Come On, Feel the Buzz
[from The Baffler No. 21]
Last June, Joe Williams, a reporter for the political newspaper and web news site Politico, said on Martin Bashir’s MSNBC talk show that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney appeared comfortable only around white people. Conservative websites trawled through Williams’s Twitter feed and found other comments betraying a lack of respect for former Governor Romney, and Williams was quickly and rather publicly fired. Here’s how Politico’s founding editors Jim VandeHei and John Harris explained Williams’s cashiering in a company memo:
Politico journalists have a clear and inflexible responsibility to cover politics fairly and free of partisan bias. This expectation extends to all of the public platforms in which we and our reporting and analysis appears, including cable TV and social media platforms like Twitter. Regrettably, an unacceptable number of Joe Williams’s public statements on cable and Twitter have called into question his commitment to this responsibility. His comment about Governor Romney earlier today on MSNBC fell short of our standards for fairness and judgment in an especially unfortunate way. Joe has acknowledged that his appearance reflected a poor choice of words. This appearance came in the context of other remarks on Twitter that, cumulatively, require us to make clear that our standards are serious, and so are the consequences for disregarding them.
Unless, that is, Politico managers themselves disregard them. In August, Politico reporter David Catanese defended GOP Rep. Todd Akin’s bizarre lecture on where babies come from. Akin, running for U.S. Senate from Missouri, revealed that he believed a common conservative myth: that in the event of “legitimate rape,” the female body somehow prevents pregnancy from taking place, thus negating the need for a rape exemption from a prospective abortion ban.
Catanese tweeted that the negative response to Akin’s comments was overblown, because “we all know what he was trying to say.” He continued digging, suggesting that Akin might have a point about this legitimate rape thing. After all, Catanese wrote, some unknown number of “reported” rapes are surely fake (though it’s not “PC” to admit as much), and it is certainly possible (not that he had checked out “the science”) that actual rapes are unlikely to lead to pregnancy. “The left is often 1st to shut down debate as ‘off limits’ when it deems so,” he finally tweeted. “Aren’t these moments supposed to open up a larger debate?” Catanese was reprimanded and taken off the Akin beat, but he kept his job.
The difference between these two episodes speaks volumes about D.C.-based access journalism and the highly toxic, incestuous variant of it that Politico has perfected. Or to put things a bit more baldly: in all likelihood, David Catanese and Joe Williams suffered divergent professional fates because the leaders of Politico are more concerned about losing access to the Romney campaign than they are about losing access to victims of rape.
How deep does this craving for access run? Well, the same month that Politico fired Williams, the daily published—in the news, not the opinion section—an article cobylined by founder Jim VandeHei and the paper’s star reporter and mascot, Mike Allen, arguing that the mainstream media were unfairly subjecting candidate Romney to greater scrutiny than they had trained on candidate Barack Obama in 2008. The evidence for this claim largely hinged on the authors’ forensic study of story placement. For instance, they noted that the New York Times had put a story about Ann Romney’s fancy dancing-horse hobby on A1 and a piece about David Maraniss’s new Obama biography on A15. This was, VandeHei and Allen wrote, obvious proof that conservative complaints of liberal media bias have merit: “It’s certainly hard to argue that the Romneys’ horse-riding habits today are worse than the Maraniss revelations, which have gotten little mainstream coverage.”
Maybe so. But it’s also hard to argue that the Maraniss “revelations” were meaningful disclosures of anything in particular. They concerned Obama’s youthful experiments with marijuana use—something that Obama himself had chronicled in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father.
But Politico’s gimlet-eyed media critics adduced a second piece of evidence to support their case for an anti-Romney bias in the political press: a lengthy Washington Post profile of the young Mitt Romney, which included scenes of him holding down an effeminate-seeming schoolmate in order to forcibly cut his hair. This appeared on the Post’s front page, while the paper’s “Obama smoked drugs” piece was on A6. (One might conclude, in the rigidly sequential method adopted by VandeHei and Allen, that here was objective proof that the Times is more liberally biased than the Post, by nine pages. Then again, it might be proof that David Maraniss is an editor at the Washington Post, which could have an institutional interest in playing up Maraniss’s book and its pseudo-revelations.)
