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Opinion Politico’s Mike Allen pushes back against his own e-mails

Politico’s Mike Allen. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Chelsea Clinton had a well-documented aversion to media exposure. As she pushed for the presidential bid of her mother, Hillary Clinton, on the 2008 campaign trail, Chelsea Clinton famously rebuffed the question of a 9-year-old reporter from Scholastic News. Even when she took a job at NBC News in 2011, she stiffed the media, though she later answered a question or two for Amy Chozick of the New York Times.

That scarcity set the backdrop for Mike Allen’s pitch for an interview with Clinton at a pending brunch under the Politico banner. As exposed in a phenomenal records request by Gawker, Allen in January 2013 wrote an e-mail to State Department aide and Hillary Clinton loyalist Philippe Reines. The Politico chief White House correspondent pitched away:

This would be a way to send a message during inaugural week: No one besides me would ask her a question, and you and I would agree on them precisely in advance. This would be a relaxed conversation, and our innovative format (like a speedy Playbook Breakfast) always gets heavy social-media pickup. The interview would be “no-surprises”: I would work with you on topics, and would start with anything she wants to cover or make news on. Quicker than a network hit, and reaching an audience you care about with no risk.

Bolding added to highlight a foundational Politico ideology. “If you want to move data or shape opinion . . . you market it through Mikey and Playbook, because those tens of thousands that matter most all read it and most feed it,” Politico’s Jim VandeHei told the New York Times back in 2010. The message: Playbook and its various brand extensions — breakfasts and cocktail confabs featuring interviews by Allen — present opportunities first for the powerful, second for news consumers. As this blog pointed out two years ago, Allen had a knack for plugging big-money Playbook sponsors in his own blurbs in the daily e-mail blasts.

Allen today published a similar explanation in Playbook. It starts with the heading, “MY BAD!” a term that the Erik Wemple Blog learned to use after making a bad pass in pickup basketball.

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Journalism as an industry has unified over few ethical matters, though one of them is the mal-propriety of interview conditions. Never should a reporter agree to stipulations that such-and-such a topic be declared off-limits or that so-and-so may not be mentioned. Worse still is a situation in which reporters themselves propose the conditions, which appears to be the case with Allen’s overture to Reines. “No one besides me would ask her a question, and you and I would agree on them precisely in advance,” wrote Allen in an offer that leaves little room for journalistic integrity to make a nest.

The interview never happened, which yields two observations: What were Chelsea Clinton and her people thinking? And Allen should thank the Poynter Gods that Clinton Inc. said no. Otherwise, the Internet would be sharing “The Top Five Kissiest Questions Mike Allen asked Chelsea Clinton.”

The argument for Mike Allen is that he doesn’t publish his e-mails to State Department aides; he publishes his newsletter and his video interviews. What happens via e-mail channels is a means to an end, a way to score a “get” — tradecraft, essentially. And if Allen had gotten the interview and violated the terms of his promise to Reines, who cares, right? So he lied to a flack! Isn’t that the most honorable way to lie?

Chatter about these ethical considerations won’t likely damage the market for Allen. According to industry sources, a weekly sponsorship for his “Playbook” newsletter is expected to cost in the range of $50,000 and $60,000 next year, depending on the news cycle.

Consider, too, that Allen has at least some documented history of getting creative with these get-togethers. A year ago, for example, he hosted a “Playbook Cocktails” event in Little Rock, Ark., featuring appointees from the administration of Bill Clinton. At the end of the session, the former president himself gave some remarks. They were typically idealistic, addressing the effort to “build a world of more shared prosperity and opportunity, more shared responsibility where people can have their identities without there having to be a negative reference to somebody else,” said the former president.

Then Allen struck. As the president finished, the audience applauded and Allen approached the podium. “Mr. President, as you say goodbye, I have to ask a question about your book.”

The program apparently didn’t call for any Q&A with Clinton, but Allen threw out the program in pursuit of a news opportunity. Clinton suggested that “President Obama’s decision not to sign an executive order on immigration may have played a role in keeping some Hispanic voters at home” for the 2014 midterm elections.

And the Clinton people were upset with Allen, who apologized for his break with protocol. “I had misunderstood the parameters, and I’m very sorry about that,” Allen told the New York Times. Nice job, Mikey.

The question is whether Allen would have betrayed his offer to Reines if he had scored the Chelsea Clinton interview. Doing so would have risked his relationship with the pugnacious Reines, Chelsea Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton and many of their friends. So in all likelihood, it would have been a cordial affair — one in which the news would have been the mere fact that Chelsea Clinton was sitting down with Mike Allen.