April 26, 2013

Politico on Tuesday night told of a dire situation at the New York Times. Executive Editor Jill Abramson, says the story by Dylan Byers, is “on the verge of losing the support of the newsroom” on account of her “brusque” manner.

She goes to meetings and makes people miserable. If not for Managing Editor Dean Baquet, a popular and charismatic fellow, the place would have imploded by now.

How do we know all of this? From information supplied by “more than a dozen current and former members of the editorial staff, all of whom spoke to Politico on the condition of anonymity.”

Hey, Politico: Is that the standard now? Can we just plow ahead and write the professional obituary of one of journalism’s most prominent talents on the basis of some anonymous sources?

Because if those are the rules, then woohoo! The Erik Wemple Blog has a story for you: Politico itself is a men’s club lodged within a village of cubicles, a place that has managed to cycle through women staff writers as efficiently as it updates stories on John Boehner.

The Erik Wemple Blog has been working on this blockbuster scoop for some time, and here’s how it’s shaping up:

In fall 2011, author Ron Suskind’s book “Confidence Men” alleged that the Obama White House had been an inhospitable place for women. A female Politico staffer at the time had been assigned to look into the story, yet a strange thing happened when she started reporting. “I would ask about these allegations of sexism and they [sources] would respond with some variation of ‘When are you going to do that story—the story on sexism at Politico?’ And so I went to my editor and said we don’t have a lot of cover on this story and shouldn’t pursue it too hard.”

Good call.

Based on interviews with more than a dozen former members of Politico’s editorial staff, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, Politico stories about sexism at other organizations carry a certain PR risk. Word of a strong male culture in Politico’s corridors is the subject of a great deal of chatter in Washington journalism circles. It stems from the hyper-aggressive reportorial mindset installed by the paper’s top two editors, John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei. As explained in Mark Leibovich’s New York Times Magazine piece from April 2010: “Working for Politico is ‘like tackle football,’ VandeHei reminds people, which might explain why most of Politico’s best-known bylines are male.”

Another possibility: Female staffers have shown a history of checking out of Politico. Archived editions of Politico tell that story. According to a masthead from Jan. 20, 2011, 36 female top editors and staff writers worked at Politico. Twenty-five of them have cleared out since, for a departure rate of nearly 70 percent. The figures for men: 50 top editors and staff writers on the Jan. 20, 2011, masthead were men. Seventeen have cleared out since then, for a departure rate of 34 percent.

The charitable explanation for the female departures is that these women are talented and get good offers. Former Politico staffer Marin Cogan, for example, bolted for a job as full-time correspondent for GQ. Who wouldn’t ditch the tyranny of the Blog Post Palladium for a gig at a glossy? Kasie Hunt bolted for the Associated Press and now works at NBC News. Reporter Carol Lee left for the Wall Street Journal. Jeanne Cummings, a respected editor at Politico, jumped to Bloomberg News. White House reporter Julie Mason went to do a radio show on SiriusXM satellite radio.

There is, however, a less charitable explanation, one that’s offered by a departed staffer: “For women—especially of a certain age, say 30s and upward—–it seems like a place that will make it very impossible to have a family or make room for the personal stuff that comes with getting older. I certainly felt that way–how can you work a 13 hour day, and half the weekend, and have a family? Plus, the overwhelming culture is male, and that dorky D.C. political macho thing.

Another departee: “It’s a monster truck rally thing—our entire editorial project is hyper-masculine.”

The dossier on the gender politics of Politico is boring. Of butt-pinching episodes or demands to fetch coffee, there are none. Sources have alleged an insensitive quip here or there by Politico editors, but these were misdemeanor episodes. What really mattered to the departees was attention and guidance from the top—something, they charged, that was extended more often to whippersnappers. Male whippersnappers.

How to nail down such mushy generalities? By looking at Politico’s published record, that’s how. Both top editors at Politico—VandeHei and Harris—do a healthy amount of writing in their busy jobs. Pummeled with all matters Politico, however, they often need co-reporters. They’re almost always other men.

VandeHei, for example, commonly teams up with Mike Allen, with whom he now produces the site’s “Behind the Curtain” feature. The two just finished a controversial column reviewing a not-yet-published book, by Leibovich. Just a question here: Why can’t a Maggie Haberman get in on this partnership?

Other guys with whom VandeHei has collaborated over the years include Jonathan Martin, Jake Sherman, Alexander Burns, Harris, Charles Mahtesian, Reid J. Epstein, Richard E. Cohen, Kenneth Vogel, Andy Barr, Eamon Javers, Alex Isenstadt, Tim Grieve, Harry Siegel, David Paul Kuhn, and Josh Kraushaar (several of those guys are no longer with Politico).

Of 156 hits on a Nexis byline search for “Jim VandeHei” in publication “Politico” over the past five years, nearly all—about 150—featured collaborators. Of those, three called on the assistance of female staffers.

Similar numbers derive from Harris’s byline history. Of 151 pieces over the past five years, Harris had collaborators on nearly 120. Of those, nine called on the assistance of female staffers.