To sum up their brief against runaway liberal bias in the mainstream press, Allen and VandeHei went to former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer: “These stories are not unusual, except they were never done about then-Senator Obama in 2008.”
Fleischer’s complaint was a common refrain among conservatives convinced that Obama hoodwinked his way into office with an assist from a press corps too blinded by liberal notions of social justice to properly convey the upstart’s clear constitutional radicalism and troubling history of extremist associations. But among the sort of people who remember the long 2008 summer of Tony Rezko, Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright, and the New York Times story that desperately sought to find a single person who remembered doing a single line of cocaine with the future president in his school days, it’s hard to figure just how much additional vetting would satisfy this crowd.
But vetting the would-be vetters wasn’t really the point. No, the chin-stroking chastisements proffered under Allen and VandeHei’s byline served an infinitely more petty purpose than calling out the alleged pro-Obama bias of the press corps. Politico wanted only a pretext to tweak the Washington Post, which had, in Politico’s argot, just “won” the entire week with Jason Horowitz’s well-reported, deeply sourced profile of Romney. Politico doesn’t do anything close to long-form investigative journalism, and it was no doubt galling to split-second purveyors of microscoops Allen and VandeHei that the Post had somehow managed to dominate the conversation around the presidential campaign with a five-thousand-word character study that was not reducible to a Twitter punch line.
Allen and VandeHei’s piece, anyway, bore a none-too-subtle subtext, aimed squarely at the messaging professionals atop the Romney campaign: Hey, look over here! VandeHei and Allen all but shouted to Team Romney. We’re happy to carry your water for you!
To call this craven performance a study in access journalism is an insult to the storied sycophantic practitioners of that low craft. Sure, echt-insiders like legendary New York Times columnist James Reston might lease out their bylines to war criminals like Henry Kissinger—but such ceremonial deference at least took place under some vague aura of a quid pro quo. Politico, by contrast, was in this instance publicly whoring itself out for no purpose beyond its all-too-palpable craving for a slightly more incremental monopoly on meaningless bits of information that even paid campaign flacks are apt to forget the day after they race through the overstimulated nervous system of the D.C. media.
The word politico originated in the seventeenth century as a term of moral derision, and furnished the title of Matthew Josephson’s 1938 study of the graft-riddled Congresses of the Gilded Age. For VandeHei and his cofounding editor John Harris, however, the moniker was a conceptual upgrade: they originally planned to launch their Capitol Hill tip sheet under the plain-vanilla name “Capitol Leader” but evidently settled on the epithet as a better summation of their journalistic ambition. In terms of strict diction, you can’t fault their decision. In debuting a minute-by-minute chronicle of the permanent campaign by, for, and about terminal Hill insiders, VandeHei and Harris went all in on the enabling fiction that the seamiest features of human nature—which would find full expression in Politico’s quest to discredit rivals, to distort simple political aims and ideas with drive-by caricatures, and to float personality-based digital memes across the gossip-driven agoras of social media—were themselves somehow news, and therefore newsworthy. In the bald effort to define (and, of course, to win) a whole new race to a whole new journalistic bottom, the faux-statesmanlike overtones that came with a name like “Capitol Leader” simply weren’t going to cut it.
The name Politico also fits the VandeHei-Harris empire in an institutional sense, since the entire operation is a rich person’s attempt to buy influence. This is, of course, true of many (perhaps most) successful media outlets. A rich person’s vanity is much less likely to disappear overnight than, say, your classified advertising pages—as the Allbritton family, which owns and operates the tip sheet, knows all too well. Joseph Allbritton, a Texas banking millionaire, purchased Washington, D.C.’s former second paper, the Star, in 1975. The afternoon newspaper was rapidly dying, and he was forced to sell the publication to Time Inc. just three years later. Time couldn’t make it work either. The Star closed up shop in 1981. But Allbritton Communications was born, and by the time Joseph Allbritton’s son Robert decided to get back into the newspaper world in 2006, his company owned a string of local television stations, mainly in the Washington, D.C., area.
