Enter The Hobot

Mark Leibovich at NYT:

Before he goes to sleep, between 11 and midnight, Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, typically checks in by e-mail with the same reporter: Mike Allen of Politico, who is also the first reporter Pfeiffer corresponds with after he wakes up at 4:20. A hyperactive former Eagle Scout, Allen will have been up for hours, if he ever went to bed. Whether or not he did is one of the many little mysteries that surround him. The abiding certainty about Allen is that sometime between 5:30 and 8:30 a.m., seven days a week, he hits “send” on a mass e-mail newsletter that some of America’s most influential people will read before they say a word to their spouses.

llen’s e-mail tipsheet, Playbook, has become the principal early-morning document for an elite set of political and news-media thrivers and strivers. Playbook is an insider’s hodgepodge of predawn news, talking-point previews, scooplets, birthday greetings to people you’ve never heard of, random sightings (“spotted”) around town and inside jokes. It is, in essence, Allen’s morning distillation of the Nation’s Business in the form of a summer-camp newsletter.

Like many in Washington, Pfeiffer describes Allen with some variation on “the most powerful” or “important” journalist in the capital. The two men exchange e-mail messages about six or eight times a day. Allen also communes a lot with Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff; Robert Gibbs, the press secretary; David Axelrod, President Obama’s senior adviser; and about two dozen other White House officials. But Pfeiffer is likely Allen’s main point of contact, the one who most often helps him arrive at a “West Wing Mindmeld,” as Playbook calls it, which is essentially a pro-Obama take on that day’s news. (Allen gets a similar fill from Republicans, which he also disseminates in Playbook.)

Pfeiffer tells Allen the message that the Obama administration is trying to “drive” that morning ­— “drive” being the action verb of choice around the male-dominated culture of Politico, a three-year-old publication, of which the oft-stated goal is to become as central to political addicts as ESPN is to sports junkies. “Drive” is a stand-in for the stodgier verb “influence.” If, say, David S. Broder and R. W. Apple Jr. were said to “influence the political discourse” through The Washington Post and The New York Times in the last decades of the 20th century, Politico wants to “drive the conversation” in the new-media landscape of the 21st. It wants to “win” every news cycle by being first with a morsel of information, whether or not the morsel proves relevant, or even correct, in the long run — and whether the long run proves to be measured in days, hours or minutes.

In Politico parlance, “influence” is less a verb than the root of a noun. Politico’s top editors describe “influentials” (or “compulsives”) as their target audience: elected officials, political operatives, journalists and other political-media functionaries. Since early 2007, Allen’s “data points,” as he calls the items in Playbook, have become the cheat sheet of record for a time-starved city in which the power-and-information hierarchy has been upended. It is also a daily totem for those who deride Washington as a clubby little town where Usual Suspects talk to the same Usual Suspects in a feedback loop of gamesmanship, trivia, conventional wisdom and personality cults.

Mike Allen at Politico:

FIRST LOOK — “BLACKBERRY BREAKFAST” — N.Y. Times national political reporter Mark Leibovich’s 8,100-word cover story of Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, “THE MAN THE WHITE HOUSE WAKES UP TO: Mike Allen and the Politico-ization of Washington … The Insider’s Insider”: “Playbook has become the principal early-morning document for an elite set of political and news-media thrivers and strivers. … [M]any in Washington … [describe] Allen with some variation on ‘the most powerful’ or ‘important’ journalist in the capital. … Allen’s ‘data points’ … have become the cheat sheet of record for a time-starved city in which the power-and-information hierarchy has been upended. … ‘He is part mascot and part sleepless narrator of our town,’ Tracy Sefl … told me by e-mail. … ‘Washington narratives and impressions are no longer shaped by the grand pronouncements of big news organizations,’ said Allen … ‘The smartest people in politics give us the kindling, and we light the fire.’ … … Playbook has become the political-media equivalent of those food pills that futurists envision will replace meals. … [T]he Playbook community … includes a former president, two former vice presidents, C.E.O.’s and network anchors … If … Axelrod can’t read the papers before rushing off to the White House, he will scroll through Playbook during his six-block ride to work … [Leibo:] I read Playbook every morning on my BlackBerry, usually while my copies of The New York Times and The Washington Post are in plastic bags. … [John] Harris readily acknowledges that Politico is ‘not for everybody,’ and [Jim] VandeHei said they have begun focusing their recruiting on New York, because ‘the city produces reporters who are fearless, fast and ruthlessly competitive.’” Cover image, shot in the Playbook Cabana at POLITICO World Headquarters

Ben Smith at Politico:

Yes, there’s more navel-gazing this morning: The cover of this week’s Times Magazine is an 8,000 word profile of my colleague Mike Allen, whose morning Playbook — sign up here — has become a central piece of Washington’s mechanics. (“I definitely read it in bed,” sys Katie Couric.)