A couple of female Politico vets spoke up on the record to defend their workplace. Politico stars like Maggie Haberman and Carrie Budoff Brown, said the defenders, have prominent roles and regularly appear on television representing Politico. That’s correct—they are fantastic. And Chief Operating Officer Kim Kingsley all but willed Politico into a national media force, pushing its talent onto the airwaves and presiding over products that have become staples of the Washington info-universe.

Beth Frerking, an editor at the site, addressed chatter about gender issues: “If I felt that at any deep level, I wouldn’t still be here,” she said, noting that she was involved with recruitment and personnel matters. When asked whether female colleagues had brought concerns about sexism to her attention, as I’d heard, Frerking responded: “When colleagues come to me, those conversations are confidential. People come to me to talk about a lot of things.”

Over the past year or so, say sources, Politico has made efforts to address gender issues; three of its five deputy managing editors, for example, are women. And the outlet, one of the most PR-savvy organizations ever, in any industry, has always been careful to tout their female hires. Witness: That New York Times Magazine story by Leibovich was date-stamped April 21, 2010. Early on the morning of April 21, 2010, Politico issued a press release announcing a number of female hires and promotions. It reads like a bald attempt to counter whatever Leibovich may have been preparing to write about the guy-rich news outlet. When you cover political campaigns for a living, you start acting like political campaigns.

So there it is: The case that Politico has a gender problem, brought to you by a crew of anonymous sources and some basic Internet research. Is that any more convincing than Politico’s case that Jill Abramson is a nasty, “brusque” wreck? Probably not.

It proves a point, however. Anonymous staffers—whether current, former or dead—will give you a story about any newsroom in the country. The question is whether it matters. Can Byers link Abramson’s loss of the newsroom to any dip in the quality of the news product? By his own admission, he cannot.

Can the Erik Wemple Blog link Politico’s fraternity culture to misfiring, gender-blind journalism? Trust me—I’ve kept my eyes open over the past year or so. The best example to arise so far came this week.

The Abramson-newsroom story was titled “Turbulence at The Times.” In alleging that Abramson was close to losing the support of her charges, the story served as an uncritical platform for “more than a dozen current and former members of the editorial staff, all of whom spoke to Politico on the condition of anonymity.” The verdict of these unidentified individuals was that Abramson was “stubborn and condescending,” not to mention “difficult to work with.”

Byers is an aggressive and prolific reporter straight out of the Politico tradition. The opening of the piece delivers a memorable clash between Abramson and Managing Editor Dean Baquet, one that Baquet commemorates by pounding a wall and leaving the newsroom. Drama! Had Politico simply drawn out that anecdote and triangulated the politics of a possible masthead split vis-a-vis the paper’s ownership, it would have produced a durable and valuable story, though one with far fewer retweets.

After detailing the Baquet explosion, however, Byers and Politico hand over hard-won Politico mindspace to gripers who may have any number of agendas in bashing their boss. This is the picture offered by these sources: “[I]nside The Times, the scene staffers describe is quite dour.”

Proof of this dourness, allege sources, comes in part from the meetings at which Abramson acts in the manner of a supervisor:

In one meeting, Abramson was upset with a photograph that was on the homepage. Rather than asking for a change to be made after the meeting, she turned to the relevant editor and, according to sources with knowledge of the meeting, said bluntly, “I don’t know why you’re still here. If I were you, I would leave now and change the photo.”

In another meeting, an editor asked about The Times Company’s recent decision to rename the International Herald Tribune as “The International New York Times.” Abramson reportedly snapped: That issue has been settled, she said. Why would we even bother getting into that?

Behind Door No. 1, we have an editor stressing the importance of a legacy newspaper moving more quickly on the Internet. That’s something, you’d suppose, that Politico would understand.

Behind Door No. 2, we have nothing.

Notwithstanding some flimsiness here and there, Byers could well be right: Abramson may indeed be in trouble with her staff. The coming months could bring more anonymous gripes and fissures that could start affecting the product. Not that Politico would ever exercise the patience to keep an eye on developments and then publish the “turbulence” piece.

Whether or not Abramson survives, the Politico story regurgitates, with insufficient rigor, the griping of entitled vets who don’t want new bosses to act like bosses–a posture of entitlement. And it blindly promulgates double standards along gender lines in fleshing out the stylistic differences between Abramson and Baquet: The former is a female disaster, the latter a beloved, tempestuous man.

That duality prompted the Erik Wemple Blog to pose some questions to Politico: Who edited this story? Did any women look at it before it hit the copy-editing stage? Were there any discussions about the quite clear gender dimensions of the story? No word yet from Byers and VandeHei on those fronts, though Byers did address the sexism charges. The answers matter, if only because the Byers piece looks like the product of a culture that was described to the Erik Wemple Blog by various female exiles. Anonymously, of course.

Many disclosures necessary here:

1) Most of the reporting above comes from early 2012, following a spate of female departures from Politico. After I and another Post reporter presented the evidence to the Style section, a decision was made not to proceed. There wasn’t enough on-the-record material.

2) I am a former employee of TBD.com, a now-shuttered property of Politico’s parent company.

3) The Washington Post competes against Politico for stories and talent.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.