And when he stormed back into the world of written journalism (if not the print variety, strictly speaking), Allbritton spent enough to lure some big names to his new venture. VandeHei and Harris came aboard from the Post, where they were well-known political brands. And even though both editors were veterans of Old Media newspaper writing, they embraced the meaningless jargon-laced vacuity of New Media hype projects. “Obviously, you have to have synergy,” VandeHei crisply told the New York Observer shortly after his defection to the new paper was announced. From Time came respected White House correspondent Mike Allen, who’d quickly become the paper’s spiritual core. But its biggest star was blogger/reporter Ben Smith, a New York–based writer on national politics for the Observer (see: synergy!) who consistently rebuffed management’s efforts to get him to move from Brooklyn to Washington, and whose work was frankly the better for it.
In short order, Politico’s assemblage of quickly acquired talent set about to reconfigure the already gnat-straining business of Washington newsgathering in a whole new, unnervingly banal, fashion. Actually, Politico’s ethos first began to emerge a year before the publication’s official launch, with the release of The Way to Win, a much-feted and then quickly forgotten 2006 book that Harris cowrote with Mark Halperin, then ABC’s chief political correspondent. (Halperin has, shockingly, not yet gone to work for Politico, though he was for a time in talks to host Politico’s Sunday morning show, a synergistic dream that has not yet come to fruition.) The book presented the ultimate Beltway media insider’s interpretation of the events of the last four presidential elections and used these putative insights to create “lessons” for 2008’s would-be candidates.
The thesis was that campaigns and the personalities of those who run them matter above all else (it would take another few years before the notion that, say, “the economy” might also affect electoral results could gain any serious traction in the campaign press corps). Harris and Halperin contended that, in this fatuous system of impression management, post-Clinton Democrats had been regularly outclassed by brilliant Republican operatives like Karl Rove—the man who, curiously enough, was then ideally suited to keep both Harris and Halperin richly fed with meaningless campaign-cycle scoops.
The book marveled at conservatives’ deft manipulations in persuading the press to chase after bullshit stories and publicize misleading right-wing propaganda. In addition to showcasing their embarrassingly naked adulation for Rove, Halperin and Harris also hymned the unrivaled genius of the hack online propagandist Matt Drudge—again, largely on the basis of Drudge’s ability to manipulate people like Harris and Halperin into doing his bidding. “How Matt Drudge Rules Our World” was one chapter heading, and here was the justification the authors offered for their devotion: “No one has facilitated more political hijackings than he has. No one has a better grasp of the economic, ideological, and psychological incentives that power the Freak Show. Few journalists would count Drudge as a colleague. But in the past decade, he has contributed to the change in how American politics has been covered, and his impact will be a major factor in the 2008 presidential race.”
And true to the terms of their own personality-driven political “analysis,” Harris and Halperin professed to find evidence of Drudge’s outsize influence in his character—a particularly laughable claim in view of the shameless distortions and truth-averse copy that drives traffic on the Drudge Report. Nonetheless, these prim arbiters of the political rulebook confidently announced that “Matt Drudge is the gatekeeper. In this sense, he is the Walter Cronkite of his era.” Not once does the reader get any advance notice that the brilliant Bush-Rove machine was about to suffer a humiliating midterm defeat in 2006, nor that a Democrat not named Clinton—or Edwards or Warner—would then secure the Democratic nomination and go on to win the presidency entirely without the slightest bit of help from Mr. Drudge. Come to think of it, the reader also doesn’t hear much about Iraq, Abu Ghraib, or even the 2000 Florida recount battle, which did far more to elevate George W. Bush to power than either Matt Drudge or Karl Rove.
Matt Drudge may no longer rule the political world, but the fedora-sporting right-wing recluse is still John Harris’s dreamboat. Even a cursory examination of Politico’s daily output shows a tour through the news cycle curated largely to win Drudge’s favor. (And the love is largely reciprocated. One study has determined that, by 2009, Politico was Matt Drudge’s sixteenth all-time most linked-to source—not too shabby for a site that had launched only two years earlier.)
