NY Times Magazine damns Politico with intended praise: Being first beats being correct

By Muriel Kane
Wednesday, April 21, 2010 13:41 EDT
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Perhaps the most damning thing one media publication can say about another is that being first means more to it than being right. But that is the message that comes across, perhaps inadvertently, in a lengthy New York Times Magazine article dedicated to glorifying the website Politico and its chief reporter, Mike Allen.

The opening paragraph of the piece sets the intended tone, with its suggestion that Allen displays superhuman powers of endurance: “A hyperactive former Eagle Scout, Allen will have been up for hours, if he ever went to bed. Whether or not he did is one of the many little mysteries that surround him.”

A less flattering portrayal, however, keeps intruding.

“Allen’s e-mail tipsheet, Playbook, has become the principal early-morning document for an elite set of political and news-media thrivers and strivers,” Mark Leibovich writes. “Politico wants to ‘drive the conversation’ in the new-media landscape of the 21st [century]. It 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.”

Indeed, Allen is so obsessed with being the first to break any story that he even scooped the Times article about himelf. According to Glynnis MacNicol at Medaite,”I don’t know if this qualifies as a conflict of interest so meta it cancels itself out, or just the height of self-branding, but in his ‘most powerful’ Playbook column this morning ‘the man the White House wakes up to’ Politico’s Mike Allen scooped the New York Times by releasing nuggets from a feature they are doing on…Mike Allen in this weekend’s Magazine.”

Leibovich frankly admits that he and Allen’s bosses at Politico “all have the same friends and run into each other a lot, and I have tiold them how much I admire what they have achieved.” That admission, however, does not stop him from devoting most of the article to eulogizing Allen as an almost mythological figure.

Leibovich describes Allen as “at once manic and serene,” the subject of many stories “that Washingtonians share with awe and some concern,” and an “ominpresent participant-observer” characterized by “ubiquity and inscrutability” whose own home “not even his closest friends have seen.”

Like its subject matter, Leibovich’s article focuses relentlessly on personalities rather than politics or ideology. The only real concerns he expresses — and then only in passing — have to do with Allen’s and Politico’s tendency to reinforce the inside-the-Beltway mentality of Washington insiders and to cast stories in terms of winners and losers rather than policy issues.

Those concerns appear to carry more weight with other observers, however. Even Politico’s own Ben Smith, in alerting readers to the Times story, seemed a bit embarrassed. “Yes, there’s more navel-gazing this morning,” he admitted, but he also insisted that Allen’s Playbook is “an unusual phenomenon … because it’s so collegial, warm, and small-towny in a city whose inhabitants are, in reality, trying to destroy one another.”

Alex Pareene at Gawker, however, was far less inclined to go all warm and cuddly over Allen. “Oh boy–Michael Calderone is… teasing the upcoming Mark Leibovich story on the hellish journalism-alternative” sweatshop that is Politico,” he wrote, describing the article as “terrible inside baseball.”

And Wonkette was even snarkier, writing, “We’re going to admit something here, before the New York Times Magazine news article about Washington webzine sweatshop ‘The Politico’ changes the very nature of Time/Space: We do not read Mike Allen’s daily email, and we don’t look at the Politico unless we absolutely have to. … There is much to dislike about the Politico and its newsroom culture of pointless trivia and breathtaking lack of perspective, but pretending Mike Allen’s dumb email is anything more than links to the same shit everybody’s already reading is just bizarre.”

A more serious bias in the Times article, however, may be Leibovich’s insistance that “Playbook’s politics are ‘aggressively neutral’” — even though he notes in the next sentence that “Dick Cheney seems to have made Allen the go-to outlet for many of his criticisms of the current administration.”

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald has been far more biting when it comes to Cheney’s reliance on Politico. This past January, in a column titled “Cheney’s stenographers fight back,” he wrote, “Throughout the year, Politico has repeatedly published as ‘news articles’ comments from Dick Cheney, which its ‘reporters’ faithfully write down and print with virtually no challenge, skepticism or contradiction. So extreme has this behavior become that even Beltway TV personalities such as Chris Matthews are beginning to mock it.”

Greenwald has also not shied off from suggesting a right-wing bias on the part of the purportedly non-political webiste. In 2007, he wrote, “The new online political magazine, The Politico, is a pernicious new presence in our media landscape. As I noted the other day, it really is nothing more than the Drudge Report dressed up with the trappings of mainstream media credibility. … Last night, The Politico’s Mike Allen published a petty, trite hit piece on Barack Obama — entitled Rookie Mistakes Plague Obama — claiming that Obama ‘has also shown a tendency toward seemingly minor contradictions and rhetorical slips.’ … Allen’s story was “highlighted on the Drudge Report no later than 18 minutes after it was filed by Allen.’”

“When we last saw Mike Allen, he was falling all over himself in praise of Drudge on Drudge’s radio show,” Greenwald continued. “Allen, who was Time’s White House correspondent before joining The Politico, has a relationship with the White House and with George Bush so affable that the President actually went out of his way at a recent Press Conference deliberately to plug The Politico while exchanging in giggly chatter with Allen.”

In this context, one of the most interesting tidbits that Leibovich lets drop is the suggestion that Allen’s legendary secretiveness about his personal life may be connected with the fact that his father, Gary Allen, “was an icon of the far right in the 1960s and 1970s. … He wrote speeches for George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama and presidential candidate. … He wrote mail-order books and pamphlets distributed through a John Birch mailing list. ”

Even in noting Gary Allen’s John Birch Society connections, however, Leibovich appears to be oddly cloudy. He does not mention that the elder Allen most widely known as the author of the best-seller None Dare Call it Conspiracy (1971), which claimed to unveil “the plan of the international bankers to create a world socialist super-state” and can still be found recommended on Tea Party and white supremacist websites.

Muriel Kane
Muriel Kane
Muriel Kane is an associate editor at Raw Story. She joined Raw Story as a researcher in 2005, with a particular focus on the Jack Abramoff affair and other Bush administration scandals. She worked extensively with former investigative news managing editor Larisa Alexandrovna, with whom she has co-written numerous articles in addition to her own work. Prior to her association with Raw Story, she spent many years as an independent researcher and writer with a particular focus on history, literature, and contemporary social and political attitudes. Follow her on Twitter at @Muriel_Kane
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