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"What Part of 'Politico' Do You Not Understand?"

A conversation about the dark art of driving the conversation

Jonathan Snyder

The dominant mode of Washington journalism tends to both reflect and entrench the values of its era. The eminent writers and editors of the immediate postwar age, such as James Reston and Ben Bradlee, were often comfortable with the powerful, and that coziness came just as America itself was reaching the heights of its dominance. After Watergate, political journalism took on a more adversarial edge, which had the ironic effect of turning two of its practitioners into actual celebrities, portrayed on the big screen by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. The Washington of today runs at warp-speed and hums with sound bites, and the current head of the pack, Politico, has only made it go faster.

Founded in 2007, the site refers to its mission as “driving the conversation.” That process works something like this: A story about, say, dunderheaded IRS practices will move quickly from the underlying facts to an extended examination of Washington’s reaction to those facts. Views are sought from a predictable cast of insiders; “perceptions” and “narratives” are dissected; the conventional wisdom is deftly enshrined. With any luck, political and media figures will respond to the initial article, driving the conversation some more. This is why adherents read Politico obsessively: It is an accurate hourly distillation of what and how Washington thinks. It’s also why critics see Politico as a malignant influence on the capital, exacerbating its fixation on the petty.

Politico’s remarkable rise—its website gets between four and five million unique visitors each month—owes a good deal to two of its co-founders, editor-in-chief John F. Harris and executive editor Jim VandeHei. Before launching the site, both were esteemed reporters for The Washington Post. VandeHei had worked at The Wall Street Journal before switching papers, and Harris, respected for his analytical chops, had authored a very fine biography of Bill Clinton. Around the time he co-founded Politico, Harris was also writing (with Mark Halperin) The Way to Win, a campaign book that was notable for its coinage of the “Freak Show” phenomenon, in which “there are deep incentives ... that reward extreme behavior and ... create a marketplace for political division.” In an age of media contraction, Politico has become the news organization best able to chronicle the Freak Show and thrive according to its terms.

Photograph by Jonathan Snyder
Politico co-founders John Harris (left) and Jim VandeHei (right).

Harris and VandeHei, both in their forties, have an easygoing rapport despite their distinct personalities. The gregarious Harris often took several seconds to answer the questions I posed during our two interview sessions at the Politico offices in Arlington, Virginia. VandeHei, in contrast, speaks quickly but with great precision. Over the course of our talks, they revealed their picks for the most media-savvy politicians working today, debated the gender politics of their newsroom, assessed the worthiness of Nate Silver, and vigorously defended Politico’s journalistic ethos and methods. They also discussed their ambitions for its next phase: In June, the site announced that it is establishing a division devoted to “deep, magazine-style journalism” to be led by Susan Glasser, formerly of Foreign Policy and the Post. Harris described this as an attempt to move “the conversation in more lasting ways”—which raises the question of whether Politico can move beyond the Freak Show.

Isaac Chotiner: A lot of people have a negative impression of Washington, D.C. They think it’s corrupt and insular. What do you think, either as citizens or journalists, of that critique?

John Harris: It strikes me as fair. I do think a lot of Washington is driven by incentives that you could—as shorthand—say are cynical: pursuit of publicity, pursuit of position, pursuit of partisan advantage. And not the incentives of trying to make the world a better place. I do think that is true in broad strokes. I obviously don’t think that is true in individual cases. We cover Washington. We are not out to celebrate it or defend it.

IC: You say you “cover” Washington. Does Politico consider itself merely an observer of Washington or a participant?

JH: If you look at Washington as an ecosystem, we obviously play a role in that ecosystem. The media generally plays a role.

IC: OK, but what is Politico’s role specifically?

JH: We are edited for those who live in our world. Their needle moves quickly so our needle moves quickly.

Jim VandeHei: The critique of Politico“Oh my gosh, Politico is so insidery!”—my response is always, “What part of Politico don’t you understand?” This has always been a publication focused on this city. So we write about everything: the good, the bad, the personalities, the politics, the policies. Unless you understand, holistically, all those ingredients, you don’t understand the town.