One classic method of unleashing irresistible Drudge bait on the Internet is to boil another outlet’s story down to a couple salacious-sounding excerpts, or (failing an effective condensing strategy) to simply reinterpret the material to fit a Drudge-friendly narrative. This past May, for example, Vanity Fair published an excerpt from Maraniss’s biography of Barack Obama. (The liberal media vetting blackout continued apace, in other words.) Politico’s Dylan Byers took the excerpt and turned it into a little micro-news story: Obama admitted to Maraniss that certain figures in his first memoir were “compressions”—i.e., composite characters. Byers completely missed that Obama explicitly said at the outset of his own book that some characters were composites, but Drudge didn’t care. “Obama Admits Fabricating Girlfriend in Memoir,” went his headline, with a link to Politico instead of Vanity Fair—and another false right-wing meme got its wings.
Journalistically speaking, this was a rare double-gainer. Confronted with a misleading claim in the source material he was repurposing, Byers merely reiterated the untruth rather than even minimally reporting the claim. He then proceeded to make the untruth cruder still by shrinking it into a Politico-friendly byte size—and was, naturally enough, rewarded with millions of Drudge-directed page views for his trouble.
It’s bracing to consider how many successful Web-baiting careers at Politico might be cut short if reporters there ever bothered to read Dreams from My Father. Fortunately, though, there’s little chance that such a reckoning with the truth will ever occur, thanks to the paper’s endlessly excitable business model, which conflates the work of journalism with an amnesiac’s bad acid trip. Much of Politico’s published output seems deliberately engineered to exasperate high-minded liberals who consider journalism an act of public service. In its short half-dozen-year lifespan, the Politico brand has become a byword for a style of political reporting that gleefully defies almost every liberal shibboleth about the civic values of newsgathering: gossipy, blithely unconcerned with policy or the real-world effects of the actions of political actors, fixated on artificial “narratives,” designed to flatter the powerful. When I said, on Twitter, that I liked a number of Politico reporters (Ken Vogel, their campaign finance reporter, is one of the best in the country on that beat), many of my liberal followers reacted with disbelief.
It’s also important to remember that for all the talk about how Politico has “revolutionized” the business of political journalism, most of the reported substance of the paper is quite unexceptional. Especially when Congress is in session, Politico is typically full of the sort of stories that also fill more sober and established Capitol Hill news outlets such as Roll Call and National Journal: it reports on Washington, for Washington, as a trade publication would. (It’s true that there is one slight variation: Roll Call and National Journal have long hived away their premium content behind a very expensive paywall, meant more for elite than public consumption. But here, too, Politico has proven less paradigm smashing than casual observers might suppose—the site launched its own high-priced policy sub-brand, Politico Pro, in 2011.)
And like other Capitol Hill newspapers, Politico fills its opinion section with banal op-eds from (the staffs of) unremarkable members of Congress. And for all of the paper’s buzz, it’s unclear whether it makes any money. Allbritton is privately held. Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone (formerly Politico’s media reporter, and before that the media reporter at the Observer, where he got that VandeHei quote about synergy), tried and failed to figure out whether Politico was profitable in a piece on the paper that ran in the inaugural issue of the Huffington Post’s tablet magazine arm. “Politico’s editors maintain that their company is profitable and isn’t borrowing money to fund its expansion,” he wrote, but “there have long been doubts about whether Politico actually has earnings putting the company in the black.”
If Politico is profitable, then it’s become so largely by a process of reverse synergy. That is to say, the company’s freely distributed print product—little known outside of D.C.—would likely be subsidizing its online operations. Advertisers will pay more for print than for online ads, and they’ll pay much more for a niche audience of very wealthy or very powerful readers. So Politico’s audience is not you and me, but the same people who have always kept Hill publications afloat: lobbyists, members of Congress, and their staffs. In this likeliest of profit-earning scenarios, the company’s product is not political journalism but the eyeballs of people with the power to craft legislation and regulations. Allen’s widely read email newsletter, Playbook, reveals as much each day in the unsightly sponsor messages that punctuate his aphasiac’s tour of the campaign news cycle:
** A message from Goldman Sachs: When Titan International set out to become the No. 1 manufacturer of specialty tires in the world, it turned to Goldman Sachs to help find the funding it needed. See how Goldman Sachs helped Titan International create manufacturing jobs and grow their company: http://tinyurl.com/83x4tgz. **
Other Playbook sponsors this summer have included the American Petroleum Institute, Hyundai, GE, and something called the “Investment Company Institute.” While John Harris proved an exceedingly inept oracle of how to win a presidential campaign, Politico has thrived in the same time-tested way that small-p politicos have always prospered, by gaming the acquisition of insider knowledge to yield maximal returns in petty graft.
