Politico’s Mike Allen goes native

The currency of access

Erik Wemple’s devastating takedown of Politico’s Mike Allen is the read of the day.

Wemple shows in the Washington Post that Allen’s Playbook has obliterated the line between native advertising and journalism, weaving in disclosed advertising for the likes of the US Chamber of Commerce, BP, and Goldman Sachs with repeated, undisclosed plugs for the same entities:

A review of “Playbook” archives shows that the special interests that pay for slots in the newsletter get adoring coverage elsewhere in the playing field of “Playbook.” The pattern is a bit difficult to suss out if you glance at “Playbook” each day for a shot of news and gossip. When searching for references to advertisers in “Playbook,” however, it is unmistakable.

The thing is, Allen is DC’s access journalist par excellence, which is saying something in that town.

Most beat journalists toss off the occasional beat sweetener/source greaser to gain access to a newsmaker and soft-pedal negative news to maintain that access. Access is a kind of currency: Get it and you can break news and rub elbows with important people.

Allen makes this ugly sausage-making process more corrupt by mixing access currency with actual currency. Buy native ads in Playbook, get embarrassingly favorable news coverage in Playbook.

Not only that, but your political opponents—the folks who can’t afford to buy your ads—will get ignored at best. “‘Playbook’s’ dedication to Washington’s big business lobby leaves something of a space crunch for those who oppose the establishment,” writes Wemple, noting how good-government groups like Common Cause and Project for Government Oversight aren’t part of Allen’s mix, except for swipes like this:

MEMO TO YOUNG REPORTERS: If Common Cause is your lead quote, you don’t have much of a story. It’s a crutch when you have a good topic, but not the goods. http://bo.st/n6gFz1

The Chamber of Commerce on the other hand? Slap it on page one.

Audit CEO Dean Starkman looked at native ads earlier this year, writing this:

The native ad… seeks to become part of content that is itself defined by being separate, apart, independent, attached to nothing, and beholden to no one. That’s the ideal, what everyone is shooting for. The native ad wants forever to be part of —to integrate itself into—something that wants nothing to do with it.

Why even bother with “and now a message from our sponsors” boilerplate when you’re none of those things in the first place?

“Wow. Not sure any other reporter could survive this,” Ana Marie Cox writes on Twitter.

Allen will survive and prosper, that’s for sure, long after the muckrakers have had to sell off their kidneys to survive.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,