understood what Cohen was telling them.

BuzzFeed’s headline and lead used the word “directed,” which is totally accurate. Where BuzzFeed overstepped was in publishing this sentence farther down: “It is the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia” [my emphasis].

My two takeaways from this episode are, first, that BuzzFeed comes out of this looking pretty good; and second, that every word matters, especially when reporting on a story this explosive. The phrase “explicitly telling” hangs out there as the sole problem in a story that otherwise advanced our understanding of the Trump-Russia connection in a fundamental way.

Earlier: “Making Sense of the BuzzFeed Bombshell — and What, If Anything, Went Wrong” (WGBH News, Jan. 23).

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Making sense of the BuzzFeed bombshell — and what, if anything, went wrong

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

BuzzFeed News reports that “two federal law enforcement officials” have seen evidence that President Trump “directed” his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie under oath when he testified before Congress about a Trump Tower project in Moscow. Special counsel Robert Mueller takes the unusual step of having his spokesman denounce the story as “not accurate.” BuzzFeed’s reporters and their editor vociferously insist that they and their unnamed sources are standing behind their account.

Within 24 hours last week, what looked like a serious threat to the Trump presidency had collapsed into one big honking mess. Nor does it appear that we’re any closer to resolution. A number of media observers have pointed out that no other news organization has been able to confirm BuzzFeed’s reporting. That’s significant, of course. But no one has been able to knock it down, either.

So what is going on? Let me offer a speculative answer, based on the belief that Mueller’s office, BuzzFeed’s journalists, and their sources are all trying their best to tell the truth: everyone is right. BuzzFeed’s story is essentially accurate, but is flawed in some important way that hasn’t been explained. Mueller, worried that Trump might blow up the investigation, took advantage of those flaws to discredit the entire story. If that was Mueller’s intention, it worked, as Trump praised him after the statement was released.

In the past few days we’ve heard much about the famous mistake that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein made when they were hammering away at the Watergate story for The Washington Post: They attributed an otherwise accurate account of corruption within the Nixon White House to grand jury testimony that did not exist. Their error was seen as so damaging that they offered their resignations.

“Look, reporters make mistakes. News organizations make mistakes. In Watergate, we made a mistake, a very serious mistake,” Bernstein said this past Sunday on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” But, he continued, within days the Post was vindicated when it became clear that the information they had reported was true.

The parallels between BuzzFeed’s story and Woodward and Bernstein’s erroneous attribution, though, only go so far. I think a closer analogy involves James Comey’s testimony in June 2017 before the Senate Intelligence Committee shortly after Trump had fired him as FBI director. Comey was asked about a Times story that had been published four months earlier claiming that members of Trump’s campaign “had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.” Comey replied that “in the main, it was not true.”

As with the BuzzFeed report, no details were offered as to what was wrong with the Times story. Here we are, more than a year and a half later, and we still don’t know what Comey was referring to. Was it the sourcing? The underlying facts? The Times article reporting on Comey’s complaint noted that there was considerable evidence of contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government even then. Today, of course, there is far more evidence, going all the way up to Trump’s extremely guilty campaign manager, Paul Manafort.

If we assume that the basic facts of BuzzFeed’s report are correct, then what might have gone wrong enough for Mueller to issue his extraordinary statement? Writing at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall speculated that the information came not from the special counsel’s office but, rather, from the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York. The BuzzFeed story specifically cited the special counsel’s office, but Marshall pointed out that it’s not always clear who is doing what. “The SDNY is notoriously more porous to the press than the Special Counsel’s Office,” Marshall wrote. “So we have a kind of information that seems more likely to come out of New York and an office there that seems considerably more likely to leak.”

National security blogger Marcy Wheeler, while praising the BuzzFeed report in some respects, was also critical of it for making “an absurd claim that this is the first time we’ve heard that Trump told someone to lie.” She added: “The BuzzFeed story is important for the concrete details it adds to a story we already knew — and these reporters deserve a ton of kudos for consistently leading on this part of the story. But it has unnecessarily overhyped the uniqueness of Trump’s role in these lies, in a way that could have detrimental effect on the country’s ability to actually obtain some kind of justice for those lies.”

The journalists who worked on the BuzzFeed story are first-rate. Jason Leopold, despite some serious ethical lapses early in his career, is a dogged investigative reporter who was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2018. Anthony Cormier, whose byline also appeared on the story, won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting in 2016 when he was with the Tampa Bay Times. BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith is well regarded.

And yet there was one obvious shortcoming. According to The Washington Post, BuzzFeed’s outreach to Mueller spokesman Peter Carr for comment before publication was unacceptably vague: “Importantly, the reporter made no reference to the special counsel’s office specifically or evidence that Mueller’s investigators had uncovered.” When the story was published a short while later, the Post continued, “it far exceeded Carr’s initial impression.”

If BuzzFeed failed to give the special counsel’s office fair notice of what was coming, that would help explain the controversy that broke out after they hit “publish.” But it still doesn’t tell us what, if anything, BuzzFeed got wrong — or whether we’ll ever know.

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The tainted BuzzFeed News blockbuster: Where do we go from here?

Last night on “Beat the Press” (above) we took on the BuzzFeed News blockbuster and talked about how much credence the media should give to a story that they hadn’t independently verified. Among other things, I said that BuzzFeed News has a good reputation and that it has owned the Trump Tower story. I’ll stand by that.

Then, a few hours later, the office of special counsel Robert Mueller denied the story, which claimed that President Trump had personally directed his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress under oath about plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. The Washington Post’s account is brutal:

Inside the Justice Department, the statement was viewed as a huge step, and one that would have been taken only if the special counsel’s office viewed the story as almost entirely incorrect. The special counsel’s office seemed to be disputing every aspect of the story that addressed comments or evidence given to its investigators.

BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith said that he stands behind the story.

So where do we go from here?

First, this reminds me of James Comey, shortly after he’d been fired as FBI director, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee and claiming that The New York Times had gotten an important Trump-Russia story wrong. Comey offered no specifics, and we still don’t know what he was referring to. Likewise, Mueller’s spokesman did not say what BuzzFeed News had gotten wrong — other than “every aspect,” as the Post suggests.

Second, there’s been some well-informed speculation by Josh Marshall (sub. req.) and others that BuzzFeed’s sources are in the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, not the special counsel’s office. National security blogger Marcy Wheeler believes that BuzzFeed “unnecessarily overhyped the uniqueness of Trump’s role in these lies,” and that Mueller issued his statement in order to take the temperature down and keep his investigation on track.

Third, BuzzFeed News does, in fact, have a good reputation. Smith is a fine editor. As you may have heard, one of the two reporters on the story, Jason Leopold, was caught in several ethical lapses earlier in his career, and it’s not unfair to take that into account. But there have been no reported problems since 2006, and in 2018 he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. The other reporter, Anthony Cormier, won a Pulitzer in 2016 when he was at the Tampa Bay Times.

Smith, Leopold and Cormier knew what the stakes were before this story was published. I would imagine that even BuzzFeed chief executive Jonah Peretti was involved in the decision to hit “publish.” There may turn out to be some significant problems with the story. But unless we see evidence to the contrary, I think it’s likely that everyone involved satisfied themselves that they had the goods. Did they? I hope we’ll find out.

Sunday update: Trump’s lawyer-in-charge-of-digging-the-hole-deeper, Rudy Giuliani, weighs in:

And here’s BuzzFeed reporter Anthony Cormier refusing to back down:

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