By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 27, 2010; 9:38 AM
If the cover of the New York Times Magazine is any indication, Mike Allen must be the most important journalist in Washington.
I'm afraid I don't get it.
This is not a knock at the Politico reporter, who has also toiled for my paper, Time and the New York Times. He works round the clock and has a great nose for news. If he doesn't want anyone to know where he lives, that's none of my business.
But his claim to fame, the justification for that lengthy Mark Leibovich profile, is his daily digest called the Playbook. The theory is simple: If anyone who's anyone is reading it, the person who writes it must be what Joe Biden would call a BFD. It provides a bit of connective tissue in a sometimes cold and overworked town.
But if the thing is merely a digest of items from elsewhere, with a few scooplets, birthdays and insider gossip thrown in, is the column really . . . influential?
Here are some excerpts from Monday's Playbook:
"DEM CANDIDATES WILL BE BILLED AS OBAMA 'ALLIES' -- The President, DNC Chairman Tim Kaine, and the DNC grassroots project Organizing for America this week lay out 2010 election plans in detail for the first time. POTUS' remarks go out in a 13-million e-mail blast today. . . .
"GWB MEMOIR DETAILS OUT TODAY: "Decision Points, by George W. Bush, will be published on November 9, 2010, by Crown Publishers. . . . centered on the fourteen most critical and historic decisions in the life and public service of the 43rd President of the United States. . . .
"TV NEWSER, 'CNN's Kyra Phillips and John Roberts Engaged': 'The dating anchors are now engaged to be married and it happened in one of Phillips' favorite spots -- the golf course.' . . .
"Good Monday morning. DRIVING THE DAY -- 'Democrats willing to test GOP in Wall St. showdown,' by AP's Jim Kuhnhen."
And, um, three items summarizing pieces by me.
Now I'm all for aggregation; I do some of that here. Everyone's busy. No one has time to watch and read everything. Boiling things down is a public service (and a way of attracting clicks, sometimes at the expense of those you're condensing, but that's another debate).
But is even a master aggregator a Washington power broker? (Allen breaks some stories, too, but that's not the reason he became a cover boy.) Or is he a symbol of the clout of Politico, whose fast-paced metabolism has upended the established journalistic order headed by, yes, the New York Times?
There's another possibility: that the story was written from deep within the Beltway bubble, by and for Washington insiders. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But it means Allen's influence may be contained to a limited sphere, like the ruler of a tiny island kingdom.
I always had the sense that the most important journalists were the investigative types, or those who covered the hell out of the White House or Justice Department or the oft-ignored regulatory agencies, and could dig out news we'd never otherwise learn -- before the next Toyota crash or mine collapse.
The insiders have been chattering about this, naturally, including Marc Ambinder:
"In this incarnation of Mike life, he is fulfilling a space that powerful decision makers do need -- they want curated aggregation because they don't have time to read 100 pieces a day, much less the time to choose those pieces. (I would much rather have Mike aggregate for me than Matt Drudge.) They share a sensibility with Mike. Indeed, it is a transactional sensibility. And this is not meant as a knock against Mike, but as a way of pulling everyone out of a trap: as influential as Mike is, and he knows this, a page one New York Times story by Peter Baker on a subject will set the agenda far more than Mike's daily messaging will. The White House understands this, too.
"I don't know whether President Obama reads the Playbook. I do know, thanks to selected White House leaks, that he's fond of long magazine articles and profiles, and thoughtful bloggers, and Ron Brownstein's analysis. The president's staff may need curation, but the man himself has different curatorial preferences.
"Mike's reporting/aggregating/curating is useful to a subset of people, and it's also transparent in its motivations and intentions. And despite the fact that it merits a New York Times Magazine cover story, despite the fact that it may influence morning meetings at TV networks, there are many other sources of influence. Chuck Todd has more influence over how politics will be covered on the NBC Nightly News that Mike Allen. (Allen might influence Morning Joe's coverage, but then, Morning Joe's audience is Mike Allen's audience -- so who is influencing whom?)
"Mike's powerful voice is one among many. Heck, a well-written New York Post headline can drive entire news cycles even today. So can a Glenn Greenwald column about Elena Kagan. So can, as I discovered, a late night blog post about some dumb remark Harry Reid made."
WP's Ian Shapira says: "I felt a bit sad, both for Allen and the future of journalism. . . . Given Allen's experience and doggedness, wouldn't it be better if he were working on longer-term stories or investigations that served the public good? In other words, is Playbook really the best use of Allen's talents?"
Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg also challenges the Times profile of Allen:
"He is, as advertised, kind, sympathetic, devout, and manically hard-working, but I'm not sure I agree with Leibovich's premise, that Mike's Politico Playbook makes him the most important journalist in Washington. . . .
"I would also nominate, by the way, Mark Leibovich as a potential 'Most Important Journalist,' because of his ability to make his profile subjects look like rock stars, on the one hand, and to make others look like complete idiots, on the other (I'm sure John Kerry would agree.). . . .
