Oh boy! Today the fecund womb of the New York Times magazine has birthed into the world Mark Leibovich's seventy-kabillion word essay on Politico's Mike Allen, which I think is titled "I Was Told There'd Be Cheap Media Narratives" or something.
Alex Pareene says: "This is such terrible inside baseball that, honestly, I don't expect any living human being not currently employed by a web publication charged with 'covering' the political media to have clicked through." Gah, guess who fits that description!
So, okay. Here are all the interesting things you can learn from this story:
Things You Already Knew:
--"[White House Communications Director Dan] Pfeiffer tells Allen the message that the Obama administration is trying to 'drive' that morning." Ha! And yet the Obama administration will often tell you that they are totally above such manipulations!
--"[Politico] wants to 'win' every news cycle by being first with a morsel of information, whether or not the morsel proves relevant, or even correct, in the long run -- and whether the long run proves to be measured in days, hours or minutes." Yes. Politico has basically overcome the need to be "relevant" or "correct" through a practice by which their irrelevance and incorrectness later becomes a "Politico exclusive."
--"'The people in this community, they all want to read the same 10 stories,' [Allen] said, table-hopping in the Hay-Adams. 'And to find all of those, you have to read 1,000 stories. And we do that for you.'" They actually go on to publish all 1,000 stories, but never mind.
--"Politico today remains a White House shorthand for everything the administration claims to dislike about Washington -- Beltway myopia, politics as daily sport." Coincidentally, these are also the very things that Americans dislike about Washington!
--Leibovich says: "I have also been a source: after I 'spotted' Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner at an organic Chinese restaurant in my neighborhood last year -- picking up kung pao chicken with brown rice ('for Tim') -- I dutifully e-mailed Allen with the breaking news." AMERICA WAS NEVER THE SAME AGAIN.
--"Like Woodward, Allen can be tagged with the somewhat loaded moniker of 'access journalist.'" SOMEWHAT LOADED!
--"Allen reported that The Post was planning to hold paid salons for lobbyists at the home of its publisher, Katharine Weymouth, setting off a firestorm." And to be sure, that was a superb story, the impact of which is only slightly lessened when you get to the part of Leibovich's story where he describes the Mardi Gras party hosted by a lobbyist and attended by the very worst human beings in Washington.
--"While Harris and VandeHei say -- rightly -- that Politico has devoted lots of space and effort to, say, the health care debate, many of its prominent stories on the subject followed a reductive, who's-up-who's-down formula." Indeed, this is true. I doubt that anyone at Politico is even aware of what "health care" does, or why it is so relevant to millions of Americans.
Things That Maybe You Didn't Already Know
--"Before he goes to sleep, between 11 and midnight, Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, typically checks in by e-mail with" Allen. Whether or not Pfeiffer takes the opportunity to ask, "Do you think I could talk to Dick Cheney, who is probably lying right there?" is left unmentioned.
--"In 1993, Allen was covering a trial in Richmond, Va., for The New York Times (as a stringer) and The Richmond Times-Dispatch (which employed him). He found a pay phone, darted into the street and got whacked by a car." WAIT. As someone who used to live in Richmond, I am left to ask, in awe: Mike Allen found a working pay phone?!
--"Working for Politico is 'like tackle football,' VandeHei reminds people, which might explain why most of Politico's best-known bylines are male." Another explanation is that maybe there is some sort of institutionalized sexism in most American newsrooms?
--"In Politico parlance, 'influence' is less a verb than the root of a noun." Uhm...o-kay then!
Things That Are... What's The Term I'm Looking For? Oh, Yes. "Vaguely Disturbing":
--"Allen -- who is childless and owns no cars or real estate -- perpetually picks up meal and beverage tabs for his friend-sources (the dominant hybrid around Mikey)." I submit to you: "friend-source" is quite possibly the saddest word in the English language.
--"Another construct (originating outside Politico) is that Harris and VandeHei are God and Jesus -- it's unclear who is who -- and that Allen is the Holy Ghost. When I mentioned this to Allen recently, he was adamant that it is meant to be facetious and that no one at Politico really believes that." Having met many Politico reporters, I can attest to the fact that this is true, and can add that "God" and "Jesus" are actually entities from which Politico reporters seek relief and/or mercy.
