November 20, 2013
Politico's Mike Allen, left, interviews Timothy Geithner. (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)
Politico’s Mike Allen, left, interviews Timothy Geithner. (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)

Introducing: The “Playbook” game!

Politico Chief White House Correspondent Mike Allen writes “Playbook,” a daily e-mail newsletter featuring stories from Politico and other outlets, various “exclusives,” tips and birthday notices. It also carries “messages” from big companies and trade associations hoping to reach “Playbook’s” audience of influentials.

All the items below were extracted from “Playbook” and are related to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a lobbying force that has advertised in the newsletter. Please designate which are paid advertisements for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and which are Allen’s own work:

1) “The economy is not growing fast enough to create the jobs we need to reemploy the unemployed and create new opportunities for young Americans just starting out. We can boost growth and jobs by producing more domestic energy, expanding trade, modernizing our infrastructure, and reforming our tax, regulatory, and immigration systems. Higher growth won’t solve all of our problems, but we can’t solve any of them without it. Learn more about the Chamber’s American Jobs and Growth Agenda at http://www.uschamber.com/issues. **”

2) Ahead of tax day, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce promotes its agenda for tax reform: “Renew all expiring tax rates and incentives right away. … Stop threatening small businesses with higher taxes. … Make our companies and workers more globally competitive. … Taxpayers deserve a system that is simple and clear, one that spurs growth, encourages investment and innovation.” http://bit.ly/HQH7W8

3) The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has an ambitious new agenda to generate stronger, more robust economic growth, create jobs, and expand opportunity for all Americans. Learn more about the Chamber’s American Jobs and Growth Agenda at http://www.uschamber.com/issues. **

4) “U.S. Chamber of Commerce will launch ‘On the Road With Free Enterprise,’ a two-month cross-country road trip to promote ‘the principles of free enterprise and the best of America. Your Free Enterprise Tour Guides will see the sights, check out local events, talk to businesses, and share it [online]. More than 900 teams applied to be the Free Enterprise Tour Guides, and after months of poring over applications, two teams remain: Jen and John, and Nate and Joe. You can vote [here] once per day.’www.FreeEnterprise.com/tour”

Answers: 1) and 3) are paid ads; 2) and 4) are Allen’s own work.

One of the hottest issues in journalism today is “native” advertising, the tricks that publishers deploy to elide the domains of journalism and advertising. BuzzFeed has sustained gray-bearded criticism for its boundary-defying listicles. The Atlantic earlier this year ran a native ad from the Church of Scientology that inflamed its audience and prompted an apology and a review of Atlantic procedures for approving ads. Forbes, The Washington Post and the Huffington Post are also experimenting with this approach to funding journalism.

RELATED: Worst media gaffes of 2013

It’s about time that Politico’s Allen got his due as a native-advertising pioneer.

A review of “Playbook” archives shows that the special interests that pay for slots in the newsletter get adoring coverage elsewhere in the playing field of “Playbook.” The pattern is a bit difficult to suss out if you glance at “Playbook” each day for a shot of news and gossip. When searching for references to advertisers in “Playbook,” however, it is unmistakable. And its practitioner is expanding the franchise. Today, Allen disclosed in “Playbook” that he’ll be collaborating in the production of “Capital Playbook,” a newsletter stemming from Capital New York, the news site that Politico acquired earlier this year. Also today, the New York Times, as part of a reorganization of its Washington/political coverage, announced that it would be launching a “morning news tip sheet that sets up the Washington day for our readers.”

That sounds a lot like the tag line on “Playbook”: “Mike Allen’s must-read briefing on what’s driving the day in Washington.

Allen has turned “Playbook” into precious turf by dint of hard work and bloody persistence. The newsletter comes out seven days a week, and Allen is rarely spelled by guest contributors. Updates in “Playbook” come from many of the sources he has built up in his decades of work as a reporter, at Politico as well as The Washington Post, Time magazine and others. Those sources often give “Playbook” a quirk factor worth checking out. No one processes news like Mike Allen.

Finding big shots in Washington who appreciate this fare is among the media critic’s easier tasks. “I find his daily e-mail to be very helpful at disseminating information on issues that are currently evolving,” says Jan Baran, head of the election law and government ethics group at Wiley Rein LLP. “I think he seems to be pretty straight.”

Such fandom helps to explain why Allen’s updates have become perhaps the Beltway’s most impressive journo-business story of the past decade. As previously reported, advertisers pay a good $35,000 for a weekly run in “Playbook,” a price tag that has inflated nicely for Politico in recent years.

