Thursday, May 17, 2007

Positioning The Politico: Why We Shouldn't Expect a Teenager to Drive Like Michael Schumacher and Other Thoughts on Bias

Boston Phoenix editor-in-chief John Harris says The Politico is conservative.

I can agree with him on one point: It's certainly not liberal.

But it's not truly conservative, either.

Today's biggest flap in the journalism world is the accusation that The Politico, that mostly online but still 25,000 strong in print news outlet for Capitol Hill, is cozy with conservatives.

But I think he's wrong -- or at least a little presumptuous.

Take a look at The Politico's front page today. What do you see? I see articles about Democrats; I see articles about Republicans. I notice that today, there are more GOP-focused articles than the former. Does that make The Politico biased?

In a time when Republicans are in power in the executive arm of our federal government, I'm not at all surprised that there are more articles covering the GOP than the Democrats.

But Editorialiste, what about all the coverage that other news outlets are giving the Democrats? you say. And I say that is exactly why The Politico covers what it does: Because it's carving out its own niche in a crowded market.

Just over 100 days ago, who would have thought that The Politico would come to be a revered (if only in a slightly notorious way) name in Washington politics? Remember, the publication is still young. And to ensure that people (read: politicians and fellow journalists) keep coming back for more, The Politico staffers need to figure out a unique way of approaching things.

In this case, it's avoiding the focus on the Democratic rat-race and focusing on the areas that some outlets are skipping over. Combined with it's proximity to The Hill, I'm just not surprised that it's "hustling to sell itself," as Harris wrote.

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.

These are all valid points to make. But The Politico is still working out its kinks. Quite frankly, if these are the worst errors that have happened in The Politico's rapid ascent to ultra-high visibility, then fine. They're mostly old journalists, but this is a new venture that in many ways is different from what's already out there.

Furthermore, I just don't see The Politico turning into a FOX-like outlet that patently denies anything that isn't on their agenda. Could The Politico turn out to lean slightly conservative? Maybe -- but we'll only be able to tell when a Democrat is in office.

Maybe The Politico isn't cozy with conservatives so much as cozy with Washington in general. They are admittedly passionate about what they do, right?

But there's one thing about The Politico that is important at this juncture: It's tradition-breaking practices. Not only is The Politico a new model for business (print/online combo), but it's a fascinating case-study in how to run a publication, editorially. Harris, I gather, would agree:

This mindset is evident both in the prose of Politico’s writers and in the way the publication has responded to its critics. After Salon’s Greenwald e-mailed Politico reporter Mike Allen with questions about the paper’s relationship with Drudge, for example, Harris replied with a 1200-word e-mail and gave Greenwald permission to post it online. As controversy over the use and origins of “slow bleed” mounted, meanwhile, Harris wrote a column in which he regretfully copped to being the guy responsible. Politico also published a 900-word critique by MMA’s Simon Maloy, titled “Is Politico a GOP Shill?” (It also ran a 2400-word response from Harris, VandeHei, and reporter Ben Smith, which may have been a bit much.)

Over time, this responsiveness and transparency should help Politico establish itself as a distinctive journalistic brand. (It’s hard to imagine, say, the New York Times running an op-ed from a critic accusing it of liberal bias.) It may even convince the publication’s critics that their early concerns were overblown.

John, you're right. So maybe we should just lay off The Politico and let it go through its growing pains before we start criticizing it at the level we do the Washington Post.

Then again, it's handling exactly this level of criticism that has helped propel The Politico to where it is.

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