The key to persuading advertisers that you are, in fact, an influential, thought-leading brand is to remorselessly promote yourself in public—and this is one new-media mandate at which Politico undeniably excels. In this sense, the Politico brand is largely a dumbed-down directive to beat down its small army of competitive Beltway trivia sniffers in harder and faster fashion than any previous media dispensation has ever seen. This mandate was infamously summed up in a memo on the company’s business model leaked to The New Republic, which explained, in brusque authoritarian fashion, that the unironic prime objective for Politico scribes is to “own the morning”—i.e., to dominate the D.C. media microclimate until that golden moment when its seasoned inhabitants repair to their desperately needed three-cocktail lunches.
All the professional lore surrounding the Politico shop is merely a variation on the mantra to “win the morning” (as the phrase has been reconstituted, with even less irony, in the Politico newsroom)—the notion that their editors are driving their young reporters to work twice as hard and fast (and wake up twice as early!) as everyone else; the myth of Mike Allen never sleeping; the ingratiating, right-leaning “counter-takes” on conventional wisdom that fuel much of the operation’s daily coverage and nearly all of its Internet coverage. In marketing terms, the “own the morning” image is simply the anchor of a very skillful PR campaign. That is to say, Politico mainly prevails over its rivals working on either “traditional” or “new” media platforms by getting people to talk and write about Politico—and by getting people to hate Politico in a way that used to be reserved for the lumbering Old Media brands that dominated the national politics beats, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Nevertheless, there is a specific Politico ethos, a worldview, and a style of writing and reporting that sets the Harris-VandeHei collaboration apart from the institutions the paper grew out of. It’s a product of the worst of Washington in a particularly awful era for Washington. In this abject little tip sheet, a moment of profound elite self-regard and complete disconnect from the rest of the nation has found its outlet.
The problem doesn’t stem from Politico’s roster of reporters and bloggers (apart from a few notable, and lamentable, exceptions). Instead, the Politico malaise originates chiefly in the organization’s founders and leaders. VandeHei, Harris, Allbritton, and Allen are the paper’s guiding lights and the men responsible for its most flagrant journalistic sins.
Just consider that infamous management memo. A particularly psychotic exemplar of the genre, it weighed in at 2,500 words—more than a thousand words longer than a previous memo had insisted that all Politico stories be. (The ideal Politico reader, you see, doesn’t “read” so much as skim Playbook’s paragraph-long blurbs on his BlackBerry.) “This is a Darwinian business,” the memo barked, in drill-sergeant cadences. “People are not looking for MORE to read. They need to NEED and WANT each individual story in POLITICO. If they don’t, we will not capture the eyeballs and mindshare that we must have to thrive in this brutal environment.”
The memo then inventoried the fundamental questions each reporter is expected to ask before posting his or her scooplet. Among them are: “Might an investor buy or sell a stock based on this story?” and “Will a blogger be inspired to post on this story?” (Sometimes, of course, you get a blogger to post on your story by publishing an awful story.) There is also some helpful advice for overhyping a wholly unimportant bit of information: “If you are not certain that several of these are ‘yes,’ you can reframe your reporting or analysis so people will say, ‘POLITICO is reporting . . . ’ or ‘The way POLITICO put it is . . . ’”
In the same self-aggrandizing but news-miniaturizing vein, Allbritton has openly mocked the concept of public service journalism. “I think we have to acknowledge that the money is spent for reputational benefits and a public service play,” he told The New Republic’s Gabe Sherman, when asked about expensive investigative reporting projects. In case his contempt wasn’t clear enough, he added: “Why does someone have to go off and write their thesis paper while they do it?”
