How Politico’s Mike Allen Blends Ads and ‘News’

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Mike Allen of Politico on MSNBC's Morning Joe, November 20, 2013. (Courtesy of MSNBC)

This post originally appeared at The Nation.

Today’s top — though belated — media criticism comes from Erik Wemple from The Washington Post. He dissects the long lamented but until now much-overlooked blending of ads and coverage within Mike Allen’s fabled, overrated, “Playbook” morning tip sheet (and email newsletter) at Politico. Allen, a former Post reporter, has been one of the chief Politico staffers since its beginning.

One can only cheer when Wemple observes early on in his lengthy piece, “It’s about time that Politico’s Allen got his due as a native-advertising pioneer.”

Other media commentators are now responding and I’ll chart their reactions (and any Allen reply) below at the end of my piece. Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine has tweeted, for example: “The ethical disaster most journalists would define as a firing offense is, for Mike Allen, a job description.” And he’s written this. Andrew Sullivan’s headline declared, “Mike Allen, Busted.”  Several wags have re-titled the Wemple piece, “SLAYBOOK.”

So what’s native advertising? [Wemple writes:]

One of the hottest issues in journalism today is “native” advertising, the tricks that publishers deploy to elide the domains of journalism and advertising. BuzzFeed has sustained gray-bearded criticism for its boundary-defying listicles. The Atlantic earlier this year ran a native ad from the Church of Scientology that inflamed its audience and prompted an apology and a review of Atlantic procedures for approving ads. Forbes, The Washington Post and the Huffington Post are also experimenting with this approach to funding journalism.

Until now, Allen’s alleged transgressions, well-blended as they are — for example, ads from the US Chamber of Commerce plus outsized coverage of  their work and views — have never been cataloged. Wemple took the time and summarizes:

A review of “Playbook” archives shows that the special interests that pay for slots in the newsletter get adoring coverage elsewhere in the playing field of “Playbook.” The pattern is a bit difficult to suss out if you glance at “Playbook” each day for a shot of news and gossip. When searching for references to advertisers in “Playbook,” however, it is unmistakable. And its practitioner is expanding the franchise.

Beyond the Chamber…

Another big name that’s gotten a healthy dose of earned media from Playbook is BP, a company that has faced quite a challenge in image-conscious Washington, thanks to the 2010 oil spill at the Deepwater Horizon rig leased by the company. In recent months, BP has blanketed “Playbook” with ads hyping the company’s status as “America’s largest energy investor.” The free BP mentions authored by Allen tell a similar story.

Then there are examples involving Goldman Sachs and other big business entities, along with Allen going out of his way to show some love for Sheldon Adelson and so on. Allen and Politico chief John Harris refused interviews for the piece. Wemple:

In rejecting a sit-down discussion, Editor-in-Chief John Harris said the premise “is without merit in any shape or form.” Without an interview, it’s impossible to judge Allen’s motivations. For example, does he write nice things about the chamber because he wants more advertisers or because he feels their agenda doesn’t get fair play in other outlets? Did he publish those BP plugs because he thought they were newsworthy or because he’s got a friend at the company?

As noted earlier, Andrew Sullivan has weighed in at his popular blog The Dish.

Dish readers know what I think of “native advertising” and “sponsored content.” If it’s an advertorial, just call it and clearly label it an advertorial! Full disclosure and transparency are essential. The rest is whoredom, not journalism. When a journalist becomes a copy-writer for big advertisers giving him or his publication money, and does not clearly disclose the conflict of interest, he or she has ceased to be an independent journalist and joined the lucrative profession of public relations.

Read Erik Wemple’s evisceration of Mike Allen’s Playbook and make up your own mind. But to my eyes, it reads like a meticulously researched tale of at least the appearance of blatant corruption.

Glenn Greenwald has tweeted that the Wemple piece shows “how Mike Allen reaches new lows in renting out his journalism to the highest corporate bidder.” Clara Jeffery, Mother Jones editor: “Wemple’s story codifies what many have suspected: Lack of a moral core at center of Politico.” Jay Rosen: “At issue: what is an ad and what is news?” Philip Bump at The Atlantic’s Wire muses: “Not to detract from Wemple’s piece, but anyone unaware of Playbook’s cloying obsequiousness clearly doesn’t actually read Playbook.”

Greg Mitchell writes the popular Media Fix blog at The Nation and is the author of more than a dozen nonfiction books.
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