The piece is on the “POLITICO-ization” of Washington, but largely on Mike, “part mascot and part sleepless narrator of our town,” as Tracy Sefl says.

Mark Leibovich is a wonderful writer, and while I don’t agree with every word, the piece is worth a read through. Playbook is my first read every morning (and unlike some of my colleagues, I’m more about fighting the morning to a draw than winning it), and has always struck me as an unusual phenomenon, in part — though this isn’t the focus of the piece — because it’s so collegial, warm, and small-towny in a city whose inhabitants are, in reality, trying to destroy one another.

And of course, the Times piece arrived first through the filter of Playbook.

Doug J. on Ben Smith:

On the same topic, Ben Smith writes the most nauseating sentence I have ever read in my life:

Playbook is my first read every morning (and unlike some of my colleagues, I’m more about fighting the morning to a draw than winning it), and has always struck me as an unusual phenomenon, in part—though this isn’t the focus of the piece—because it’s so collegial, warm, and small-towny in a city whose inhabitants are, in reality, trying to destroy one another.Because that’s what matters, that all the Villagers can jerk each other off in a glorified gossip page, while our civilization collapses.

Jason Linkins at Huffington Post:

Oh boy! Today the fecund womb of the New York Times magazine has birthed into the world Mark Leibovich’s seventy-kabillion word essay on Politico’s Mike Allen, which I think is titled “I Was Told There’d Be Cheap Media Narratives” or something.

Alex Pareene says: “This is such terrible inside baseball that, honestly, I don’t expect any living human being not currently employed by a web publication charged with ‘covering’ the political media to have clicked through.” Gah, guess who fits that description!

So, okay. Here are all the interesting things you can learn from this story:

Things You Already Knew:

–“[White House Communications Director Dan] Pfeiffer tells Allen the message that the Obama administration is trying to ‘drive’ that morning.” Ha! And yet the Obama administration will often tell you that they are totally above such manipulations!

–“[Politico] wants to ‘win’ every news cycle by being first with a morsel of information, whether or not the morsel proves relevant, or even correct, in the long run — and whether the long run proves to be measured in days, hours or minutes.” Yes. Politico has basically overcome the need to be “relevant” or “correct” through a practice by which their irrelevance and incorrectness later becomes a “Politico exclusive.”

–“‘The people in this community, they all want to read the same 10 stories,’ [Allen] said, table-hopping in the Hay-Adams. ‘And to find all of those, you have to read 1,000 stories. And we do that for you.'” They actually go on to publish all 1,000 stories, but never mind.

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–“Politico today remains a White House shorthand for everything the administration claims to dislike about Washington — Beltway myopia, politics as daily sport.” Coincidentally, these are also the very things that Americans dislike about Washington!

–Leibovich says: “I have also been a source: after I ‘spotted’ Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner at an organic Chinese restaurant in my neighborhood last year — picking up kung pao chicken with brown rice (‘for Tim’) — I dutifully e-mailed Allen with the breaking news.” AMERICA WAS NEVER THE SAME AGAIN.

–“Like Woodward, Allen can be tagged with the somewhat loaded moniker of ‘access journalist.'” SOMEWHAT LOADED!

–“Allen reported that The Post was planning to hold paid salons for lobbyists at the home of its publisher, Katharine Weymouth, setting off a firestorm.” And to be sure, that was a superb story, the impact of which is only slightly lessened when you get to the part of Leibovich’s story where he describes the Mardi Gras party hosted by a lobbyist and attended by the very worst human beings in Washington.

–“While Harris and VandeHei say — rightly — that Politico has devoted lots of space and effort to, say, the health care debate, many of its prominent stories on the subject followed a reductive, who’s-up-who’s-down formula.” Indeed, this is true. I doubt that anyone at Politico is even aware of what “health care” does, or why it is so relevant to millions of Americans.

Things That Maybe You Didn’t Already Know

–“Before he goes to sleep, between 11 and midnight, Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, typically checks in by e-mail with” Allen. Whether or not Pfeiffer takes the opportunity to ask, “Do you think I could talk to Dick Cheney, who is probably lying right there?” is left unmentioned.

–“In 1993, Allen was covering a trial in Richmond, Va., for The New York Times (as a stringer) and The Richmond Times-Dispatch (which employed him). He found a pay phone, darted into the street and got whacked by a car.” WAIT. As someone who used to live in Richmond, I am left to ask, in awe: Mike Allen found a working pay phone?!

–“Working for Politico is ‘like tackle football,’ VandeHei reminds people, which might explain why most of Politico’s best-known bylines are male.” Another explanation is that maybe there is some sort of institutionalized sexism in most American newsrooms?

–“In Politico parlance, ‘influence’ is less a verb than the root of a noun.” Uhm…o-kay then!