Politico, in other words, manages to maintain—or enshrine—the worst features of the post-war “objective” American press: horserace-style campaign coverage and the ritual fetishization of a phantom centrist vision of how national politics should work. These empty postures work out, in practical terms, to a pervasive cynicism about the entire process of politics that ends up rewarding the worst actors on the national political scene for their shamelessness and skill at being horrible. At the same time, Politico’s managers have deliberately excised long-form reporting and investigative journalism: one of the few things the dying urban dailies and magazines did better than any other variety of news media had done before or since. No awards-grubbing for Politico, thank you. Matt Drudge doesn’t link to multipart exposés on the private prison industry; he links to stories about how the president loves teleprompters.
Quite often, Politico’s campaign coverage is so singularly useless and fact-free that one almost hopes whatever defense contractor or industry front group that has stepped forward to sponsor Mike Allen for that day received a refund. In one standard-yet-egregious example, a July interview that ran on Politico Live (Politico’s “Online Morning Show”) with clownish former GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich led to three separate news articles, each based around a one-minute video featuring a separate meaningless bit of pseudo-news: that Gingrich thought Sarah Palin should speak at the 2012 RNC convention in Tampa (something with no chance of happening), that Condoleezza Rice would make a good running mate for Mitt Romney (something with no chance of happening), and a suggestion that Romney “loosen up” (something with no chance of happening).
And the brand fearlessly pursues the same hurricane-force inanity in its offline endeavors, which are certainly in no danger of winning any journalism awards. At the Republican National Convention this August, I watched Mike Allen interview Newt Gingrich in the flesh at the “Politico Hub,” a workspace and bar on the ninth floor of a downtown Tampa office building. The Q&A was largely an opportunity for Gingrich to plug his multitude of profitable ventures: Allen wanted to know about Gingrich’s wife’s new picture book, and whether “you guys have a competition to see who is more prolific.”
Later that day, Romney gave his convention address. “If the ball had bounced a little differently,” Allen said to Gingrich, “that would be you.” Actually, no: the ball would have had to have somehow bounced into an entirely different political universe for the unelectable former House Speaker to have become the presidential standard-bearer of the Republican Party in 2012. But Gingrich, who has a string of counterfactual historical fantasy novels to his credit, happily indulged the inviting reverie.
In the event of an Obama loss, Gingrich said, small businesses would begin hiring “on election night.” This seemed like a claim worth pursuing—would entrepreneurs start digging through the stack of résumés the minute NBC called Ohio?—but Allen, naturally, did not ask Gingrich to clarify or defend the assertion.
Nor did Allen ask Gingrich to elaborate on his stated support for Representative Akin—Newt said, and both men seemed to agree, that a brand-new poll showing Akin’s race as a dead heat suggested that the candidate’s legitimate-rape “gaffe” was over and done with as a matter worth discussing. Allen then proceeded to tee Gingrich up for a funny story about switching from a BlackBerry to an iPhone and a cute-kid yarn about Gingrich taking a grandchild to a submarine for a birthday.
That latter set piece made Allen positively giddy: “That’s what happens when you have Grampa Newt! You get to go to a Trident submarine!” That’s right! Just like when you defer fatuously to failed-candidate Newt, you haul down an enormous six-figure salary!
At the end of 2011, BuzzFeed, a New York–based website aggregating funny (and unfunny) web culture detritus that for some reason had attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, announced that it had hired Politico’s second-biggest star, Ben Smith, to be the site’s editor and oversee its brand-new politics section.
BuzzFeed, the brainchild of Huffington Post cofounder Jonah Peretti, was an attempt to quantify and game the secret of “viral” content—i.e., dumb shit that people look at while they’re bored at work—and in its first years it became a well-trafficked compendium of lists of funny pictures, many stolen in part or wholesale from viral content incubators such as the social media website Reddit.
When Ken Lerer, another Huffington Post cofounder, wrote BuzzFeed a $15.5 million check to branch out into “reporting,” it was clear that the site’s new ambition was to take on Arianna’s behemoth. And Ben Smith, the acknowledged master of viral political reporting, would head up the charge.