IC: But what is the larger mission, besides bringing this news to your niche audience? When The New York Times does some story on pensions and the Long Island Rail Road, that story might not come out and say, “Our goal is to fix the pension system at LIRR,” but that is the upshot.

JH:Our goal is to win a Pulitzer Prize, and this is the project for that.”1

IC: So what is it for you? Do you want good government? To keep politicians honest? What?

JVH: Helping people understand Washington. Not how they want it to be, not what you think is important, but how it operates. We also really want to save for-profit, nonpartisan journalism. We want to prove there is a business model that works.

JH: We have an obligation to be interesting. We don’t think of ourselves as the electric company or the water company: Well, we have a responsibility ...”2 That was a mindset in a previous generation of journalists. That mindset might have even been legitimate. There really were only a handful of establishments reporting on this stuff and making judgments on its relative importance. People were looking to editors to say, “Tell me what I should think about.” We are in an era where everyone is his or her own editor and will decide what they care about. If we are boring, ... there is no market for that. Nor is there a public calling to be boring.

IC: You don’t think there is any public calling to be perhaps boring if pensions are being stolen?

JH: I don’t know. Maybe if I lived on Long Island, it wouldn’t be that boring.

IC: If Washington, on a given day, is caught up in total nonsense, is there real value in covering total nonsense? If you give nonsense a microphone, that might lead to more nonsense. If you are a politician and you get covered for saying outrageous things, there is some incentive to say more outrageous things.

JVH: No doubt.

JH: There is also the chance that someone will call you a buffoon.

JVH: For people who have lost faith in politics, the market has corrected. If you think about people who became the Freak Show, the bombastic celebrities on the right—Herman Cain, Sarah Palin, Allen West, Michele Bachmann—they all had their rise, they all got their fame, and they all flamed out because voters rejected them.

IC: Are there any politicians you think are really good at “winning the morning”3 without going too far?

JVH: Obviously I think Rahm Emanuel is better at navigating the media than any other politician around today. He has the relationships and he understands old media and new media. There aren’t that many on Capitol Hill who I think are savvy. Most of them, it’s old men trying on the new jeans, trying to figure out how to be hip by being on Twitter.

JH: I am always amused that people in the media make fun of Chuck Schumer for seeking publicity, when we are the ones who go to him and depend on him. I think he is very effective because he understands how narratives get built.

JVH: I would also say, in the last month or two, we have seen tremendous growth in Marco Rubio. In the immigration debate, the way he understood the parts of the conservative media that he had to neutralize before he talked to a broader audience, that showed sophistication.

IC: But doesn’t this just give an edge to politicians who are really good at managing the media, where their skill gets them more coverage than their ideas?

JH: Someone who this might be true of, and to the extent I knew him, he was a pleasant person and fun to be around, was John Edwards. He was riding a terrific media wave and there was something sexy and exciting about him at first blush, but to the people who knew him, he had no interest in policy or understanding of it. There was nothing there.

IC: I am sure you have heard the criticism that Politico is a tough place for women to work. Do you think that is a fair criticism?

JH: During our launch, we were starting from scratch—it was a tough place to work, period. Not just for women. The happenstance that the four co-founders were men was just that. It has become a better place to work. The place is now built for the long haul. I don’t view creating opportunities in a gender context.

IC: But there are statistics that I am sure you have seen. The departure rate for women at Politico is twice as high as it is for men. The Washington Post wrote about this. There were also statistics about how, when one of you guys publishes a piece that is co-bylined, it is almost 100 percent of the time with another male writer.4

JVH: Wait a second. I want to add to what John said. I find this critique both offensive and wrong. Go ask any of the women in the newsroom if it is a hard place to work. More of our leadership jobs are filled by women than men. The company is run as much by women as men. Three or four years ago, did some women leave? Did some men leave? Certainly. Certainly. We were a start-up. It is an intense culture. And I am sure you could find people saying, “I didn’t like it because I was a guy, because I was tall, because I was short, because my foot hurt.” I am sure some women felt like it was a macho environment. I don’t think women would say that today.

IC: The critique I’ve heard is that it’s an atmosphere rather than overt sexism.

JVH: You have heard it where?

IC: From people I have talked to.