"I called Leibovich to tell him that I think his fabulous piece might have had it wrong, and he said, tellingly, 'I think the piece is about what is, not what should be.' He went on, 'Maybe that sounds arrogant, but I obviously have a bias toward The New York Times way of writing about the day's events, and not only because this is the team I play for. I think a fuller sense of the day's events can be ascertained in the Times, but I also think the world is changing and Politico has exploited that, furthered that, and benefited from that.' "
And that's the thing: Not everyone wants, or has time for, a fuller sense of the day's events. As the Times itself recognizes with its myriad blogs.Another impasse
Remember late last week, when the pundits were saying the Republicans were close to cutting a deal on the Wall Street regulation bill because they did not want to appear to be defending the likes of Goldman Sachs? Ah, not so much.
"Senate Republicans, united in opposition to the Democrats' legislation to tighten regulation of the financial system, voted on Monday to block the start of floor debate," the NYT reports.
"The vote was 57 to 41, as Democrats fell short of the 60 votes needed to cut off a filibuster of the motion to proceed to the bill. One Democrat, Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, sided with Republicans apparently out of concern over a provision related to tightening the rules on derivatives trading.
"The Republicans said they were intent on winning substantive changes to the bill and accused the Democrats of rushing the process. The Democrats said that the Republicans were stalling and that there was broad agreement on most of the legislation. They accused the Republicans of siding with wealthy Wall Street interests and leaving the country vulnerable to another financial collapse."
Time for an old-fashioned filibuster? Well, the L.A. Times reports that "behind-the-scenes negotiations among Democrats and Republicans are aiming to craft a compromise that could win back Nelson and some GOP converts -- perhaps by the end of the week."
In case you've been wondering about why the Senate Dems suddenly decided to take up immigration before the climate bill, I have too. Having watched Bush's immigration efforts crash and burn, it's a very tough political lift. Why now?
The New Republic's Jonathan Chait has the same question:
"This strikes me as a terrible idea. First of all, climate legislation is just plain more important than immigration reform. The latter is important, but the former is dire. Given that Republicans may well take control of the House in November, and could easily hold it for a long time, this year could literally be the last chance to pass climate legislation, however watered down.
"Now, I suppose I could be persuaded of the merits of this move if it seemed clear that the climate bill had little chance to pass and immigration stood a great chance to pass. But this does not seem to be the case. Rather, it's about saving the Democrats' -- specifically Harry Reid's -- ass in November. . . .
"It's true that immigration splits the GOP. But it also splits the Democrats, who have a lot of members representing heavily white, working-class areas. Increasing the political salience of immigration at a time when unemployment is over 9% does not seem like a good strategy to help them. Also keep in mind that the House has already passed a climate bill, but hasn't passed an immigration bill."
At Hot Air, Ed Morrissey wonders why Lindsey Graham, a key climate-bill negotiator, got his nose out of joint over Reid deciding to take up immigration first:
"It's somewhat difficult to see how Graham can object to their order on the Senate agenda on that basis -- at least as long as one gives Graham credit for a little intellectual honesty.
"The subtext here is that Democrats very obviously want an immigration debate in order to split the GOP ahead of the elections, as well as to pander to Hispanic voters. The cap-and-trade debate will be a loser for Democrats, especially in the Coal/Rust Belt states that depend on fossil fuels for their economic lives. The GOP could hammer Democrats on that one issue in states like Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio for the next several months (and almost certainly will anyway). If the cap-and-trade bill provokes a national backlash approximating what ObamaCare did for the Tea Parties, Democrats could set records for losses in Congress this November."WSJ's New York
The Wall Street Journal had weeks to prepare, of course, but its first Greater New York Section was quite good. Especially if you're an expense-account kinda guy. Among the offerings:
"Instead of the traditional plated meal you find at your typical New York benefit, Jennifer Rubell created an installation at the Brooklyn Ball last Thursday night, or as some might call it, a carve-it-yourself-buffet in the Brooklyn Museum's Beaux-Arts Court.
"Nine legs of beef. Sixteen 30-pound turkeys. Two whole pigs, 150 rabbits. Twenty giant pizza biancas, a.k.a loaves of focaccia, from Sullivan Street Bakery. Hundreds of pounds of lettuce, kidney beans and marinated asparagus."
And: "What does Red Hook have in common with Geneva and Singapore? It's about to become one of the world's biggest vaults for fine art. A subsidiary of the auction house Christie's International PLC is converting a hulking century-old factory in the waterfront Brooklyn neighborhood into a high-security storage site designed to hold millions of dollars' worth of art. It aims to open the facility's doors in June."
There was also a slide show for this: "A Tribeca Rehab for $28 Million."
But you don't have to be a zillionaire to read the section: "Let the pasta wars begin. Restaurateur Laurent Lesort, who has partnered with his brother, Frederick, in the past, is now pairing up with two French friends to launch a new franchise called Hello Pasta." The top entree will be 12 bucks.
NYT Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. sends greetings to the rival paper: "As our welcome gift to New York, we pass on a few helpful hints to our Journal colleagues: the Dodgers now play in Los Angeles, Soho is the acronym for South of Houston, Fashion Week has moved to Lincoln Center, Idlewild is now JFK and Cats is no longer playing on Broadway."Hardship assignment
Michael Barbaro, NYT, Dateline, Hamilton, Bermuda, in search of the mayor:
"Mr. Bloomberg, who owns a waterfront estate here, has walled off his life in Bermuda from voters in New York, arguing it is none of their business. He steadfastly refuses to say when he is on the island, and to blindfold prying eyes, he has blocked aviation Web sites from making public the movements of his private planes. Yet residents here view him as one of their own -- as much a Bermudan as a New Yorker."
Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."