The New Republic’s Marc Tracy credits Smith with pioneering the “IMterview,” a dubiously valuable but undeniably viral format in which he simply printed transcripts of his online chats with political operatives. This practice, Tracy noted, effectively gave political flacks “a platform to spew pure, unedited talking points.” Smith’s popularity with a wide variety of such operatives on most sides of most major political divides is based in part on the understanding that he will fairly represent their positions and views. It’s also based on the belief that he will pass along spin more or less without criticism or comment.
BuzzFeed Politics has a sensibility but carefully avoids a point of view. (That the resolutely “fair” and nonpartisan Smith was hired by Peretti and Lerer, both outspoken liberals, suggests either business considerations or the notoriously self-defeating instincts showcased by successful liberals.) It focuses on the trivial, the briefly amusing, and the silly.
In July, Smith and BuzzFeed Politics reporter Rebecca Elliott posted “A Political User’s Guide to the Trolls of Twitter” that revealed an interesting definition of “troll.” The term, which dates back to the earliest days of the Internet, has a specific and useful definition: one who makes provocative claims one doesn’t necessarily believe and attempts to goad sincere people into endless, aggravating argument. The trolls on BuzzFeed’s list, though, were almost entirely people with sincere and passionate political beliefs who were rude to self-declared nonpartisan reporters. They were divided into “Obots,” “Romneybots,” “Paulites,” “Breitbartians,” and, most tellingly, “Media Matters.” These people aren’t trolls. They’re media critics and regular people with strong political beliefs. They tend to believe the nonpartisan press is trolling them.
What the Drudge Report is to Politico—the ne plus ultra of online notoriety—Facebook is to BuzzFeed. The political material featured on BuzzFeed is designed not to be picked up by one conservative eccentric, but by tens of thousands of lazy individuals. To that end, most posts and articles feature one easy-to-digest piece of information presented as directly as possible, along with a compelling illustration, followed by some words that most consumers are not expected to read. In this model of viral renown, context isn’t just superfluous, it’s often counterproductive. Context would sink some news-ish product before it even had the chance to make the obsessively self-referencing rounds of the social-media world. Take, for example, the tale of President Barack Obama’s oral sex joke.
“Did President Obama Just Make a Blowjob Joke?” went the headline, back in June. Experienced news consumers know to mentally add a “no” to the end of all headlines posed as yes-or-no questions, but this one was immune to any sort of reading as a traditional news article. It was based on a pool report, a source of ephemeral political yuks for years. But those yuks were rarely presented in such an irony-free manner.
Here’s the White House transcript of Obama’s remarks at an LGBT fundraiser in Los Angeles:
I want to thank my wonderful friend who accepts a little bit of teasing about Michelle beating her in pushups—(laughter)—but I think she claims Michelle didn’t go all the way down. (Laughter.) That’s what I heard. I just want to set the record straight—Michelle outdoes me in pushups as well. (Laughter.) So she shouldn’t feel bad. She’s an extraordinary talent and she’s just a dear, dear friend—Ellen DeGeneres. Give Ellen a big round of applause.
Did you get it? The “go all the way down” bit is the supposed blowjob joke. The BuzzFeed report (unbylined—and posted at a time when all of Smith’s BuzzFeed material was unbylined as a result of his exit agreement with Politico) was comprised entirely of that quote, a paraphrase of that quote from the pool report, two snickering tweets from reporters, and the line “White House officials didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry about whether the line was correctly interpreted.”
At no point did “BuzzFeed staff” note that the president was referring to a push-up contest between Michelle Obama and comedian Ellen DeGeneres that had happened on her show a few months earlier, which Michelle won despite not demonstrating proper form. The joke was a single entendre.
Smith’s initial defense of the piece—that Obama certainly could have intended the “go all the way down” line to serve as a double entendre—gave way to the more honest admission that the adolescent tittering of the crowd when the president uttered the phrase was itself the story. But any claim to newsworthiness here was utterly beside the point. The point was simply to garner Facebook “likes” and “shares,” not to inform or even particularly amuse the reader. (Even by that measure, the item was a middling success, since it had logged a mere 850 registered “likes” as of September. That’s a decent enough performance for political content, but a pittance compared to the thousands racked up by BuzzFeed classics like “Can You Make It Through This Post Without Crying?” or “23 Easy Ways To Instantly Make Your Day Better.”)
