The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How the rise of Politico shifted political journalism off course

Two Politico coffee mugs on a table at the Newseum in Washington, on Nov. 28, 2012. (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Politico’s sale last month to the German media company Axel Springer for a reported $1 billion was the culmination of a stunning rise of a publication founded in 2007 in what most people assumed was an overly-crowded market: coverage of Washington and U.S. politics. Politico is now read by insiders as much as bigger, long-standing outlets such as the New York Times and The Post, and that billion-dollar sale price is more than three times what Jeff Bezos paid for The Post in 2013.

But the rise and enduring influence of Politico, while great for its owner Robert Allbritton, has been a troubling development for consumers of American political news.

At its start, Politico rightly identified two shortcomings in political media: It was too slow and too dull. Politico pioneered the fast-paced coverage of Capitol Hill and campaigns that now thrives on Twitter and cable news. And it recognized that there is a real audience of people who love the behind-the-scenes machinations of politics. I was a political reporter when Politico was founded and was envious of its compelling and often fun coverage.

In 2007, the political media was indeed slow and dull, but it also suffered from several other problems: a bias for politicians and policies that were considered bipartisan or centrist; little racial diversity among journalists and a White-centric news approach; an obsession with placating Republicans who cast the media as too liberal; little coverage of politics beyond D.C.; and coverage of politics like it was a sport. Remember that the Washington press corps (myself included) had a few years earlier largely accepted the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq. That was a massive failure that happened in part because journalists were wary of too harshly criticizing a GOP administration and because the war was supported by members of both parties in Congress, giving it a centrist and bipartisan sheen.

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Politico largely embraced those prevailing orthodoxies of political journalism, particularly in its early days — it was Beltway-focused, obsessed with not offending Republican readers, sometimes resembled sports coverage and its leading reporters were nearly all White. It was in many ways just a faster, more interesting version of how politics had long been covered. And that really worked. Politico became very influential, particularly among people involved in politics, as well as among political journalists and editors who didn’t work at Politico. For more than a decade, not only did Politico keep gaining strength, but the entire political media became more like Politico. Editors rushed to hire staffers from the Northern Virginia-based outlet. They also pressed their existing staffers to cover politics the way Politico did — more scoops, more insider gossip, a faster pace.

“Politico showed there was a viable market hungry for both the minutiae and the gossip of politics,” said Nikki Usher, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

And this is where things went wrong. It was (and is) fine to have a publication focused on insider politics. But it was not ideal when The Post, the New York Times and many other major mainstream news outlets drifted toward this model — and when they did so was particularly problematic.

The Politico approach is probably fine if you are covering parties and politicians who share some values and norms. And the election of Barack Obama looked like it could usher in a politics that was less divisive than George W. Bush’s presidency and a full break from the conflicts over race and identity that had in many ways defined U.S. politics since the 1960s.

But early in the Obama years, it became clear that the fights of the past weren’t over; they were, instead, perhaps becoming even more tense. The most important stories in American politics were the deepening polarization of the American electorate along cultural and racial lines and the growing radicalization of the GOP. But a Politico-ized national political press was both largely unwilling and in some ways unable to center its coverage on those realities. So the press spent much of the Obama years acting as if the opposition to him was solely because he had a liberal policy ideas on issues such as health care — and not because Obama had become both the leader and a symbol of a multicultural America whose values are opposed by many on the right. Wary of angering Republican readers, much of the mainstream press refused to cast the GOP as drifting into radical and racist behavior, even when prominent Republicans would not acknowledge that Obama was born in the United States.

“The Politico model of insider coverage and savvy style of analysis is premised on conditions in politics that became less true over time, which then undermined the model,” said New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen. “Conditions like two roughly similar parties obeying democratic norms, with similar establishments in both parties and competing for swing voters.”

The coverage of the 2016 campaign in particular was abysmal. The focus on Hillary Clinton’s emails stemmed from the media’s reflexive both sides-ism, and an obsession with feuds among Donald Trump's staffers reflected an insider-focused approach to politics gone too far. More deeply, the press went out of its way to suggest that the people supporting a candidate who campaigned on banning Muslims from the country and building a wall between the United States and Mexico were expressing “economic anxiety” or a desire for an outsider politician. “[Trump’s supporters] view Trump’s pledges more as malleable symbols than concrete promises, reflecting a willingness to shake things up and to be bold,” one Post story reported in June 2016. The mind-set was encapsulated by Salena Zito’s observation that Trump’s supporters took him “seriously but not literally.” This mind-set wholly failed to anticipate Trump aggressively trying to limit immigration once he was in office, including a specific effort to block people from heavily Muslim nations from entering the United States.

Trump becoming president only exacerbated these media problems. The constant infighting in his administration and Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation were two stories that provided constant fodder for juicy insider stories. It seemed like the perfect match: a press corps of politicos had the ultimate Politico story. But the Trump story really wasn’t a Politico story. Looking back on Trump’s four years, the defining quality of his administration was not how it changed as various staffers got hired or fired but how it didn’t change: Trump pushed White identity politics with anti-democratic tactics from the moment he entered office to the moment he left. The most important coverage of the Trump administration did not come from the writers covering feuds among staffers, but from writers such as the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, who were studying history and Trump’s policies and describing the racial politics that the administration was organized around.

The Mueller investigation was important, but much of the insider, anonymously sourced reporting about it wasn’t. The culmination of the misguidedness of this insider-focused approach came in the weeks after the 2020 election. The political reporters who relied on extensive access to Trump staffers wrote stories implying that the president no had real intention of contesting the election results, while those without such access who watched Trump’s public statements and remembered his long streak of anti-democratic behavior correctly predicted that he was trying to stage a coup.

The coup coverage was a bit of an outlier in 2020 — in the latter stages of the Trump era, the political press, including Politico itself, began to shift. There was more coverage of the attempts by Republicans to make it harder to vote and more direct and blunt reporting on Trump’s racist actions and words. This was in part because news outlets had hired more reporters of color, an acknowledgement that more racially diverse staffs would cover the story of American politics better and that these outlets had previously steered away from hiring reporters of color whose frank coverage of the racist elements of the GOP might annoy Republican readers. Coverage of both Biden’s and Trump’s 2020 campaigns included much less palace intrigue than coverage of Clinton and Trump in 2016. And while the Biden administration no doubt has less infighting than Trump’s did, the press corps has also moved on from centering those stories in its White House coverage. Most important, the political media is doing a much better job describing the high stakes of governing and policy than it did a decade ago.

In acknowledging this progress, I don’t want to play down the many bad practices of the political media that remain. Stories in the Times and Politico about Republican Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida have downplayed their terrible handling of covid-19. While there were problems with the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the wall-to-wall, highly negative reporting on it also reflects the press’s eagerness to demonstrate it will cover him as critically as it did Trump. Congressional Republicans’ criticism of Biden’s policies continues to be treated sincerely — without frontally acknowledging that most of them insincerely objected to allowing Biden to become president in the first place, based on allegations of widespread voting irregularities that these Republicans know are false.

That said, political journalism is de-Politico-izing — and it’s better late than never.

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Conspiracy theories blaming George W. Bush for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have been debunked, yet millions of Americans still believe them. (Video: Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)