Politico Under Fire Over Alleged Payola Scandal
Late last month Washington Post media reporter Erik Wemple pretty much caught Politico reporter Mike Allen in what is known as "payola" or "pay-for-play" or, if you want to be generous, "native advertising." Either way, Wemple made a very convincing case that in his widely disseminated Politico Playbook email newsletter, Allen is allegedly giving paying advertisers the additional bonus of positive coverage and publicity boosts disguised as news.
If true, this would of course be highly unethical. New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait believes Wemple's report should have been a "career-ending revelation" for Allen. Andrew Sullivan described it as "whoredom." At the very least, especially given the popular influence of Playbook, Politico should have taken Wemple's inquiries and reporting seriously. Instead, Politico has arrogantly played nothing-to-see-here.
Politico has gotten away with it, too. Though Politico CEO Jim VandeHei and other Politico personnel regularly appear on MSNBC, because of the back scratching relationship between those two left-wing outlets, the issue has never been pressed. The rest of the mainstream media has been just as quiet.
The dam broke some when VendeHei appeared on "The Brian Lehrer Show" to promote a new Politico venture. When asked about it, though, VandeHei was predictably dismissive:
Yeah, I thought the piece was nonsense, which is why we didn’t play ball with him on it. I mean, Mike Allen has written Playbook now 365 days a year for six years. We’ve done, what, thousands of Playbooks, which has had hundreds of thousands of items. I’m sure he could find any pattern he wants to if he wanted to dissect all the Playbook entries that we’ve had over seven years. Mike Allen is one of the best reporters that I’ve known in Washington, one of the fairest, has the sort of highest ideals of anybody I know. So the product is rock-solid, it’s silly to insinuate that — like, why would we do that? There’s no business interest to do it. Mike would have no business interest to do it. I love Playbook, it’s the reason we’re replicating it here in New York. And it’s the reason it’s arguably the most influential newsletter, arguably the most influential e-mail, that goes out every morning in the country.
VandeHei makes two absolutely ridiculous claims there.
The first is that the Washington Post's Wemple "could find any pattern he wants to if he wanted to dissect all the Playbook entries that we’ve had over seven years."
That's a smart talking point, but there is no pattern in omission. Where exactly is the "pattern" in the fact that after hours of research, Wemple was unable to find even a single example of Playbook criticizing its advertisers or any other special interest groups:
Politico’s archives yield plenty of examples of Allen going to bat for the site’s advertisers. Turning up examples of hard-nosed pieces on these companies and special interests is a more complicated undertaking. Sure, “Playbook” did some postings on the Deepwater Horizon disaster back in 2010; it gave a nod to a group that’s competing against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and various neutral stories on these entities occasionally get links in the morning newsletter. As for outright negative stuff on these organizations, that tends to be harder to dig up. We spent hours searching for such examples and even deployed an outside researcher for further bandwidth; we also asked Politico to send examples wherein Allen takes a harsh view of their agenda. They declined.
Secondly, VandeHei's claim that Politico would have "no business interest" in playing footsie with The DC Powerful is utter nonsense. Beyond the obvious incentive (Playbook advertising reaps $35,000 a week, or close to $2 million a year), there are also the many benefits of access to Power which begets exclusives which begets traffic which begets wealth which begets influence.
When a Bob Woodward or "60 Minutes" step off the Left-wing Narrative Plantation with questionable reporting, the drumbeat for accountability from the mainstream media is relentless and punishing. Fair enough.
Politico, though, has thus far been given almost a total pass.
But Politico is not only a member-in-good-standing on this Plantation, it is an overseer, and apparently too big to be held accountable.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC