There’s a fabulous promotional series on the advertising section of Politico’s website. It’s a bunch of expertly produced video testimonials on Politico and the brand of news it presents. The formula goes like this: Politico finds professionals and asks them to talk about their work and love of Politico. Then the professional mouths the money line: “I am a politico.”
The folks who star in the videos are compelling. Leila Janah, for instance, is the founder and chief executive of Samasource, a nonprofit that “connects poor women and youth to training and employment in the digital economy.” In her video, Janah says, “I think what’s appealing to me about Politico is that it was founded by people who know journalism and have a high sense of journalistic integrity. My name is Leila Janah and I am a politico.”
Leila Janah is a perfect choice for such a testimonial — smart and informed and making an impact. Perhaps as important, she lives on the West Coast, far away from Politico’s Beltway editorial focus. A search of Politico’s site brings up no mention of Leila Janah.
The same cannot be said for Josh Holmes. He’s the chief of staff for Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the top Republican in the Senate. He’s right in the core of Politico’s editorial focus. The site occasionally mentions him in news coverage.
Yet Politico reached out to Holmes for a promotional testimonial as well, as Roll Call’s Meredith Shiner reported yesterday. (Shiner is a former Politico staffer). The words of praise from Holmes were posted on the Politico side alongside those of Janah and others. Until McConnell’s office found out about it, that is. “We did not know that it was on the advertising page,” said Don Stewart, a McConnell spokesman, in a chat last night with the Erik Wemple Blog. “I was surprised to see it on the advertising page.” Following a take-down request from McConnell & Co., Politico eliminated the video from its package, though it’s still available here. In the presentation, Holmes talks about his ideals and his job and then segues into Politico, crediting it for an “a la carte journalism style where no matter what you do or what you’re interested in in the field of politics or policy, there’s an outlet for you.” He finishes by saying he’s a politico.
In a statement on the matter, Stewart notes, “In no way was this profile intended to be used for advertising purposes….” Holmes appears to have been under the impression that the production was for Politico’s editorial side. An e-mail from Politico (and published by Roll Call) cast the project as follows:
From: Sara Olson
Sent: Monday, May 06, 2013 8:58 AM
To: Holmes, Josh (McConnell)
Subject: POLITICO request
I apologize in advance for the last minute ask, but I’m working on a series of video profiles of POLITICO’s most influential readers around the country — and Mike Allen said you’d be perfect to feature.
Is there any chance you’d be available today before 1p for a quick on camera interview? We’d send the camera crew to you — preferably your office if that’s doable. Ideally we’d love 30 minutes for the interview and some b-roll shots but it can be shorter if necessary!
I’m happy to send you the questions, but really it’s just a profile of you first — and how you use POLITICO second.
The videos will be played at an event this week and posted on our About website. This is not an editorial feature.
Apologize for the short notice. Let me know if you’re interested and available.
Vice President, Marketing
The Politico e-mail is honest: It’s from the VP of marketing, after all, and it states that the video is “not an editorial feature.” Greater explicitness may have helped: “This is an ad — a commercial endorsement of POLITICO,” for example, may have triggered Holmes’ warning system — even if the “I’m a politico” line did not. As for Holmes’s side of things, the e-mail did call the whole thing a “profile,” which has a certain journalistic tenor. And McConnell’s office fields journalistic inquiries from Politico all the time. Why suppose that the site suddenly wants to take the relationship commercial? “I talk to Politico and every other news org 20 times a day,” says Stewart, adding that it’s “not unusual to have requests for staff profiles.”
Parties absolved by the Erik Wemple Blog. We’re happy to chalk this one up to a misunderstanding between an aggressively promotional news organization and a harried Hill staffer, even if that Hill staffer didn’t balk before saying the line, “I’m a politico.”
What remains inexplicable, however, is why Politico approached Holmes in the first place. It’s clear why his name came up — he’s exceedingly articulate, good on camera and in a position of power.
Yet that last consideration should have disqualified him. Talk about hamstringing your reportorial crew. Let’s just hypothesize that McConnell achieves some grand legislative victory or pummels an opponent in a debate in his reelection campaign. You’re the Politico reporter assigned to cover this McConnell victory. You know that the senator’s chief of staff appears in an endorsement in your website’s commercial space. How do you write anything remotely positive about Team McConnell? Any such scribblings would certainly be interpreted as part of a quid pro quo. Gross.
Inquiries to Politico about this matter fetched nothing.
The e-mail from Politico leaves one enormous clue as to why this happened. VP of Marketing Sara Olson notes that Mike Allen, the author of the popular Politico daily bulletin Playbook, had suggested Holmes for this feature/profile/ethically corrupt advertisement. Well, Mike Allen just a few weeks ago called himself one of Washington’s top journalists. If one of Washington’s top journalists signs off on a commercial with a Hill staffer, why would a VP of marketing raise any concerns?
Evan Smith, editor in chief and chief executive officer of the Texas Tribune, is among those who gave video testimonials for Politico. When we asked him if Politico had paid for the interview, he said no. Via e-mail, he elaborated on the provenance of his appearance: “i have a few friends there, and they know i read politico as part of my daily media diet, so they told the marketing people. i assume they were looking for at least one person in flyover country who knows j-mart isn’t a convenience store.”
And what about recruiting a newsmaker to do an ad? Would Evan Smith’s Texas Tribune do such a thing? Answer: “[A]s to whether we would ask someone like the mcconnell staffer in our world — say, the chief of staff to the lieutenant governor, who presides over the texas senate — to do a testimonial video for us, the answer is no. we have a bright-line test, as you people say in washington, on matters involving the intersection of our journalism and the way we raise money to pay for it.”
Nor did Smith swallow Politico’s “I’m a politico” line. Instead, he said, “I’m Evan Smith, and I can’t get through my day without Politico.” Why did Smith go off script? “[T]he videographer asked me if i’d say it, and i snorted and told him no way,” notes Smith.
Note: Post has been updated to include Smith’s line about snorting.