--"Allen has been spotted dozing in public -- campaign planes, parties -- clutching his BlackBerry with two hands against his chest like a teddy bear." It won't love you back, Mikey!
--"One former copy editor at Politico, Campbell Roth, happened to buy a Washington condominium a few years ago that Allen had just vacated. She told me the neighbors called the former tenant 'brilliant but weird' and were 'genuinely scared about some fire-code violation' based on the mountains of stuff inside." It was at this point in the reading that I was reminded of how my friend (not a "friend-source!") Ana Marie Cox is fond of including a quote from "A Fan's Notes," by Fred Exley, in her emails. It reads: "a wink eventually becomes a twitch, a twitch the sign of some inner disturbance."
--"When sharing a cab, Allen is said to insist that the other party be dropped off first. One friend describes driving Allen home and having him get out at a corner; in the rearview mirror, the friend saw him hail a cab and set off in another direction." WINK.
--"I asked Allen about his hoarding and clutter issues, and he wanted no part of the discussion. He assured me that the Internet had cured him." TWITCH.
--"A former editor at The Post told me that Allen today seems to have taken refuge in his status as a public 'brand.'" SIGN OF SOME INNER DISTURBANCE.
There is also a long, long section in which Leibovich attempts to plumb the depths about Allen's relationship with his father, who was a John Birch Society member and sometime speechwriter for George Wallace, filled to the brim with paranoia about Communism and the Trilateral Commission and how rock music was a "Pavlovian Communist mind-control plot." Whether or not Allen lives in abject denial of this is well above my ability to psychoanalyze, but that seems to be the direction Leibovich wants to take things. After "some fidgety minutes" pass, Allen takes refuge in reciting the Boy Scout Law, and really, it's like reading a David Lynch screenplay.
Now that Leibovich's piece has dropped, Politico is hard at work, winning the morning with it. Patrick Gavin offers, "Long-rumored by some to be a "devastating" assessment of POLITICO, I didn't get the impression after reading all 8,000 words of it that "devastating" is an accurate depiction." That will probably be the prevailing opinion of most Beltway-media types, all of whom are as estranged from the meaning of this paragraph as Allen is from his father:
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."
As the Sex Pistols once sang, "We're pretty, pretty vacant, and we don't care." But if you want to move past pure impressionism, Leibovich provides a real-world example of the devastation:
More recently, Allen asked in his April 10 Playbook: "Good Saturday morning: For brunch convo: Why isn't Secretary Clinton on the media short lists for the Court?" By Monday, the convo had moved from the brunch table to "Morning Joe" (where the host, Joe Scarborough, advocated for her) and "Today" (where the Republican senator Orrin Hatch mentioned her, too). Later that day, Politico's Ben Smith quoted a State Department spokesman who "threw some coolish water on the Clinton-for-Scotus buzz in an e-mail." By then, the cable and blog chatter was fully blown. The White House issued a highly unusual statement that Secretary Clinton would not be nominated. Politico then sent out a "breaking news alert," and Smith reported that the White House had "hurriedly punctured the trial balloon." End of convo.
For what it's worth, Philippe Reines, a Clinton adviser, says that he told another Politico reporter the previous Friday that the chances of his boss's being nominated were "less than none" and added, "Something being a sexy media story shouldn't be confused with truth."
Basically, Politico takes some crap, shines it up, gets a legion of followers to inflate the empty bubble, bets against it, watches it pop, and then cashes in on whatever micro-transactions they can grub up in terms of pageviews and "influence" (less a verb than the root form of a noun!). Basically, the Magnetar model of journalism!
Leibovich doesn't bother to critique... any of this, really. That job falls to McCain adviser Mark Salter: "They have taken every worst trend in reporting, every single one of them, and put them on rocket fuel... 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."
This anecdote seems the best place to leave this:
[Allen] became animated when discussing a long-ago reporting job in Fredericksburg, Va. His favorite story there was headlined, "Hot Dog: A Meal or a Snack?" The county board of supervisors was debating whether hot-dog sales should include a meal tax. "Every single thing that I've written since then," Allen said, "whether it's about a mayor or a governor or senator or president, it all boils down to, 'Hot Dog: A Meal or a Snack?' All great questions come from small questions."
It makes perfect sense that a Politico reporter would suggest that all great questions come from small questions about how often one should digest a glutinous blob of pig snouts and tripe, shoved into a sausage casing.