“The POLITICO Culture”

The guy responsible for the worst of Politico is being promoted, which actually might be a good thing

Topics: Politico, Jim VandeHei, Journalism, Media, ,

"The POLITICO Culture"John Harris, Jim VandeHei (Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Monday was an exciting day for professional haters of Politico, the famous website and newspaper. There is a new memo! Politico memos are their own little literary genre. Usually composed by Politico’s co-founding editors, John Harris and Jim VandeHei, these internal (but always leaked) communications are heavy on obnoxious management buzzwords, ridiculously unjustified boasting, and occasional slightly psychotic-sounding exhortations to WIN. They are generally light on self-awareness, and directives to produce quality journalism.

Though in a Politico memo, “quality” is measured in eyeballs, and the importance of the owners of those eyeballs. The original and still funniest memo wasn’t from the co-founders, but from star newsletter-author Mike Allen. It is heavy on the all-caps, and clearly un-copyedited. (“The REWARD for cracking this code is that you’re part of an enterprise that is already famous and respect….”) It tells reporters that the first question they should ask themselves when starting a piece is, “Would this be a ‘most e-mailed’ story?” It refers to “mindshare.”

This new memo is from Jim VandeHei, formerly the executive editor and now the CEO of the entire company. It is about “the culture of Politico,” and in it VandeHei attempts to explain what makes Politico great and instruct his employees on how to make it even better. Nothing in VandeHei’s memo speaks to the actual work Politico is supposedly engaged in, which is reporting. It could be a memo from the CEO of a company that makes iPhone games, or complex financial products. “We work for a hot brand doing important work with some of the smartest people in the world.” “People who thrive here are highly talented, self-motivated doers who are brimming with passion and a desire to win.”

“My job is to set a broad vision of where the company is going,” says VandeHei, “and then help others spread it through every corner of the place.” In other words, he is going to be paid a huge amount of money to think real hard about his news organization’s “culture,” and send out memos on the subject, and probably hold a lot of meetings, conferences and retreats.

As to the culture of the place, the memo features a version of the notorious BuzzFeed “no haters” rule: “We have learned the hard way that people who whine, project negativity or are complacent hurt the company, no matter how talented they might be at an individual task.” No matter how talented you are at a “task” like reporting, or editing, if you project negativity, you are hurting the Culture of POLITICO. (As professional Politico hater Erik Wemple points out, this is basically a rather harsh attack on everyone who’s left Politico recently.)

You Might Also Like

While he will remain a grossly overpaid fount of meaningless clichés, and indeed he will likely now be an even more overpaid one, VandeHei’s abandoning the editorial side to take charge of the business side is, in a way, good news. It is perhaps bad news for people who actually have to work at Politico, what with the enforced relentless positivity and constant “blunt,” “candid” written and in-person reviews, but it could be good news for the country, because it is VandeHei’s editorial sensibilities that have led to much of what is broadly “wrong” with Politico.

It was VandeHei, paired with his star pupil Mike Allen, who teamed up to launch “POLITICO PRIMARY,” a deeply funny attempt to “harness the public’s hunger for something new, different and inspiring” by putting forth potential presidential candidates like … Erskine Bowles. And David Petraeus. And Condoleezza Rice. It was incredible.

The entire ideology of VandeHei and Allen — one they feel comfortable expressing repeatedly while still claiming to be purely objective, because that’s how Washington journalism works — is summed up in the Politico Primary. From their blurb for Bowles: “The most depressing reality of modern governance is this: The current system seems incapable of dealing with our debt addiction before it becomes a crippling crisis.” Interesting take! This deeply conservative “centrist” worldview also explains the piece from last December arguing that “tax reform” and “much deeper Social Security and Medicare changes than are currently envisioned” and “trade agreements” and more oil and gas extraction would all generate an economic boom. (It is also hilarious that the only regular columnists in Politico’s “Opinion” section appear to be Joe Scarborough and Rich Lowry. What a wonderful diversity of viewpoints!)

But VandeHei’s ideology is less objectionable than his news sense and his editorial standards. The classic Politico move is to simply invent a story from nothing, or next-to-nothing, to create “buzz,” and then to report on that “buzz.” VandeHei and Allen’s 2012 election coverage was based entirely on crafting “narratives,” which changed from day to day. None of it was remotely informative. VandeHei and Allen eventually actually bragged that a piece they’d written a few weeks earlier “doesn’t matter,” but got a lot of page views anyway.

This stuff isn’t just stupid, it frequently becomes outright dishonest, as when Mike Allen invented the rumor that Barack Obama might appoint Hillary Clinton to the Supreme Court. There’s no journalistic argument for telling people that things that aren’t going to happen might happen.

Thankfully, VandeHei will be replaced with New York Times veteran Rick Berke. Berke is beloved in the Times newsroom and has a lot of experience in a workplace “culture” that values accuracy and quality over sensationalism and eyeballs. Let’s hope Berke, a rather staid Times lifer, discourages the sort of sensibility that leads to stories like the one that helped to popularize the the myth that Congress sought to “exempt” itself from Obamacare. That’s what happens when you chase mindshare. Sometimes, to turn a piece of boring information into something that people WANT and NEED to read (and share), you end up distorting the information.

To help everyone there deal with such a major organizational change, I have prepared my own memo to the staff of Politico:

Staff of Politico,

I wanted to share my thoughts on the culture you are building there at POLITICO. First of all, it is very silly that you always capitalize all the letters in POLITICO and it is always cringe-inducing when bosses talk about “cultures.” Your new CEO, Jim VandeHei, sounds like a nightmare person to work for, but then, you probably know that already, because he is the co-founder of your newspaper and has been one of its top editors since its launch. I just wanted you all to know that you work for a news organization, and your job is to produce journalism about politics. You “win” by writing timely and interesting stories, and by reporting new information accurately. The end.

Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...