In less than four months, Politico — the new online magazine that also distributes a free, thrice-weekly print edition in Washington, DC — has already achieved what few post-FDR presidents could in the same amount of time: it’s become a force in national politics.
The most tangible sign of Politico’s rapid ascent came earlier this month, precisely 100 days after its online debut, when the nonpartisan magazine co-hosted the Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library in California. Editor-in-chief John Harris joined moderator Chris Matthews of MSNBC in grilling the GOP hopefuls. So did executive editor Jim VandeHei, who relayed questions chosen by Politico’s readers in an online vote.
Because Politico boasts an all-star team of political journalists, that 100-day figure warrants an asterisk. (There’s Harris and VandeHei from the Washington Post, Mike Allen from Time, Roger Simon from Bloomberg, and Ben Smith from the New York Observer and New York Daily News, etc.) Still, all-star journalistic ventures have failed before — remember Brill’s Content? — and the debate was an excellent opportunity for Politico to announce its arrival to a broader audience.
A few key differences set it apart from other publications — such as The Hill, Roll Call, National Journal, Congressional Quarterly — devoted to national politics: it’s Web-based, and it doesn’t charge an online subscription fee. (Politico.com gets about 1.5 million unique visitors a month; the paper’s daily print circulation is just 25,000.)
The institutional voice Politico seeks to cultivate, meanwhile, sounds a lot like the New Republic or the Weekly Standard, with a dash of Wonkette mixed in: “What we aspire to have,” Harris told the Phoenix, “is a very sophisticated, highly analytical approach to politics — but one that also reflects our own personality as political junkies, that doesn’t take itself or its subject matter too seriously, that enjoys this as both a serious topic but also as something of a sport.”
But unlike the New Republic or the Weekly Standard, Politico claims to be nonpartisan. Given its zesty love of the game, is that even possible?
They report, you decide?
This isn’t an academic question, for the issue of nonpartisanship — or lack thereof — has plagued Politico’s brief existence. So it was only fitting that, while the Reagan Library debate raised Politico’s profile, it also gave the publication’s liberal critics another opportunity to voice their displeasure.
The day after the debate, Jamison Foser of the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America (MMA) accused Harris, VandeHei, and Matthews of letting the Republicans off easy. The trio lobbed too many softball questions, Foser complained; furthermore, they didn’t push the candidates to explain how they’d pay for their tax-cut proposals, and only mentioned the (GOP-generated) federal deficit once.
Compared with other complaints leveled at Politico since it launched, these criticisms were actually pretty mild. In its three-plus months, Politico has been the focus of some 40 MMA items. Among other things, it’s been chided by the group for calling John McCain “authentic” and “staunchly anti-abortion”; citing Barack Obama’s “frank liberalism” and claiming Obama has a “Jewish problem”; coining the phrase “slow bleed” (which became a GOP favorite) to describe Democratic plans for Iraq; and incorrectly reporting that Democrat John Edwards was about to drop out of the presidential race.
Meanwhile, in the wake of Politico breaking the story of John Edwards’s $400 haircut, Salon media columnist Glenn Greenwald (who’d previously accused Politico of colluding with right-wing gossip-monger Matt Drudge) called the publication “Exhibit A for our broken political press.” Later, Greenwald used some color from a Politico post-debate write-up to sharpen his critique: the story described Frederick J. Ryan Jr., Politico’s president and CEO, escorting Nancy Reagan from the event, and identified him as chairman of the Reagan Library’s board of trustees. Given Ryan’s political loyalties, and the conservative bona fides of owner Robert Allbritton’s family, Greenwald concluded, it’s hard to take Politico’s claims of nonpartisanship seriously.
Harris won’t have it. “I just emphatically reject” allegations of pro-conservative bias, he told the Phoenix. “The idea that we are organized around a conservative world-view — I don’t even know where to begin. It just simply does not resonate with me in any way.
“I know my own values and my own point of view,” added Harris. “I know that’s not true in terms of what our intent is. Maybe they’re not even saying what our intent is, but what the impact is. But I just don’t buy that.”
So, what to make of the vast discrepancy between Harris’s take and that offered by its critics?
At the outset, it’s worth noting that Politico also has its critics on the right, though they’re either less numerous or less vocal than are their liberal counterparts. After the Reagan Library debate, for example, syndicated columnist/Clinton hater Dick Morris spoke of a “deliberate act by Politico.com and MSNBC . . . to hurt Rudy.” Tony Blankley of the Washington Times said Politico’s questions were “ridiculous.” And the conservative media watchdog NewsBusters didn’t like them much, either.