Matt Stopera, the BuzzFeed senior editor responsible for many of the site’s all-time biggest hits, tried his own take on a political scoop in September with a post about a hip-hop superstar’s unlikely political endorsement. The headline: “Nicki Minaj is a Republican, Is Voting For Mitt Romney.” The subhead was “I am not joking,” but Minaj almost certainly was.
The supporting evidence (helpfully plastered in bold text on a very Facebook share-friendly image of Minaj) was one line Minaj delivered during a guest appearance on a new song by her frequent collaborator Lil Wayne: “I’m a Republican voting for Mitt Romney, you lazy bitches is fucking up the economy.” The line was a pretty obvious satirical commentary on the relationship between net worth and partisan affiliation. (And rappers are occasionally known to engage in flights of fancy. In other guest verses, Minaj has endorsed “eat[ing] your brains” and claimed that she is known to “kill bitches [and] leave your body in a bayou.”) But here again, any whiff of the quoted remark’s actual context would have rendered the literal-minded post pointless. The misleading version, making a headline out of one idle joke in an obscure freestyle verse, swept through the political and entertainment news worlds on an otherwise slow holiday weekend.
In the grand scheme of things, it matters much less that people are being lied to about the political leanings of talented MCs than that they’re being misled about the actual policy beliefs of both of America’s political parties. Still, a willingness to be credulous or intentionally obtuse about one indicates a willingness to uncritically pass along bullshit about the other. The theme of this year’s Republican National Convention was “we built it,” based on a blatant misreading (and selective editing) of a harmless quote from President Barack Obama about the role that government-funded infrastructure plays in private-sector success. Most of the convention’s major speakers shamelessly distorted the argument and beliefs of the president and the Democratic Party. The most flagrant such flights of fancy came courtesy of vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, who opened his acceptance speech by nonsensically blaming the president for a plant closing that happened before he took office and went on to blast Obama for failing to support a “centrist” deficit-reduction proposal that Ryan himself had personally torpedoed in the House of Representatives. The Romney campaign is based, to a degree that is surprising even by modern standards, on a series of deceptions, including the racially tinged accusation that the president supports the elimination of the onerous work requirements added to the federal welfare program under President Clinton.
Immediately after the RNC concluded, Smith, in a sort of commentary-slash-signed editorial, took the opportunity to blast . . . fact-checkers. Citing “an unusually honest election on both sides,” Smith absurdly characterized the 2012 race as “a rare campaign being conducted in the daylight on the highest stakes in American government, the giant domestic programs most Americans wind up using and the taxes that pay for them.” This is his commentary on a campaign in which the central argument from the author of a plan to eliminate Medicare is that the Democrats “raided” it in order to fund health care for undesirable poor people.
When most political reporters claim that campaign operatives and professional liars are in fact engaged in a high-minded exchange of ideas, it seems transparently like “source-greasing,” to borrow a phrase Smith uses in his standard-issue paragraph of pro forma disclaimers (what other journalistic hacks call their “to be sure” paragraph). But what’s truly terrifying about the great BuzzFeed politics experiment is that Smith, I think, believes this presidential cycle has set a new benchmark in public truth-telling. This, it seems, is one key collateral side effect of context-free click-chasing: once you dispense with the idea of the truth as an element of your journalistic business model, you’re no longer able to discern what is and is not truthful in larger policy and electoral settings, when the idea of the truth, you know, matters.
This, in a nutshell, is what you get when Politico, if not Matt Drudge, rules your world. The future of Internet-enabled political journalism now seems to be little more than a Hobson’s choice between wide-eyed elation at Newt Gingrich’s excellent submarine ride or a sober appraisal of the essential honesty of Mitt Romney’s campaign manager. And so there is one undeniable truth to be gleaned from the many meaningless legacies that Politico shall undoubtedly bequeath to the generation of political scribes it is now schooling: the major forces of Washington’s political establishment have little to fear from the mighty democratic specter of an Internet-empowered citizenry. Their many ornate depravities are in less danger than ever of getting revealed to the public at large—unless, that is, they let slip a remark that can be tortured into a seventh-grade- level double entendre.