After initially refusing to address Erik Wemple’s exhaustive documentation of Mike Allen’s pattern of parroting the editorial line of his advertisers, Politico editor John Harris appeared on Howard Kurtz’s Fox News show to rebut the charges. Well, “rebut” may be too strong a term. He acknowledged the charges and then strung together a series of words in response to them. But the words do not make a great deal of sense:
So the idea — and it really wasn’t an argument what I read; it was more of a suggestion, insinuation, innuendo in a really unfair way — that the product is somehow compromised by advertisers was (a) not supported and (b) horribly, horribly unfair to what really is one of the most transparent journalistic products in the city. Anyone can read it any given day and sort of take their best guess as to why this is in there, why it’s not, who Mike had lunch with, who was giving him this, who he had dinner with, who was feeding him that. Totally transparent.
Harris seems to be claiming that we should have no issue with Allen editorializing on behalf of his paid sponsors because it’s “transparent.” Harris defines transparency to mean that “anyone can read it” and therefore guess at the ulterior motives behind any individual item. That seems like a pretty low bar. What would a nontransparent publication be? A tip sheet that people are not allowed to read?
It’s possible that Harris actually means something different from what he actually said when he’s thinking of transparency. The ads are transparent, and any reader can look at them and then match them up with Allen’s editorial slant. This is precisely what Wemple did. But, again, what is the alternative? Ads are always public. That’s what an ad is. If the advertiser were giving Politico money, and Politico was not publishing the advertiser’s message, then it wouldn’t be an ad at all. It would be a bribe.
It’s hard to think of any definition of transparency by which Playbook ranks especially high. When you read, say, a story on the front page of the New York Times about bombings in Russia, you don’t have to guess why the story is there. It’s because there were bombings in Russia. There’s no netherworld of friends and/or sources and/or paid sponsors lurking behind every word. If transparency simply means that the motives are hidden but the product itself is open, then yes, Playbook is tied for first place as the most transparent publication in the city. It’s also tied for last place.