Can K Street Buy Mike Allen?

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The populist critique of official Washington, which I more or less agree with, revolves around a somewhat fuzzy, impressionistic collection of archetypes. What the critics imagine is an insular subculture inside the Beltway in which a shared conventional wisdom — socially liberal, pro-business — entrenches itself through a combination of social networking and raw class bias. The Washington elite has to be understood in sociological terms as a kind of tribe. Some members of the tribe shape the Washington consensus out of personal self-interest, while others inhale it subconsciously to the point where they come to see these beliefs not as an ideology but as obvious truths.

The trouble with the populist critique is that it’s so pervasive it’s hard to find, a sociology that is everywhere yet nowhere — White House Correspondents’ Dinner Weekend, the set of Morning Joe, a thousand turns of the revolving door. Politico co-founder chief White House Correspondent Mike Allen’s contribution is to bring together all these things in the form of a single human being, the embodiment of the Washington Establishment.

Washington Post media reporter Erik Wemple has a devastating report on the ethical disaster that is Playbook, Allen’s morning tip sheet that aspires to, and succeeds at, defining the national political narrative for an audience heavy with powerful insiders. Allen charges rich sums — $35,000 a week — to give small advertising blurbs in Playbook to corporate or lobbying clients. Wemple shows that Allen obliterates the line between paid advertisements and content — not just once or twice, but as routine practice. It is literally impossible to tell the difference between copy paid for by Allen’s clients and copy written by Allen himself. Wemple offers up these four chunks of Playbook-prose:

1) “The economy is not growing fast enough to create the jobs we need to reemploy the unemployed and create new opportunities for young Americans just starting out. We can boost growth and jobs by producing more domestic energy, expanding trade, modernizing our infrastructure, and reforming our tax, regulatory, and immigration systems. Higher growth won’t solve all of our problems, but we can’t solve any of them without it. Learn more about the Chamber’s American Jobs and Growth Agenda at http://www.uschamber.com/issues. **”

2) Ahead of tax day, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce promotes its agenda for tax reform: “Renew all expiring tax rates and incentives right away. … Stop threatening small businesses with higher taxes. … Make our companies and workers more globally competitive. … Taxpayers deserve a system that is simple and clear, one that spurs growth, encourages investment and innovation.” http://bit.ly/HQH7W8

3) The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has an ambitious new agenda to generate stronger, more robust economic growth, create jobs, and expand opportunity for all Americans. Learn more about the Chamber’s American Jobs and Growth Agenda at http://www.uschamber.com/issues. **

4) ”U.S. Chamber of Commerce will launch ‘On the Road With Free Enterprise,’ a two-month cross-country road trip to promote ‘the principles of free enterprise and the best of America. Your Free Enterprise Tour Guides will see the sights, check out local events, talk to businesses, and share it [online]. More than 900 teams applied to be the Free Enterprise Tour Guides, and after months of poring over applications, two teams remain: Jen and John, and Nate and Joe. You can vote [here] once per day.’www.FreeEnterprise.com/tour”

Nos. 1 and 3 turn out to be paid Chamber ads, 2 and 4 Allen’s own commentary. Versions of it, Wemple finds, recur over and over.

As thorough and as damning as Wemple’s reporting here may be, he nonetheless ignores the deeper and more problematic implications. Wemple frames Allen’s shilling as “native advertising,” an often-troublesome practice in which publications sell space for paid content that is designed to look like a staff-authored article. (One of the more infamous episodes involved a Scientology ad for the Atlantic that looked like a blog post.)

Playbook goes beyond the routine and wildly promiscuous use of native advertising. Indeed, the behavior Wemple documents would ordinarily amount to a scandal and a likely firing offense, except that it seems to be Allen’s essential job description. As Wemple points out, some of the advertisers are also Allen’s friends. And, of course, his sources also consist significantly of his friends.

The intermingling of media, business, and elected officials that is on gross display once a year during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and which Politico both covers and participates in with peerless enthusiasm, is Allen’s vision of how journalism is supposed to function normally. Sources, friends, and sponsors all blur into one mutually protective circle. Last year, Allen gave breathless, PR-esque coverage to Fix the Debt, the pillar of respectable establishmentarian lobbying, and then, within days, announced that the group was sponsoring Playbook.

One Allen column — co-authored with Jim VandeHei, then a Politico co-editor, now its publisher — introduced itself as a description of the fact that powerful politicians and CEOs agreed on their desired economic prescriptions (tax reform, more energy development, cuts to retirement programs, immigration reform, and so on). Allen did not present this interesting finding as scandalous or even sociologically interesting but rather as evidence that these views were correct.

Indeed, the column – too routine and anodyne to even make the cut in Wemple’s expose – began by describing the views of the business elite, and eventually dispensed with the pretense of assigning those views to the sources, and began openly praising them: “The tax and spending matters are back-to-basics matters,” Allen wrote. “The international trinity of energy, trade deals and immigration is how policymakers could really get the economy cooking again.” At some point the column had transitioned from a description of the ideology of the business and political elite into straightforward advocacy, but it is legitimately impossible to identify where in the column the change occurs.

The Mike Allen scandal is not that advertisers purchased favorable coverage in Playbook. The scandal is that, at this point, such corruption is unnecessary.