December 29, 2013

On Nov. 20, the Erik Wemple Blog reported that “Playbook” author Mike Allen of Politico showed a discernible pattern of writing favorable blurbs about advertisers. Ahead of the post’s publication, Politico’s leadership declined requests for an interview to discuss Allen’s work. Allen did as well, and continues to dodge interview requests.

So Politico’s comments are coming post-publication. In an early December interview with WNYC, Politico CEO Jim VandeHei called the story “nonsense.

More today: In an interview that aired today on Howard Kurtz’s “Media Buzz” show on Fox News, the host asked Politico editor-in-chief John Harris if the “Playbook”-advertiser piece was fair. “Totally unfair,” responded Harris. Here’s how the discussion played out:

When Mike Allen started “Playbook,” it was a few hundred people only who were subscribers. Then that figure grew to a few thousand because word kind of got out — Oh, this is fascinating. Now it’s a hundred thousand people or more who read “Playbook.”

Kurtz: But there are sponsors.

Harris: At the beginning, we never had sponsors, it was a new product…

Kurtz: But you have sponsors now.

Harris: Given the success of it, it did grow to become something that was highly coveted by advertisers. So it’s sponsored, but in tone, in substance, in the type of items: Who’s in, who’s out? That’s never changed a lick, not once, in seven years. So the idea — and it really wasn’t an argument what I read; it was more of a suggestion, insinuation, innuendo in a really unfair way — that the product is somehow compromised by advertisers was a) not supported and b) horribly, horribly unfair to what really is one of the most transparent journalistic products in the city. Anyone can read it any given day and sort of take their best guess as to why this is in there, why it’s not, who Mike had lunch with, who was giving him this, who he had dinner with, who was feeding him that. Totally transparent. I feel very, very strongly, if I could just say this about Mike Allen. I’ve known him for 23 of the 27 years he’s been in the news business. Some people like “Playbook,” some people don’t like “Playbook.” But no one has ever in those 27 years — not once, not ever — questioned his journalistic ethics. So I think as somebody did in this instance, was quite irresponsible in my view.

A nod here to Kurtz for challenging Harris on this topic. We have no record of an invitation from Fox News to add another perspective to this issue. Had such an opportunity presented itself, we might have offered some of the following rebuttals to Harris’s rebuttal:

1) “So it’s sponsored, but in tone, in substance, in the type of items: Who’s in, who’s out? That’s never changed a lick, not once, in seven years.”

Rebuttal: We’ve never argued that “Playbook’s” tone and substance have undergone any shifts over its lifetime.

2) “So the idea — and it really wasn’t an argument what I read; it was more of a suggestion, insinuation, innuendo in a really unfair way — that the product is somehow compromised by advertisers was a) not supported”

Rebuttal: The story was “supported” by references to more than 30 “Playbook” editions, blurbs and Politico articles.

3) “horribly, horribly unfair”

Rebuttal: Politico didn’t “play ball” with numerous requests for interviews regarding the allegations.

4) “Anyone can read it any given day and sort of take their best guess as to why this is in there, why it’s not, who Mike had lunch with, who was giving him this, who he had dinner with, who was feeding him that. Totally transparent.”

Rebuttal: Well, this is precisely what we did!

5) “I feel very, very strongly, if I could just say this about Mike Allen. I’ve known him for 23 of the 27 years he’s been in the news business. Some people like Playbook, some people don’t like Playbook. But no one has ever in those 27 years — not once, not ever — questioned his journalistic ethics. So I think as somebody did in this instance, was quite irresponsible in my view.”

Two-part Rebuttal: No. 1: The New York Times’s Mark Leibovich, in “This Town,” writes of Allen: “Mikey is more of a pleaser, a delighter, and, perhaps, an enabler.”

No. 2: There are powerful reasons why folks in This Town might not want to challenge Mike Allen’s journalism. No more shout-outs in “Playbook”!

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