Things That Are… What’s The Term I’m Looking For? Oh, Yes. “Vaguely Disturbing”:

–“Allen — who is childless and owns no cars or real estate — perpetually picks up meal and beverage tabs for his friend-sources (the dominant hybrid around Mikey).” I submit to you: “friend-source” is quite possibly the saddest word in the English language.

–“Another construct (originating outside Politico) is that Harris and VandeHei are God and Jesus — it’s unclear who is who — and that Allen is the Holy Ghost. When I mentioned this to Allen recently, he was adamant that it is meant to be facetious and that no one at Politico really believes that.” Having met many Politico reporters, I can attest to the fact that this is true, and can add that “God” and “Jesus” are actually entities from which Politico reporters seek relief and/or mercy.

–“Allen has been spotted dozing in public — campaign planes, parties — clutching his BlackBerry with two hands against his chest like a teddy bear.” It won’t love you back, Mikey!

Kevin Drum:

Here is Mark Leibovich of the New York Times on how Mike Allen’s “Playbook” has become the abridged Bible of modern time-crunched Washington:

“The people in this community, they all want to read the same 10 stories,” [Allen] said, table-chopping in the Hay-Adams. “And to find all of those, you have to read 1,000 stories. And we do that for you.”

As a practical matter, here is how Allen’s 10 stories influence the influentials. Cable bookers, reporters and editors read Playbook obsessively, and it’s easy to pinpoint exactly how an item can spark copycat coverage that can drive a story. Items become segment pieces on “Morning Joe,” the MSNBC program, where there are 10 Politico Playbook segments each week, more than half of them featuring Allen. This incites other cable hits, many featuring Politico reporters, who collectively appear on television about 125 times a week. There are subsequent links to Politico stories on The Drudge Report, The Huffington Post and other Web aggregators that newspaper assigning editors and network news producers check regularly. “Washington narratives and impressions are no longer shaped by the grand pronouncements of big news organizations,” said Allen, a former reporter for three of them — The Washington Post, The New York Times and Time magazine. “The smartest people in politics give us the kindling, and we light the fire.”

For years I’ve avoided reading Playbook (and The Note and First Read) solely because everyone else does read them. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t influence me, of course, it just means that I’m unaware of the influence. I remain unsure whether I’m better off that way or not.

But groupthink is hard enough to avoid already. Deliberately immersing yourself in it just seems absurd. I guess if I were more of a political junkie I’d understand.

Matthew Yglesias:

I think the 15 minutes thing is really pernicious and by no means restricted to Allen. Journalism, as a vocation, highly valorizes breaking news. In part this is about making money, but it’s more fundamentally about the value system of the profession. You defend someone’s work by saying “that ignores Allen’s ability to break news” because breaking news is what it’s all about—the journalism equivalent of collecting championship rings.

But there are really two ways to break news. A Type 1 scoop is a story that if you don’t break, just won’t be broken. A Type 2 scoop is a pure race for priority. You get Type 2 scoops by becoming the favored destination for deliberate leaks, or by ferreting out information that will be officially announced soon enough (Joe Biden will be Obama’s VP pick!), or by chasing down an obvious-but-arduous-to-follow lead. These Type 2 scoops are structurally similar to “breaking news” but they don’t have any real value. Far too often in Washington we have a dozen reporters following something, and then at the margin three more tag along. Meanwhile, almost nobody is doing enterprise work around investigating non-obvious issues. You have way more people covering the White House’s response to the latest attack from Liz Cheney than covering the entire Department of Agriculture and nobody knows what scandals or stories or whatever we’re missing. And it’s largely because we place undue value on the idea of beating the other guy by 15 minutes.

Mark Hemingway at Washington Examiner:

This week’s New York Times magazine has a profile of Mike Allen, the political reporter that writes Politico’s “Playbook” feature. Allen is certainly influential and it’s not surprising that the Times would profile him. Although this “disclosure” by writer Mark Leibovich well into the piece is a pretty damning indictment of the beltway media culture:

I should disclose a few things: I have known Mike Allen for more than a decade. We worked together at The Washington Post, where I spent nine years and where I came to know VandeHei and Harris. We all have the same friends and run into each other a lot, and I have told them how much I admire what they have achieved at Politico. I like them all.

In other words, I write this from within the tangled web of “the community.” I read Playbook every morning on my BlackBerry, usually while my copies of The New York Times and The Washington Post are in plastic bags. When Allen links to my stories, I see a happy uptick in readership. I have also been a source: after I “spotted” Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner at an organic Chinese restaurant in my neighborhood last year — picking up kung pao chicken with brown rice (“for Tim”) — I dutifully e-mailed Allen with the breaking news.

Again, it’s hard to argue that Allen doesn’t merit a profile — but perhaps Leibovich should step down from his position of as president of Mike Allen’s fan club before he writes a profile of him for the paper of record. Otherwise it merely serves to confirm the reader’s already well-founded suspicions that this is a puff piece.

