October 3, 2013

Second in a multi-part series.

Politico's Mike Allen, left, interviews Timothy Geithner. (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)
Politico’s Mike Allen, left, interviews Timothy Geithner. (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)

When Mike Allen appeared on last Friday’s edition of “Morning Joe,” a government shutdown was looming. No cable news show can possibly discuss such a prospect without wondering aloud which players will lose face. In response to a suggestion that the Republicans might face significant problems, Allen held forth: “Here’s why it’s not all Republicans. A lot of people in the country don’t know John Boehner. There’s no one in the world who doesn’t know Barack Obama, so when Washington is not working, is going off the rails in a very visible way, way that is vivid, touches people — that’s not good, ultimately, for the president.”

Nothing like a little name-recognition-optics punditry with your coffee and toast. For nearly four years, Allen and other Politiquites have been fashioning such even-handed-sounding sound bites via a close affiliation with “Morning Joe.” Every morning, a Politico eminence appears on the show to talk up the latest news from Washington. Allen and Politico Executive Editor Jim VandeHei pick up a great deal of the “hits,” shorthand for TV appearances.

As political talk on cable television goes, “Morning Joe’s” regular “Politico Playbook” segments fall in the 60th percentile. Both VandeHei and Allen are early risers and massive processors of political news, requirements for the “Morning Joe” hit, which takes place in the middle of the 6 o’clock hour. (A second Politico hit in the 8 o’clock hour was phased out). Though neither is on course to revolutionize punditry, both understand what’s happening on Capitol Hill, in the White House, in the agencies and beyond. Allen has side obsessions in business moguls and Lance Armstrong, a specialty of ever-depreciating value.

No matter the insights provided by Politico journalists, the balance of power in this relationship tilts toward “Morning Joe,” if only because of supply and demand. Consider the number of news outlets stocked with young suits who can talk politics on cable. Hundreds. Now consider the number of morning cable shows that dig into politics as deeply as “Morning Joe.” Any nominees?

Politico maxes out this precious resource, too. During the site’s designated slot, “Morning Joe” displays an on-screen graphic that reads “Politico Playbook.” Visitors to the “Morning Joe” Web site will find a link to “Politico Playbook” material.

Colonization of “Morning Joe” is merely the highest-profile coup in a longstanding campaign by Politico officials to place their people on every outlet that uses outside political analysts. At the helm of this promotional surge has been Kim Kingsley, formerly the site’s executive director for media and special projects and now the chief operating officer. Whether the pundit request came from MSNBC, WTOP or some no-account TV station, Kingsley and her media shop had a reporter and some talking points at the ready.

In August 2012, as Mitt Romney and President Obama beat on each other at campaign stops across the country, Politico staffers racked up a combined 475 media hits, according to an internal accounting circulated among top Politico brass. The Erik Wemple Blog asked a Politico competitor to provide its tally; it begged off when it heard Politico’s number.

With the visibility came brand recognition and, ultimately, advertisers. “It’s all about ubiquity. Familiarity fosters favorability. I see you all the time [on TV], therefore you must be awesome,” says Kenny Day, a top advertising executive in the early days of Politico.

Few of the outlets that traffic in Politico media hits, however, gel as nicely with the site’s business strategy as does “Morning Joe.” Its name partner, Joe Scarborough, is a former Republican congressman from Florida, and whether or not you regard his yet-to-be-released “The Right Path” as a seminal work of history, give him this much: The guy lives politics, with an accent on the strategy, the messaging and the imperative of winning. A sensibility doppelganger for Politico, in other words.

Segments on “Morning Joe” track Scarborough’s obsessions. A great deal of it sounds like a bull session in the hallways of Politico. No wonder, then, that both outlets have ended up chasing the same category of advertiser. Politico owes its large newsroom and well-paid executives to the $100 million-plus industry of advocacy advertisers, companies with big agendas — and contracts — in Washington. Anyone who’s ridden Metro or picked up Roll Call or National Journal or Politico knows the pitch: A big splash for Boeing or Lockheed Martin or the Association of American Railroads, often broadcasting their big-money stake in some insular Capitol Hill debate.

Elizabeth Wilner, who evaluates this species of advertising as vice president of Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, says most cable-news programs net a “fair amount” of spending from these deep-pocketed Beltway interests. “The reason that they do is because they’re on in Washington offices and Capitol Hill offices during the day,” says Wilner.

That said: “Among the range of programs advocacy advertisers could choose from on the cable news menu, ‘Joe’ is probably a standout,” notes Wilner, even though the program, which hovers around 400,000 total viewers, gets consistently destroyed in the ratings by Fox News’s “Fox & Friends.” A recent “Morning Joe” show featured spots from such Beltway mainstays as the National Association of Realtors, UnitedHealthcare and AARP, which also has a full-page ad in today’s Politico print edition. Such powerhouses hope that Scarborough wasn’t exaggerating when he said in a chat with Allen and VandeHei, “I get texts from the White House a lot of mornings…We have so many people that watch the show that are influencers.”

Staying cozy with “Morning Joe” and his texting buddies has the look of an institutional priority for Politico. Over the years, Politico has had occasional discussions with ABC News about teaming up around significant political events, according to a source close to these chats. The prospect of upsetting the site’s steady relationship with “Morning Joe” is one possible reason why a formal partnership hasn’t been consummated.

Another perk keeps Scarborough tethered to Politico: A column and blog for the publication, which solves all kinds of issues for the cable-news host: Not only can he promote his show, but he can fully explain himself without being interrupted by some uppity panelist. For example, Scarborough wrote this, in part, in late September:

I experienced the same sort of wrath from the far right when I announced my support earlier this year for criminal background checks. But this morning I drew the ire of both extremes for comparing Obama and Cruz’s Senate experience and suggesting that a newly elected senator should focus more on representing his constituents than running for president after being in D.C. for a week. That’s exactly what Barack Obama did in 2005 and is what Ted Cruz’s oafish efforts have exposed in the Harvard and Princeton grad’s most transparent pose.

In an interview this year, VandeHei said that Scarborough and the National Review’s Rich Lowry were Politico’s outside columnists. When asked whether they were paid for their contributions, VandeHei declined to comment, though few columnists these days work for free.

Next: Politico’s key contribution to “Morning Joe,” “Playbook.”

Previously in this series:

No. 1: Mike Allen, Politico and “Morning Joe”: Inseparable

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