“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.)

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

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...