June 18, 2013

In its pitch to advertisers, Politico advances this claim to fame: “[W]hile holding tightly to principles of fairness and accuracy, we have created a distinctive brand of journalism that drives the conversation—a conversation absolutely essential for readers and advertisers alike.”

Today Politico is driving a conversation, though its essentialness to readers and advertisers alike is debatable. It’s a conversation about Politico’s value as a source of news, and it evolved from a conversation between Isaac Chotiner of the New Republic and top Politico editors John Harris and Jim VandeHei. Even conversations can drive the conversation.

In response to a question about Nate Silver of the New York Times, whose models correctly predicted the outcome of the 2012 presidential election, Politico’s editors said the following:

Isaac Chotiner: What did you think of Nate Silver’s coverage of the last election? Did you read it?

John Harris: I will be drummed out of the profession, but I didn’t. My plate is full here. I know why people found him interesting and entertaining, and some people found him illuminating. There are people in our gang who think he is overblown and get worked up about Nate Silver. I don’t give a damn.

Jim VandeHei: I read it episodically. Some of his stuff goes on and on, trying to use numbers to prove stuff that I don’t think can be proved by numbers alone. I know he is a Politico hater. I admire what he has been able to do.

JH: I admire how he has built a franchise. I roll my eyes at how he gets up on his high horse quite a lot on different topics.

Reaction: Poynter has broken down the Politico critique of Silver in humorous fashion and TPM has run a piece in which Silver levels a critique of the Rosslyn-based news site-cum-newspaper, saying, among other things:

*Politico often “echoes and embraces” the thinking of Beltway insiders, which is often erroneous.
*Politico lacks “perspective about the role that Politico plays in formulating the conventional wisdom which they then ‘report’ upon.”
*Politico’s editors are in a “bubble” and suffer from little interest in the world outside thereof.

The finest example of Politico’s insiderish work came just a few weeks ago, when VandeHei and Mike Allen, “one of Washington’s top journalists,” wrote a piece anticipating the themes of a book in progress by New York Times Magazine chief national correspondent Mark Leibovich. One of Politico’s “Behind the Curtain” series, it came out just before the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, for a reason:

[I]n the spirit of D.C.’s most incestuous weekend of the year, the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, we thought we’d have some fun and do some reporting on his reporting on our friends, sources and subjects to find out who else should worry most about his book.

Critics had a ball with the piece. The Erik Wemple Blog, too, would have loved to elbow it a couple of times, if only we hadn’t found ourselves reading every detail — also a couple of times. The piece was gross and insiderish and incestuous, by its own admission. And its honesty about its wretchedness, in our view, absolved it.

Politico’s sensibility, indeed, feeds off of Beltway types — it nourishes them, occasionally flatters them, occasionally thrashes them and invites them to its Playbook breakfasts. Yet it would be a mistake to confuse the publication’s source base with its audience. A healthy 88 percent of Politico’s web visitors, VandeHei tells the Erik Wemple Blog, originates from outside the Beltway. That’s proof that a robust group of Americans are inclined to take up temporary residence inside Politico’s bubble; the United States is a land of political junkies. Bubble aspirants in the heartland are apparently plentiful enough such that last month, Politico announced a plan to experiment with a metered paywall for readers in the states of Iowa, North Dakota, Vermont, Mississippi, New Mexico and Wyoming.

Those folks are the media critics that Politico cares about.

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