In the fifties, a bunch of rock stations got caught taking money from music producers to give their artists airtime. The “Payola” scam, as it was called, was sufficiently outrageous to become a major national scandal. Last month, Washington Post reporter Erik Wemple reported that Politico’s Mike Allen is running a similar scam — accepting lucrative payments from advertisers and lending his editorial voice to hyping, and sometimes parroting, their agenda. Given the relative importance of national politics vis-à-vis rock music, this struck me as a potentially career-ending revelation. Instead, Politico has ignored the report and carried on as if nothing at all were amiss.
But Politico couldn’t avoid all interviews forever, and in the course of appearing on “The Brian Lehrer Show” to hype Politico’s new Capital New York venture, CEO, former editor, and Allen co-author Jim VandeHei was asked about the payola allegations. His reply is a comical stream of evasive tripe:
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.
VandeHei begins by calling the report “nonsense” without explicitly denying it. He asserts that a reporter “could find any pattern he wants to” in Allen’s prodigious output. Really? Any pattern? A pattern of support for Russian strongmen? A pattern of furtive endorsements of anarcho-syndicalism? Even if this were true, it misses the point altogether. One might analyze the patterns of a particular disk jockey and discover all sorts of peculiar preferences, but the only pattern that really matters is a pattern of giving favorable coverage to interests that are paying him. VandeiHei does not deny that Allen has done that.
Now, one possible defense of Allen is that what appears to be simple payola is actually a more sociologically complex phenomenon. Allen, as Wemple reports, has personal friendships with many of his sponsors, uses them as sources, and generally shares their point of view on most issues even while failing to acknowledge he has a point of view at all. This is less a defense than a concession that Allen is so hopelessly embedded within the Establishment that he can’t cover it in a remotely fair way. (This is exactly the argument I made.)
VandeHei’s final defense verges on parody: Allen, he argues, has “no business interest” in giving favorable treatment to advertisers. There is the fact that advertisers pay him $35,000 a week, or up to $1.8 million a year. If those clients realize that their paid advertisements also buy them favorable coverage in Playbook, that would make them dramatically more interested in paying Allen’s exorbitant rates.
Granted, VandeHei may be getting at the fact that the exposure of this seedy relationship would be a risky proposition that might devalue the currency of Playbook. But for that to be true, the disclosure that Allen is systematically providing favorable coverage to his advertisers would have to develop into a massive scandal that taints the Allen brand. That hasn’t happened at all. Allen and Politico have instead simply lurched blithely forward. Their strategy of pretending the payola allegations don’t exist has worked brilliantly, from a business perspective. Given the reality that Politico has suffered little to no reputation damage from the scandal, it seems like selling favorable coverage, whatever the ethical merits, is in fact a brilliant business strategy.