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JournOlism 101: A Day In The Life Of Politico's Ben Smith


Wednesday, I came across this Columbia Journalism Review interview with Politico’s Ben Smith, in which he describes his work in this context:

The news cycle now is about these tiny segments, and I think my stuff is what people are talking about in any given segment reasonably often. Scoops speak for themselves. If you have some new piece of information, it gets passed around and it’s fun to see people discovering something because you broke it. It’s one of the basic rewards of journalism in some way, I think. To tell people stuff they didn’t know.

For those of you who don’t know, Smith has a blog at Politico all to himself, was a member of the infamous Journolist, and would prefer to be seen as an objective journalist with no agenda one way or another.

It was just a coincidence that I came across that interview on the same day I was thinking about writing a piece responding to a “scoop” Smith had posted the day before:

‘Rudy’ writer: Newt no Rudy

Newt Gingrich’s campaign yesterday pulled the soundtrack from the film “Rudy” from his campaign ad after I asked about the copyright, though they didn’t respond directly to questions about whether they had the rights to use it online.

I heard today from the film’s writer and producer, Angelo Pizzo, who expressed his dismay that Gingrich would associate himself with the movie.

“I think what the movie’s about and what Newt’s about are at polar opposites,” he said. “One thing about the character of Rudy: He’s always consistent in his purpose, his philosophy, and his goal, and he does it honestly and straightforward. He was a person of absolute ethical and moral integrity, and I think Newt is anything but that. He’s all over the map on any number of issues.”

At first glance that might seem like a frivolous story, but there’s a method to Smith’s madness at work here. Gingrich is on the rise, and the MSM loves to pull Republicans off message for a day every time some musician whines about his or her music being used without permission by a campaign.

This is Smith doing what Smith does so well: tossing chaff at a Republican, creating a distraction-narrative over nonsense, all in the apparent hope of getting the campaign off-track and off-message.

Smith’s description of his job and his posture as an objective journalist is, of course, absurd–but the way in which he spins what he does is fascinating. Because what Smith really does is to come up with silly (in the context of what’s important) narratives that, for the most part, damage Republicans (though, for cover, he’ll throw a bone to the right every now and again) and aids Democrats. From there, the MSM and other leftist media outlets will look over his work, feast on it, and amplify into the narrative whatever they find useful.

Since the 2008 election, I’ve watched Smith (and Politico as a whole) do this in ways small (Sarah Palin’s tanning bed) and large (this shamelessly epic piece of journOlism), but in order to make my point this time, I felt that rather than focus on just one thing Smith had written, I’d take a look at his perch as a whole. Maybe count and report on the ratio of his posts that ding one side or the other. What I found, however, surprised even me.

As of this writing, what you’ll see below is not in any way cherry-picked. Starting from newest to oldest, these are the last 20 items published at Ben Smith’s blog.

Before we get started, though, keep in mind that Obama’s approval ratings are in the tank, Fast and Furious is heating up, the President is going on vacation… again, and that’s just for starters. There are literally dozens of stories and narratives out there that could be written about Obama and his campaign and his struggles and mistakes. But what you’re about to see is a laser-like focus on damaging Republicans and not a single–not one out of 20!–item that could in any way be described as damaging to Democrats or Obama.

Note: Below is Smith’s original headline with my description of his post. Any direct quotes are in italics. Also, the Politico site was too slow to link to each one individually, so to see the posts in full start here, scroll down to “Mitt 2.0,” and the other 19 are directly below.

1. Mitt 2.0

Smith links to a Jonathan Martin story.

2. Anti-gay ad divides Perry camp


3. Of presidents and golf

A post specifically designed to undermine Romney’s recent attempt to make an issue out of President Obama’s love of golf. This is JournOlism 101:

Romney contends that Obama has shot 1,584 holes as president, or 88 rounds in two years. Eisenhower, who played nearly 900 rounds in his two terms, according to golf writer David Sowell, would have played more than 200 rounds in that period. Opponents tried to criticize him for it, too, but to no avail.

“Despite the persistent worries that golf reminded most voters that presidents felt comfortable among the elite and their gated, private country clubs, no president was ever encouraged to quit because of a disappointing poll number or a comment’s barb,” Van Natta writes in “First Off the Tee.” “In fact, the first presidential golfer [Taft] enthusiastically played through his campaign, despite a warning that the game itself could keep him from winning the White House.”

It may be that Romney just has something against the game. He doesn’t play golf — though he was arrested in high school for sliding down the hill of a golf course on an ice block.

What would Obama do without Ben Smith to handle his oppo-research for him?