JVH: Like who? I don’t mean to be combative, but talk to people who work at Politico now—

IC: I talked to people who worked at Politico.

JVH: How would you like me to talk to people at The New Republic who told me you guys don’t have any women? Why is that?

IC: I am not—

JVH: No, you respond to that charge. If you are going to make that charge, and you are going to make it on the record—there is no one here who would make that allegation now. It was offensive to me, just like it was offensive to you.

IC: If I had hiring power at The New Republic, that would be a fair question to ask.

JH: I think women would find the premise deeply condescending.

IC: You caught a lot of flack for the Dylan Byers piece on Jill Abramson.5 What did you think of those criticisms?

JH: I thought that Dylan hit a deep vein of discontent in the New York Times newsroom. There is zero doubt in my mind that it is a real phenomenon.

IC: How would you define this phenomenon?

JH: That people are responding in adverse to Jill’s early tenure. I feel confident, knowing quite a lot about Dylan’s reporting, that people were making those complaints not in a gender context or not in a conscious gender context. Jill is a journalist I know and admire. I did not think we were making a summary judgment on her tenure, that she is a failure the way Howell Raines was a failure. I think some people read it that way. If I had another shot at that piece, we could have been more precise. The piece should have reflected that kind of precision in the editing. I could have been more assertive on those grounds.

IC: Does President Obama read Politico?

JVH: I assume he does, yes.

IC: Someone told me that he claims he doesn’t read it, but then makes references to stories he could only have seen by reading it.

JH: It doesn’t surprise me. He is constantly denouncing Washington chatter and pronouncing that he is immune or insulated. I don’t say this with criticism, but that is not my observation of this White House. It is a White House largely of operatives, and the operative class reads Politico.

IC: What did you think of Nate Silver’s coverage of the last election? Did you read it?

JH: I will be drummed out of the profession, but I didn’t. My plate is full here. I know why people found him interesting and entertaining, and some people found him illuminating. There are people in our gang who think he is overblown and get worked up about Nate Silver. I don’t give a damn.

JVH: I read it episodically. Some of his stuff goes on and on, trying to use numbers to prove stuff that I don’t think can be proved by numbers alone. I know he is a Politico hater. I admire what he has been able to do.

JH: I admire how he has built a franchise. I roll my eyes at how he gets up on his high horse quite a lot on different topics.

IC: I read yesterday that Fox News has banished Politico for the last two years. I thought it was odd they claimed you had a liberal bias.

JVH: The thing that is offensive is when they have people on air calling us “left-wing” Politico. They know it is self-evidently false. It is bullshit.

IC: Jim, you and Mike Allen did a piece on Mark Leibovich’s book6 where you were part of the story.7 John, what did you think about that article?

JH: Uh, I thought it was interesting. It was a topic that was already widely discussed: “What’s gonna be in the Leibo book?” The guys told the reader what they knew. I think some people misread it as though they were writing about themselves rather than the phenomenon or writing a defense of a slice of Washington. But I know that not to be the case.

IC: There just seems to be constant chatter and concern about this book.

JH: Is there really?

IC: It was the first thing you mentioned when I arrived.

JH: I actually haven’t given it a lot of thought.

IC: Do you read “Playbook” every day?8

JVH: I do, yeah.

JH: Most days.

IC: Can I have Mike Allen’s address?9

JH: I don’t know the precise address, but I could find it. Not far from here, by the way.

IC: Really? Weird people on Twitter will go looking.

JVH: To demystify it, I don’t think John could give you my address, either.

IC: Is there a story that you are most proud of?

JH: I think of us more in terms of reporters and our young staff, and I think about that in terms of the broader business. It’s crumbling! Carrie Budoff Brown came to us from the Philly Inquirer. It was a shell. The Washington Post is still a strong newspaper, but no one there would say it is providing the number of opportunities for young journalists that it was able to do when I was there.

IC: Does that worry you, about newspapers dying?

JH: Sure, and there are lots of implications there about the future: Who fills in the foreign coverage and local news as they retreat? I’m proud of the role we play in answering questions about the future of our own field. But let’s face it, most stories on any given day are perishable.

IC: This interview will last.