It’s a hefty price for exposure on an e-mail — a very, very friendly e-mail. Earlier this year, for example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ran a series of messages in “Playbook,” two of which are displayed at the top of this post. Yet the chamber has also received plenty of positive coverage free of charge, including the other two items at the top of this post. And there’s more:

* On Sept. 26, Allen quoted from his own story about how former congressman and Maine governor John R. McKernan Jr. was starting a new job as president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. The “Playbook” item, as well as the news story Allen wrote in Politico, was presented precisely the way an advertiser might have stipulated. For example: “The foundation focuses on competitiveness issues, and one of McKernan’s top goals is promoting the Common Core curriculum for schools. McKernan, 65, said the Chamber is well-positioned to help ‘because of the resources they have, the presence, the reach, the distribution through the local chambers.’”

* On Aug. 29, “Playbook” touted an “EXCLUSIVE” on the fact that “the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last evening hosted a conference call on immigration reform featuring House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan.”

* On Aug. 2, “Playbook” alerted readers to an upcoming “major advocacy campaign” on health care headed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other groups.

*On June 24, “Playbook” enthused, “U.S. CHAMBER OF COMMERCE GOES UP WITH 7-FIGURE IMMIGRATION BUY!”

* On July 17, 2012, “Playbook” wrote:
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce launches a major ad blitz today in four crucial Senate races – Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico and North Dakota. Per the Chamber: “The ads will highlight candidates’ positions on issues critical to economic growth and job creation, like domestic energy production, health care and government spending.”

* On April 16, “Playbook” touted a Wall Street Journal op-ed that mentioned the chamber’s support for immigration reform in conjunction with a diverse set of groups.

* And may it never be said that Allen neglects the birthdays of top chamber officials.

Another big name that’s gotten a healthy dose of earned media from Playbook is BP, a company that has faced quite a challenge in image-conscious Washington, thanks to the 2010 oil spill at the Deepwater Horizon rig leased by the company. In recent months, BP has blanketed “Playbook” with ads hyping the company’s status as “America’s largest energy investor.” The free BP mentions authored by Allen tell a similar story.

Last June, for instance, Allen found newsworthy an AP story about a BP campaign to challenge settlement claims stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The item quoted from a full-page ad that the company had placed in newspapers, and that the AP story had cited. It also included a link to the ad.

Companies love it when their ads get passed around.

A followup appeared in the On Oct. 3 “Playbook,” which credited a Bloomberg story about how the company had “persuaded an appeals court to order a re-examination of key terms of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil-spill settlement that the company said could have cost it billions of dollars in improper payouts.” “Playbook” quoted BP executive Geoff Morrell as saying, “Today’s ruling affirms what BP has been saying since the beginning: claimants should not be paid for fictitious or wholly non-existent losses. We are gratified that the systematic payment of such claims by the claims administrator must now come to an end.”

“This Town,” the defining political book of 2013, notes that Allen and Morrell are close friends.

And close friends help each other in business. On Sept. 7, 2013, Allen devoted a chunky, three-paragraph item to Morrell’s ascension as BP’s senior vice president of U.S. communications & external affairs. Included in the blurb was a quote that careful readers of “Playbook” might find familiar: “BP is America’s biggest energy investor…”

No charge for that one.

In a March edition, Allen picked up a story outlining why “BP, since the spill, has become a much more American company.” And in a February edition, Allen wrote this:

VIDEO DU JOUR, launched quietly on YouTube yesterday and now spreading on Facebook and Twitter, “BP Energy Outlook 2030: America’s Energy Future” http://bit.ly/143lAmy

Companies love it when their videos get passed around.

Like BP and the Chamber, Goldman Sachs is a pivotal advertiser for Politico, routinely placing back-page ads in the print product and occasionally “presenting” “Playbook.” Differentiating between those ads and Allen’s blurbs can strain the eyes. Examples: Goldman Sachs fights child sex trafficking (Jan. 23, 2013). Goldman Sachs to assist small businesses in Philadelphia. Jan. 9, 2013. Goldman Sachs helps veterans. (Dec. 14, 2012). Goldman Sachs helps small businesses. (June 12, 2012). Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award! (Aug. 13, 2012). Puff piece on Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd Blankfein. (June 14, 2012).

The “Playbook” audience is an attention-deficit crew, thumbing through Allen’s morning updates as they wait in line for coffee. So it’s quite easy to miss just how “native” the newsletter’s author has gone. Sample the Aug. 29, 2013, “Playbook”:

1) It was “presented” by the National Retail Federation.

2) It contained a “free” plug from Allen for the National Retail Federation, among other groups: “BUSINESS BURST – ‘National Internet, Restaurant, Retail and Grocer Associations Launch Ad Campaign Calling on Congress to Stop Patent Trolls….See the creative. http://bit.ly/1dpzuIy See the release.http://bit.ly/156W00C”

National Retail Federation has signed as as the launch sponsor for “Capital Playbook.

