Every interview with Politico's two-headed hydra, John Harris and Jim VandeHei, is a tiny little puzzle-box treasure. And credit must be dispensed: They are at least honest. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that they are quasi-honest. 'Tis a high-fructose corn honesty, basically, redolent of cloying cheapness, is what I'm saying. And today's back-and-forth froth with The New Republic's Isaac Chotiner is not a disappointment.
For instance, if you're of the mind that Politico's oeuvre is essentially "post-concern" journalism ... well, VandeHarris are just going to tell you that you're correct. They aren't in this business to help normal human Americans live better lives, or get vital information, or navigate the world of politics in a meaningful way.
And they are tired of being critiqued for this! VandeHei lays it out pretty clearly: "The critique of Politico—'Oh my gosh, Politico is so insidery!'—my response is always, 'What part of Politico don’t you understand?' This has always been a publication focused on this city." (Actually, this is pretty well understood, hence the critiques.)
By which they mean they aren't even inquiring about the impact that policymakers have on the world at large. They don't have opinions on things like "the unemployment crisis," beyond the way "narratives" get crafted and people win news cycles and elections based upon how skillfully they participate in those activities. If Politico were about sports, they'd barely evince any evidence that they understand what's going on in the NBA Finals. But they'd have 40 articles about the post-game press conferences and who "won" them.
The truth is that Harris and VandeHei think that journalists whose stories even vaguely serve the public interest are at best fooling themselves and at worst really just as crass as they are -- just with a different metric for success:
IC: But what is the larger mission, besides bringing this news to your niche audience? When The New York Times does some story on pensions and the Long Island Rail Road, that story might not come out and say, “Our goal is to fix the pension system at LIRR,” but that is the upshot.
JH: “Our goal is to win a Pulitzer Prize, and this is the project for that.”(1)
Chotiner's helpful footnote indicates that this is "Harris' impersonation of a pompous Times editor."
Speaking of, Chotiner asks VandeHarris about that time they published, based on the testimony of a few anonymous sources, that Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson had "lost the newsroom." (In the piece, it is semi-revealed that Abramson deploys the controversial managerial tactic of asking people to do their jobs correctly.) Harris tells Chotiner:
I did not think we were making a summary judgment on her tenure, that she is a failure the way Howell Raines was a failure. I think some people read it that way.
Ha, well, the reason people read it that way is because the article said this explicitly. From the original, emphasis mine:
“It’s beginning to reach Howell Raines-like proportions,” one staffer said, referring to the former executive editor who, from 2001 to 2003, is reported to have ruled the paper through humiliation and fear before being forced to resign after the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal.
I mean, the piece basically draws a circle around the notion that Jill Abramson is the next Howell Raines, but it's everyone else's fault for reading this wrong.
Harris tells Chotiner, "If I had another shot at that piece, we could have been more precise." That translates to: "We're not that concerned about getting it right the first time." Studied readers of Politico know that the imprecision is a lifestyle choice, because the site's stock-in-trade is returning to the conversations they start, to indulge in navel-gazing. The Abramson piece very quickly provided that opportunity.
In fact, there's really only one thing in the world that seems to concern Politico's two top dogs, and that's Mark Leibovich's upcoming book, This Town, which Politico made a heroic effort to "get out in front of" back in April. At the time, VandeHei and Mike Allen went to some lengths to assure readers that Leibovich was an over-confident writer with a guilty conscience, and signed off on their takedown attempt thusly: "The inhabitants of this town might obsess about themselves -- but does anyone in the real world give a hoot?"
You know it bothers them precisely because their critique contains that essential bit of self-abnegation. With Chotiner, Harris tried to play it off, leading to this priceless exchange:
IC: Jim, you and Mike Allen did a piece on Mark Leibovich’s book where you were part of the story. John, what did you think about that article?
JH: Uh, I thought it was interesting. It was a topic that was already widely discussed: “What’s gonna be in the Leibo book?” The guys told the reader what they knew. I think some people misread it as though they were writing about themselves rather than the phenomenon or writing a defense of a slice of Washington. But I know that not to be the case.
IC: There just seems to be constant chatter and concern about this book.
JH: Is there really?
IC: It was the first thing you mentioned when I arrived.
"I actually haven’t given it a lot of thought," said Harris.
Actually, the Leibovich book -- which will offer a competing vision of how "this city" works -- is pretty much the one thing about which Harris can't say that.
READ THE WHOLE THING:
"What Part of 'Politico' Do You Not Understand?" [The New Republic]
PREVIOUSLY, on the HUFFINGTON POST:
Politico Grouses About Forthcoming Mark Leibovich Book In The Most 'Beltway Insider' Article Ever Written
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