JH: I agree. This will be one for the ages.

IC: Is that what your big expansion into long-form is about? You have brought on Foreign Policy’s Susan Glasser, who is highly respected in Washington, to run it, which suggests you are serious about this initiative.

JH: We are great at scoops that drive the conversation—about the meeting where someone told someone else to go screw themselves. That is catnip for our audience. We can drive the conversation, but often in a very in-the-moment way. I think it is within our reach to produce journalism that is not ephemeral and moves the conversation in more lasting ways. The article we have frequently invoked was the Anthony Weiner one in The New York Times Magazine.10 That was very much a Politico story. It drove a lot of coverage and conversation. But the honest answer is that we are not currently well organized to land the type of story that involves several weeks or months of reporting. That is not something Politico can routinely do. I think now we will be. A story that might appear in The New York Times or New York magazine or The New Yorker or The New Republic or The Atlantic—we want to be part of those conversations.

IC: Are those the publications you see as your competition for your new long-form team?

JH: I think it’s important to note that we are not trying to enter the national magazine distribution derby. We do not have some insight that we think makes us smarter than Newsweek or something like that. You can buy The Atlantic or The New Republic in Seattle. You are not going to be able to buy our glossy in Seattle. But we do have success at a certain business model that works very well in our niche, and the biggest component of that is advertiser-supported content. This is going to make us more attractive to certain types of advertisers. By the way, we have done glossies on a smaller scale before and made money.

IC: But what is your ultimate goal? Is it more than to drive the conversation in D.C.?

JVH: Your questions come from the premise that we run The New York Times in 1995. We are a publication for and about Washington.

JH: You seem to have a frame that something is important if it’s dull, and you make the reader eat their spinach. I don’t approach the question that way. I just think: That was interesting. The reporter took me for a ride and I was glad I went. The piece that The New York Times did on Weiner was interesting. It was long and interesting. I read it. The larger political world read it. It served as a marker. I didn’t read all of [Steven] Brill’s piece on health care.11 But it wasn’t ephemeral. I am not that worried that people should be reading about price supports,12 and they’re not, and that it’s a big problem for democracy. People who need to read about price supports will.

IC: You think politics is just people talking about things that are interesting?

JH: It’s more than that, but it is that. It’s that.

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.  This interview has been edited and condensed.

  1. Harris’s impersonation of a pompous Times editor.

  2. Harris’s impersonation of a virtuous but self-righteous public-utility CEO.

  3. Politico-speak for a story that will garner attention all day long and, in turn, allow Politico to dominate the political news cycle.

  4. According to the Post’s Erik Wemple, almost 150 of VandeHei’s 156 co-bylined pieces were written with another man. For Harris, the number was around 110 out of nearly 120 pieces.

  5. Turbulence at The Times,” April 23. Byers is Politico’s media reporter, and his piece contained many juicy anonymous complaints about the management style that Abramson exhibits as the paper’s executive editor. Critics argued that some of the anecdotes—such as a demand by Abramson that a homepage photo be changed immediately—would be seen as unremarkable were Abramson a man.

  6. This Town, due out in July, partly grew out of a profile of Allen, Politico’s chief White House correspondent, that Leibovich wrote for The New York Times Magazine. The book is expected to include an unflattering portrayal of Politico’s effect on D.C. culture.

  7. "This Town: A Washington Takedown,” April 25. The piece was seen by some as an attempt to blunt the impact of Leibovich’s book by revealing details of his reporting methods.

  8. Allen’s obsessive daily morning newsletter, which is so insidery that it can read as if written in its own language; it is consumed by 90,000 readers.

  9. As detailed in Leibovich’s profile, Allen ferociously keeps his address and other aspects of his personal life secret even from those who know him well.

  10. "Huma & Anthony: The Private Life of a Former Power Couple,” April 10. The author, Jonathan Van Meter, relays that he interviewed the couple over the course of many weeks.

  11. "Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us," March 4. The piece ran at 24,000 words.

  12. A subsidy or market intervention meant to keep the price of a good inflated. In other words, a wonky Washington term for a favor to a special interest. Collectively, they cost the government billions of dollars a year. But they never win the morning.