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Opinion Politico’s revolt over Ben Shapiro guest-hosting Playbook went too far

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

Ben Shapiro once tweeted, “Israelis like to build. Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage. This is not a difficult issue. #settlementsrock." He once belittled Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown as “St. Trayvon of the Blessed Hoodie” and “St. Michael of the Gentle Giantedness.” His site, the Daily Wire, once posted a video portraying Native Americans as savages; he apologized.

So this is the fellow who got the keys to Politico’s flagship product, Playbook, in a guest-writing gig that hit the Internet on Thursday morning. Politico is transitioning the authorship of this agenda-setting newsletter following the departure of its previous team, Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, who are launching a new outlet called Punchbowl News. As noted in the Hollywood Reporter, Politico decided that the best way to bridge the staffing gap would be to deploy celebrity journalists and commentators. PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor, MSNBC host Chris Hayes, New York Times columnist Kara Swisher and Politico co-founder John Harris are among the crew.

Those folks are good — especially Swisher — but we prefer a Playbook stuffed with facts and dates and even, in the good old days, a measure of logrolling corruption. Guest-writing gimmicks aside, Politico now has an even bigger problem — a revolt among staffers that on Thursday descended on newsroom leadership. Two predictions: Shapiro has seen his last Politico byline, and mainstream-media editors will proceed with ever-greater caution in publishing conservative voices.

Many staffers at Politico didn’t welcome the analysis that Shapiro, a former Breitbart editor-at-large, had dropped into the publications flagship newsletter. “The real reason most Republicans opposed impeachment,” reads the headline on the newsletter. What followed was a riff on how Republicans in the House opposed impeachment not because they didn’t find Trump’s role in the Capitol riot abhorrent — they do, in many cases, he argued. “Opposition to impeachment comes from a deep and abiding conservative belief that members of the opposing political tribe want their destruction, not simply to punish Trump for his behavior,” writes Shapiro.

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There was a bad-faith argument tossed in for good measure. Shapiro scolded companies that have ended donations to election-challenging Republicans on the grounds that those companies never took similar action against “Democrats who winked and nodded — and sometimes more — at civil unrest around the nation emerging from Black Lives Matter protests and antifa violence over the summer.” No meaningful parallel there.

Playbook goes out to the country’s most active political junkies, and the Shapiro byline appeared to escape notice by no one. Twitter blew up with condemnations of Politico for forking over Playbook to the Daily Wire editor emeritus:

“More needs to be said about @Politico hiring Ben Shapiro. Guess they were jealous of Newsmax quick rise (or maybe there’s a shortage of qualified, professional conservative journalists). Sad for quality journalists that are stuck there as @Politico sells itself out. UNSUBSCRIBED," tweeted one commenter. More:

Shapiro skewered his detractors:

Politico management stood firm on its decision to slot Shapiro as the day’s Playbook guest-writer. In a previously scheduled meeting regarding diversity, editor in chief Matt Kaminski stated that “mischief-making” has been part of the Politico editorial formula since its founding. A spokesman released this statement: “We have taken great care to assemble a roster of guest authors who are prominent thinkers and writers and represent a range of perspectives. 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. 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.”

An afternoon Zoom meeting inventoried complaints about Shapiro’s guest work. There were many:

  • “How deep in the barrel are we going to go?” asked one staffer. Would Politico run an argument by former Klansman David Duke? What about Alex Jones, the Infowars conspiracy theorist?
  • One person argued that the decision obliterates attempts to distinguish Politico reporting from outlets that spread misinformation.
  • Why publish someone whose “entire business model is based on monetizing sensationalist fallacies?”
  • Another argument slighted management for failing to foresee how this whole thing would play out: “How predictable this was — the fact that Ben Shapiro is now going to be able to use the conversation that we are having . . . to lampoon us as some liberal media bastion, and that is not what we are." That’s expecting a high level of clairvoyance from newsroom leaders.
  • Yet another: “Ben Shapiro is a racist, he’s not a journalist. We wasted our readers’ time with that piece because it included inaccurate information that wasn’t based on reporting. Not only was it not based on reporting, it directly undermined and was countered by” the work of Politico reporters.

Rebutting the complaints of his colleagues, Kaminski said that they’d established “false equivalency” between Shapiro on the one hand and Duke and Jones on the other. “I don’t see any reason to apologize for having published Ben Shapiro. There was nothing factually wrong with it, so we’re not going to correct the piece. The bar for going back on something for me is incredibly high,” Kaminski said.

A staffer got in his virtual face, however: What differences did Kaminski see between Shapiro and Duke and Jones? “I just don’t want to have a debate about this with you here. It’s just not the appropriate forum for that," responded Kaminski. That was a managerial whiff: Alex Jones is one of the country’s top nut jobs, a fellow who claimed the Newtown massacre was a hoax; Duke is a former grand wizard of the KKK; Shapiro is a conservative commentator, albeit one who has trafficked in offensive views.

A pair of Politico staffers who dissented from the unanimous sentiment on the call indicated that they didn’t feel comfortable expressing their opinions.

We’ll go ahead and express ours: For some of the reasons expressed by Politico staffers, putting Shapiro atop Playbook was a bad assignment. Opinion feels as alien to Playbook as Playbook would feel to the New York Review of Books. Why feature any guest opinionators in this space?

Another question: Why would Shapiro want to write for Politico? As Popular Information’s Judd Legum pointed out on Thursday, Shapiro’s site labeled Politico “fake news.” Certainly Shapiro would want to protect his non-fake writing from such a platform, right?

All that said, Politico’s pile-on reaction goes way too far. While complaints about Shapiro’s history and character were strongly argued, the publication isn’t seeking to place him on the payroll. This was a crummy, one-off guest-hosting gig that merits neither an apology nor a retraction from Kaminski. If editors live in fear of going too far, chances are good that they won’t go far enough. Politico will survive this smelly URL. (On Friday the site announced its new Playbook team).

The staff’s complaints, however, drive at something undeniable: The American right these days produces a grand heap of disinformation and racist arguments, with the Trump White House standing as a monument to all of them. Decisions to publish any voices from those precincts, accordingly, will continue haunting editors at mainstream media outlets — whether it’s Politico’s Kaminski this week or former New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet, who lost his job last June after the uproar over an op-ed from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). Bennet, by the way, did a rotation as a Playbook guest host.

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Early on Jan. 6, The Post's Kate Woodsome saw signs of violence hours before thousands of President Trump's loyalists besieged the Capitol. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: John Minchillo/AP/The Washington Post)