The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Politico brought Ben Shapiro on as a ‘Playbook’ guest author to bring balance. It brought a backlash instead.

The platform given to the right-wing pundit enraged Politico staffers, forcing a top editor to defend the choice.

Ben Shapiro at the 2019 March for Life rally in Washington, D.C. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Top editors at Politico thought they would mix things up by tapping a rotating cast of guest writers for the daily “Playbook” before they named a permanent new team for their marquee newsletter. The guests included documentarian Ken Burns, Free Beacon editor in chief Eliana Johnson, MSNBC host Chris Hayes and “PBS NewsHour” White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor.

And then came Ben Shapiro. The popular and provocative right-wing commentator authored Thursday’s Playbook, in which he wrote sympathetically that the GOP’s resistance to impeaching President Trump for inciting the Capitol riot was not because they were untroubled by his behavior but because of “a deep and abiding conservative belief that members of the opposing political tribe want their destruction.”

A number of reporters at the outlet were flabbergasted by the choice of author. Why did Politico give “its biggest platform” to a pundit with “a long history of bigoted and incendiary commentary, particularly in the aftermath of last week’s violence,” one Politico reporter posted on an internal messaging platform. More than 80 colleagues signaled agreement.

“It’s not just that he’s incendiary or conservative,” said one reporter. “It’s that he sells falsehoods as an incendiary persona.” Several Politico journalists spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about their employer.

Shapiro, who founded the Daily Wire after he departed Breitbart in 2016 and hosts a highly successful political podcast and radio show, commands a massive following on social media platforms. He’s also drawn a legion of critics who have called him racist, homophobic and transphobic.

On the airwaves, Shapiro presents his arguments with an element of bravado — he’s credited with coining the phrase “facts don’t care about your feelings.” Past statements that critics have taken issue with include his assertion that more than half of the world’s Muslims are “radicalized” and tweeting on the anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s birthday that the Florida teenager — who was unarmed when a neighborhood watch coordinator shot and killed him — would have been alive “if he hadn’t taken a man’s head and beaten it on the pavement before being shot.”

Unlike many conservative radio hosts, Shapiro has made clear to his listeners that Trump’s claims about a rigged election are false. But his critics have also blamed him for being part of a conservative media ecosystem that fanned the flames of discontent that led up to the riot.

In a tense afternoon meeting attended by more than 240 Politico employees, dozens voiced disappointment and “strong, strong concern,” as one reporter put it. “Everyone noted it wasn’t that he’s a conservative but has a history of bigoted comments.” Several demanded an apology.

Some reporters who had been trapped inside the Capitol during last week’s violence were especially upset; one said Shapiro’s portrayal of the Republican caucus was inaccurate and “completely undermined our reporting,” according to an audio clip of the meeting.

Politico’s top editor, Matt Kaminski, responded to his reporters that he didn’t “see a need to apologize for publishing Ben Shapiro,” according to three reporters on the call.

“What sets Politico apart in this intense political and media moment is that we rise above partisanship and ideological warfare — even as many seek to drag us into it,” the company said in a statement Thursday. “It’s a core value of the publication that is unchangeable, and that above all protects our ability to do independent journalism. It’s a part of our mission.” Kaminski did not reply to an inquiry from The Post.

According to the Daily Beast and Post media critic Erik Wemple, some employees privately supported the decision to publish Shapiro but were “afraid” to speak up in the meeting dominated by those who opposed.

“Playbook” has been one of Politico’s hallmark features. The newsletter launched in 2007 by Mike Allen — who has since left Politico to start Axios — had been helmed for several years by Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer. The duo departed Politico this month along with reporter John Bresnahan to launch competitor media outlet Punchbowl.

The idea was then to have a rotating cast of guest authors up until Inauguration Day. Kaminski told reporters Thursday that they set out to bring in people from entertainment, media and politics who came from “across the political spectrum,” but that they found “it much more challenging to get conservatives to come on the platform.” Shapiro agreed, though, and he was assigned to write Thursday’s edition well in advance.

“We thought it’d be important to hear from a conservative voice, to really get an insight into the thinking on the right,” Kaminski said, adding that all the submissions went through “the same rigorous editing” that staffers receive. He also cited Hayes, the liberal MSNBC host, as an example of how Politico had sought varying perspectives. And he noted that the guest authorship had attracted a lot of attention for Politico.

“Mischief has always been part of Politico’s sauce,” he added, according to two Politico reporters.

Reporters pointed to Johnson of the Free Beacon as a conservative guest writer who inspired no such backlash. The problem, one said, is Shapiro has “a track record of comments that are racist and bigoted. And his favorite pastime is siccing his Twitter followers on journalists.”

The internal backlash mirrored the one played out on social media among some political journalists as well as liberal media personalities and commentators.

“I would appreciate if someone from @politico would read all the racist things Ben Shapiro has said about Arabs and Muslims here and then explain why they chose to give him a platform,” tweeted Wall Street Journal national politics reporter Sabrina Siddiqui. She linked to a fact sheet about Shapiro produced by a Georgetown University Islamophobia research project.

Shapiro could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday evening, but he appeared to follow the chaos his byline had created, amplifying criticism of the response on his social media accounts, and tweeting that the reaction by Politico staffers proved his point that the left seeks to censor conservatives.

“I warned the editors at Politico that they would receive this kind of blowback,” he told the Washington Examiner, “and to their credit, they published me anyway.”

Shapiro’s Daily Wire seemed to take pleasure in the backlash: Its CEO on Twitter pledged to send 225 tumblers to Politico, carrying the label “Leftist Tears.”