4. Pawlenty abroad

Nothing post about Tim Pawlenty being in Mareilles. So much more important than Fast and Furious or a number of polls released today showing Obama in the mid-forties when matched against Romney or Gingrich.

5. Romney SuperPac heads to the rescue in Iowa

That will raise the stakes for Romney in the early state, where the urgency of stopping Newt Gingrich’s momentum is starting to feel very real.

6. The new culture wars

Smith has been a steady champion of Occupy Wall Street, going so far as to claim “they’re winning” — as though starting a debate is proof enough of winning. Jerry Sandusky started a debate about child rape. Is he winning? Anyway, in this post Smith presents both sides’ arguments over whether or not tying Occupy to Elizabeth Warren is hurting her in Massachusetts.

Smith’s headline is interesting, though, framing this as a “culture war,” as though it isn’t a legitimate political debate. The left loves culture wars, especially in 2012, because they distract from Obama’s record and gin up the Democratic vote.

In the post, Smith also defines this as “excesses of the New Left.”

7. The Prebius RNC

Referring to the RNC coming out in opposition to the Donald Trump debate, Smith writes: [emphasis mine]

It’s clear that Reince Priebus has assumed a role that basically makes sense for a party chairman in this day and age — keeping the freakshow at bay[.]

8. Revenge of the atheists

An embedded video where Smith amplifies an ad striking back at Perry’s admittedly dumb “gays in the military” spot.

9. The left in the states

I doubt it’s a coincidence that the same day this gets some traction on the right, Smith links and excerpts this:

Progressives are now hoping to chip away at conservative dominance at the local governance level with 2,012 for 2012, a project by the New Organizing Institute and a coalition of left-of-center groups, including Progressive Majority and Rebuild the Dream. The original goal was to recruit 2,012 progressive candidates to run for local office in the 2012 elections, but the response was so overwhelming that the project has increased its goal to 5,000. So far, it has compelled 1,500 progressive candidates to pledge to run.

By the way, that’s a Huffington Post article.

10. Remainders: Reboot

Smith puts up one or two of these posts a day. Each line of text links to a specific story that, in many cases, speak volumes about the narratives Smith is pushing. Nothing about Obama or even the Democrats:

A media history of the Republican candidates

Newt’s three for four in the early primary states.

He’s forcing Romney to reboot.

The South Carolina GOP messes with Mitt…

…who still wants the Trump endorsement.

Erick Erickson can’t get behind Newt.

Dan Savage weighs in on Bachmann’s awkward exchange with an 8-year-old.

Jeff Goldberg sends an invite to the Israeli Minister of Immigrant Absorption.

Perry wages war of faith…

…charges hard in Iowa…

…and wins “best debate moment” of the year.

You can click the individual links here.

11. Time to announce the Election 2012 iPhone app

Smith promotes a new New York Times app that gives you access to all their propaganda election coverage.

12. In Newtland, no love for food stamps

More ammo from Smith for the Left’s “Gingrich hates the poor” narrative they’re building:

My source emails that he was disconcerted that the Gingrich aide was “publicly demonizing a complete stranger for using food stamps, especially during the holidays.”

13. Dept. of faux NIMBYism

A snarky piece mocking Tea Party groups for operating out of D.C. even as they send out emails mocking the D.C. establishment.

14. Post grumbles

Nothing media story.

15. DWS in the Shark Tank, part two

Smith asks who leaked something to a conservative site that was critical of Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.

16. Perry’s Christian Pitch

His new ad attacks the new law allowing gays to serve openly in the military and it’s a sign, among other things, of his liberation from being a national candidate: This isn’t a popular national stance, but there’s a slice of the Iowa electorate[.]

17. The GOP loves Israel

The obvious subtext is how the GOP is sucking up to the Jewish vote. Smith’s describes Huntsman as the “representative of its realist wing.”

It was Jon Huntsman, though, who crystallized the tone of a party for which a strong alliance with Israel has become an unquestionable tenet, even for the representative of its realist wing: “I have no closer friend than the Israeli ambassador to China.”

18. GOP calendar still a mess, but at least the candidates are unprepared


19. Perry’s spending

Post about how Perry’s media spending might be reaching its limit in the “Perry rescue mission.”

20. Saturday: Mitt v. Newt, centerstage

A “who cares?”post about the seating arrangement at Saturday’s debate. So much more important than, say, this.


It needs to be said that individually, these are all perfectly defensible stories. Granted, some of them are a little dumb and nitpicky, but in order to understand what Smith is up to, you have to pull back for a look at the bigger picture.

What Smith covers is the least important question. It’s what he’s choosing to cover and not cover, what he’s choosing to amplify and ignore. That’s where the corruption is found.

And as we get closer to 2012, trust me, it’s only going to get worse.


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