3) It included the following paragraph from Allen. As you read it, keep in mind that Bank of America has served as a sponsor for Politico’s excellent events series and is the launch sponsor for Politico Magazine:

–MLK IN TIMES SQUARE: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s full speech is rarely seen, because his family keeps tight control of the rights. Bank of America worked with the family to show the entire speech on its jumbo screen in Times Square, following a live feed of President Obama’s address. The “I have a dream” speech also was shown three times during the day on MSNBC, under the bank’s sponsorship. http://bit.ly/12OIdhta

All in a single edition of “Playbook.”
Allen’s work in defense of Washington’s business lobby ranges beyond the confines of “Playbook.” In addition to the Playbook mention of Morrell’s hiring, he banged out an adoring news piece on the same topic. It contained this quote from superlawyer Robert B. Barnett: “Geoff was one of the most sought-after public-to-private clients that my partner, Michael O’Connor, and I have represented.”

Back in April 2009, Allen used Politico’s news template to draw up this piece, titled “Chamber aims to work with Obama” and featuring an interview with U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Thomas Donohue. Though it spanned two web pages, the flavor of the piece is amply reflected in these lines: “At a tough time for business, the Chamber is thriving, both because economic issues are front and center and because corporations are worried about what Washington is going to do to them and thus feel like they need Donohue’s muscle more than ever.”

The piece had about 20 quotes from Donohue and none from anybody who might just take issue with the chamber’s agenda.

Big business couldn’t have complained about Allen’s coverage of money issues in the 2012 election. In the Aug. 4, 2012 edition of “Playbook,”Allen commemorated the birthday of Sheldon Adelson, a massive booster of Republican candidates. The casino magnate, wrote Allen, was “thought to be traveling in Europe and enjoying spending time with friends and family.”
That very day, news broke that Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corp. was under federal investigation for alleged money-laundering activities. The Aug. 5 edition of “Playbook” carried no mention of the money-laundering story.

Weeks later, Allen was in Las Vegas for a wide-ranging interview with Adelson. The title of the story was “Sheldon Adelson: Inside the mind of the mega-donor”, a perfectly descriptive choice for a piece that broadcast Adelson’s point of view virtually unfiltered. Allen did rustle up some anonymous sources to round out the story — by gushing about Adelson: “‘He’s the man of the hour,’ said a Republican official who has visited him in Vegas many times,” reads one of the quotes.

After President Obama beat Mitt Romney in the presidential campaign Politico published a story questioning whether big GOP funders, including Adelson, had spent their money imprudently. That story carried the byline of reporter Kenneth P. Vogel. The following day, Allen omitted mention of Vogel’s piece from “Playbook.”

Perhaps Allen was too busy writing up this story about the Campaign to Fix the Debt. Allen’s kicker line was this: “Learn more at www.FixTheDebt.org.” He plugged the initiative in “Playbook,” too.

Just days later, the Campaign to Fix the Debt popped up on “Playbook” again, this time as an advertiser, as the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone pointed out at the time. Politico denied that Allen played any role in selecting “Playbook” advertisers.

Politico’s archives yield plenty of examples of Allen going to bat for the site’s advertisers. Turning up examples of hard-nosed pieces on these companies and special interests is a more complicated undertaking. Sure, “Playbook” did some postings on the Deepwater Horizon disaster back in 2010; it gave a nod to a group that’s competing against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and various neutral stories on these entities occasionally get links in the morning newsletter. As for outright negative stuff on these organizations, that tends to be harder to dig up. We spent hours searching for such examples and even deployed an outside researcher for further bandwidth; we also asked Politico to send examples wherein Allen takes a harsh view of their agenda. They declined.

In “This Town,” author (and New York Times reporter) Mark Leibovich writes, “Mikey is more of a pleaser, a delighter, and, perhaps, an enabler.” His sources would agree, as would some Politico reporters, who are often chasing the same information as Allen.

It’s not often a fair matchup. So enticing is the prospect of dumping an announcement in the loving hands of Mike Allen that many PR types around town have gone around beat reporters at Politico in search of a little plug in “Playbook” — an experience confirmed to the Erik Wemple Blog by several current and former staffers. Notes one former staffer via e-mail: “Reporters are sometimes annoyed to find scooplets from their beats at the top of Playbook. Sources give stuff to Mike Allen because they know he’ll reach a huge audience, usually more people than the beat reporters would reach with their own stories. And they know he’ll play it totally straight, not letting any dissenting voices muddy up whatever PR the source is trying to get out. Mike is usually pretty generous with these tips, making sure the beat reporters know what he’s hearing. But stuff falls through the cracks, too, and reporters do sometimes wake up to find big news from their beats posted on Playbook first.”

By no means is this a universal thing: “In my experience it was a competitive place where we would sometimes be racing for the same story, but Mike never killed or tried to kill anything I was working on in the 5 years I was there,” writes via e-mail former Politico reporter Ben Smith, who now helms BuzzFeed’s news operation.

The “Playbook” author has also been known to insert his big foot into other reporters’ stories before they reach print, at times on behalf of sources who are due for possibly rough treatment, according to former Politico staffers. “He’ll run interference for his sources,” says one former reporter.

Even those who don’t work alongside Allen understand his fondness for his sources. Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, calls “Playbook” “both timely and juicy” and says this of Allen himself: “He’s clearly focused on developing, and relies heavily on, his sources and seems to have really carved out a niche in this special crucible between media and politics.”

“Playbook’s” dedication to Washington’s big business lobby leaves something of a space crunch for those who oppose the establishment. Mary Boyle is vice president for communications at Common Cause, which bills itself as “a vehicle for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process” and opposes the agenda of many “Playbook” advertisers. “The one time I remember being in ‘Playbook,’ it was kind of a nasty swipe, a crack at Common Cause. It was not coverage in a serious way,” says Boyle.

Boyle’s memory serves her well. In October 2011, Donovan Slack, then of the Boston Globe, wrote a story about the overlap between politics and high finance in the sphere of presidential contender Mitt Romney. It carried a disapproving comment from a top official at Common Cause, which triggered this brushback from Allen in “Playbook”:

MEMO TO YOUNG REPORTERS: If Common Cause is your lead quote, you don’t have much of a story. It’s a crutch when you have a good topic, but not the goods. http://bo.st/n6gFz1

Boyle sent Allen a note about the slight. “[M]y recollection was that he was polite and somewhat apologetic and said he meant no disrespect to [Common Cause],” writes Boyle via e-mail.

The slights from “Playbook” aren’t sufficient to turn Common Cause against Politico. “I feel a little more shut out of the Washington Post than Politico,” says Boyle. “We have had op-eds printed there.”

Precisely the same reaction comes from another liberal lobbying group in town. “The Playbook, while important reading for Washington, isn’t really a space that we are that concerned about being in, believe it or not. We actually get fairly decent coverage from Politico,” says the spokesperson for this group, who, for undisclosed reasons, didn’t want the comments connected to the entity.

Joe Newman, communications director for the Project on Government Oversight, another do-gooder group, says that he occasionally pitches things to Allen for inclusion in “Playbook,” though his batting average, he says, isn’t so hot. “I send stuff around and he indicates that he appreciated the contact…and I wake up at 5:00 in the morning and check and it’s not in there….I’ve never held that against him,” says Newman.

Note that these organizations profess that Allen ignores them, yet they say conciliatory things about him. That’s power.

The distinctions between Mike Allen/”Playbook” and the rest of Politico say a great deal about one of the most talked-about American media properties of the past decade. Whether by design or default, “Playbook” has become the place where Politico gives long hugs to powerful Washington interests, including advertisers. Elsewhere in the publication, straight-up reporting prevails.

While Allen sees himself as one of Washington’s top journalists and recently departed CEO Frederick J. Ryan Jr., sees him as the modern-day incarnation of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, other Politico reporters don’t practice his style of journalism. They dig for documents and publish stories that offend power. Along the way, they may even cover for their sources, though not in the manner of Mike Allen.

Politico’s leaders didn’t cooperate for this piece. In rejecting a sit-down discussion, Editor-in-Chief John Harris said the premise “is without merit in any shape or form.” Without an interview, it’s impossible to judge Allen’s motivations. For example, does he write nice things about the chamber because he wants more advertisers or because he feels their agenda doesn’t get fair play in other outlets? Did he publish those BP plugs because he thought they were newsworthy or because he’s got a friend at the company?

Whatever the explanation, the core softness in “Playbook” and Allen’s news stories counters the public image that Politico’s leadership has promoted for years. This news outlet, former Executive Editor Jim VandeHei and others have preached, is a take-no-prisoners operation, forever fighting off complacency and doing gritty work. At the same time, its most famous reporter is dropping puffballs across the Internet. As VandeHei wrote upon being elevated as chief executive officer of Politico, “We are successful because our business and editorial strategies work in perfect synchronicity.”

A precise, and perhaps accidental, description of “Playbook.”

(Disclosure: I formerly worked for a now-defunct unit — TBD.com — of Politico’s parent company)

 

RELATED: Worst media gaffes of 2013

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