Dan Amira at New York Magazine:

But perhaps even more interesting to anyone not entirely excited by political-media navel-gazing is the article’s focus on the quirks of Playbook’s scribe, Mike Allen, who, it seems, shares few qualities with the human race but many with homeless people and robots. Please bear with us as we review the evidence:

A hyperactive former Eagle Scout, Allen will have been up for hours [by 4:20 a.m.], if he ever went to bed. Whether or not he did is one of the many little mysteries that surround him ….

Okay, so Allen gets very little, if any, sleep.

A corollary are “Mikey Sightings,” a bipartisan e-mail chain among prominent people who track Allen’s stutter-stepping whereabouts — his showing up out of nowhere, around corners, at odd hours, sometimes a few time zones away …

He possesses the ability to teleport. So far, we’re looking at some kind of futuristic robot.

Allen — who is childless and owns no cars or real estate — perpetually picks up meal and beverage tabs for his friend-sources (the dominant hybrid around Mikey). He kisses women’s hands and thanks you so much for coming, even though the party is never at his home, which not even his closest friends have seen …

Nobody has seen his house? A few points for hobo.

Allen also has a tendency to suddenly vanish. But then he will pop up on a TV screen a few minutes later….

Robot!

People routinely wonder whether Allen actually lives somewhere besides the briefing rooms, newsrooms, campaign hotels or going-away dinners for Senator So-and-So’s press secretary that seem to be his perpetual regimen.

Hobo!

And they wonder, “Does Mikey ever sleep?”

The query tires him. He claims he tries to sleep six hours a night, which seems unrealistic for someone who says he tries to wake at 2 or 3 a.m. to start Playbook after evenings that can include multiple stops (and trails of midnight-stamped e-mail) … I asked Allen if he slept during the day, and he said no …

Robot!

It is almost impossible to find anyone who has seen his home (a rented apartment, short walk to the office). “Never seen the apartment,” volunteered Robert L. Allbritton, Politico’s publisher, midinterview. “No man’s land.” When sharing a cab, Allen is said to insist that the other party be dropped off first. One friend describes driving Allen home and having him get out at a corner; in the rearview mirror, the friend saw him hail a cab and set off in another direction. I’ve heard more than one instance of people who sent holiday cards to Allen’s presumed address only to have them returned unopened. One former copy editor at Politico, Campbell Roth, happened to buy a Washington condominium a few years ago that Allen had just vacated. She told me the neighbors called the former tenant “brilliant but weird” and were “genuinely scared about some fire-code violation” based on the mountains of stuff inside.

Shady hobo who hoards garbage! Okay, this is too much for us. Hopefully someone will eventually figure out whether Allen is the nation’s first successful hobo-reporter, or the nation’s first high-tech robot-reporter. Or both? Mike Allen: Politico’s hobot.

Wonkette:

The “gotcha” part of the NYT “takedown” of Politico/Mike Allen is so pathetic, we feel bad for Mike Allen. Turns out his dad, who died a quarter-century ago, was a wingnut who wrote John Birch crap and was suspicious of government! Sort of like EVERY OTHER DAD IN ORANGE COUNTY, CALIFORNIA. Conversely, Mike Allen enjoys writing about Washington power structures, and knowing the people involved. Outrage? Anyway, that’s the “takedown” that explains this earlier bit (page three? page seven?) about Mike Allen being creepy/private.

Yet even Allen’s supposed confidants say that there is a part of Mikey they will never know or even ask about. He is obsessively private. He has given different dates to different friends for the date of his birthday. I asked three of Allen’s close friends if they knew what his father did. One said “teacher,” another said “football coach” and the third said “newspaper columnist.” A 2000 profile of Allen in The Columbia Journalism Review described his late father as an “investor.”

It is almost impossible to find anyone who has seen his home (a rented apartment, short walk to the office). “Never seen the apartment,” volunteered Robert L. Allbritton, Politico’s publisher, mid-interview. “No man’s land.” When sharing a cab, Allen is said to insist that the other party be dropped off first. One friend describes driving Allen home and having him get out at a corner; in the rearview mirror, the friend saw him hail a cab and set off in another direction. I’ve heard more than one instance of people who sent holiday cards to Allen’s presumed address only to have them returned unopened.

BREAKING: Obsessive reporter is kind of weird, but also nice to people, and is proud to work for douche-y D.C. publication. Meh. Congrats, NYT Magazine and friend-of-Mike-Allen reporter, for writing some 11-page dingbat personality profile instead of an actual news article about the corrosive garbage farted out by the Politico. Good use of that “long form journalistic feature writing” seminar, mysterious anecdote at the 1/3 mark, shocking revelation/sad denouement to close the article.

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