Politico’s Playbook on Tuesday laid out every reporter’s nightmare: In late January, it said, it presented questions to the White House about a relationship between deputy press secretary T.J. Ducklo and Axios reporter Alexi McCammond. In a true sign that the Politico of 2021 is not the Politico of, say, 2008, the Playbook crew didn’t publish the story 30 seconds after asking for comment.
Instead, they waited. On Monday evening, Playbook informed the White House that the Ducklo-McCammond item would appear in Tuesday morning’s newsletter. “Hours later, a glowing profile of McCammond and Ducklo’s relationship was published by People.”
Though People is not Poynter, the “glowing” story did address the ethical issues attendant on the couple. “We keep it totally separate. I don’t know what she’s working on and she doesn’t know what I’m working on,” Ducklo told People’s Adam Carlson. “It means a lot of calls in hallways, in bathrooms and while one of us is walking her dog.” An Axios spokeswoman told People that McCammond had asked to be taken off her Biden beat in November and that she’d been reassigned to cover progressives as well as Vice President Harris. And McCammond affirmed that Ducklo hadn’t been a source “for any story I’ve worked on or in any capacity since we began dating.”
Playbook, for its part, not only delved into McCammond’s work — citing instances that demonstrate the razor’s edge between her old beat and her new beat — but also caught Axios co-founder (and Politico co-founder) Jim VandeHei on the phone without a passel of talking points, admitting that he knew “a little bit about” the situation.
Here was a journo-ethics twofer. Regarding McCammond’s conflict of interest, we here at the Erik Wemple Blog don’t envy her. When we edited the Washington City Paper more than a decade ago, our star politics columnist, Mike DeBonis, became romantically involved with a press aide working for a key agency under Mayor Adrian Fenty (they later got married). Our solution: to bar professional communications with the aide, Dena Iverson, and keep him squarely on the beat. So we’re not going to snipe at Axios’s efforts to contrive a workaround for McCammond.
Not only was there a conflict-of-interest drama at play, but also a question: How did Playbook lose the scoop? On Tuesday morning, Politico White House editor Sam Stein tweeted:
Dear press hands: I understand it’s tempting to try and get ahead of a seemingly bad story by feeding it to another outlet that will handle it kindly. It may even seem strategic. But the short term gain you feel will be undone by the longer term damage from the act. Don't do it.— Sam Stein (@samstein) February 9, 2021
The Erik Wemple Blog asked White House press secretary Jen Psaki whether the White House sat on Politico’s inquiry while pushing the scoop to People. “The story of their personal relationship, and the steps that were responsibly taken to ensure there were no conflicts of interest, was TJ and Lexi’s to tell in whatever timeline and manner of their choosing,” responded Psaki. “We work with a range of outlets including Politico on substantive stories every single day and look forward to having a constructive working relationship.”
That’s a fair point: The White House doesn’t have proprietary custody of the story, considering that it involves one of its people as well as a third party, McCammond. An inquiry about climate policy or the budget, this was not.
We also asked People how it landed on the story. “As a matter of policy, PEOPLE does not comment on its editorial process,” noted People spokesperson Julie Farin.
Whatever the provenance of the People exclusive, the White House most certainly was excited about it. Chief of Staff Ron Klain, communications director Kate Bedingfield and transition spokesman Andrew Bates all promoted it on Twitter.
Whoop-de-do that People made it to this story first. Being “first” is overrated. There’s nothing for the Playbook crew to rue in this episode, and its brief write-up of the McCammond-Ducklo situation speaks to the glories of journalistic hustle. Instead of a boring story about Beltway romance, Playbook ended up with a boring story about Beltway romance with a splash of media intrigue. It also nailed down this delicious tidbit: “An Axios spokesperson initially said last month that McCammond had been taken off the Biden beat. In a later email, she said the reporter ‘has taken a backseat’ on Biden coverage.”