Welcome to the neighborhood, Politico!

The new Web publishing venture has gotten pummeled this week for mistakes as well as political bias. Should Salon be throwing stones?

Published March 27, 2007 10:17PM (EDT)

If I were a better neighbor, I'd have baked a cake to welcome the Politico to the Web when it launched in January. Instead, in the last week two of my favorite Salon bloggers, Tim Grieve and Glenn Greenwald, have criticized the new politics site for making serious errors as well as cozying up to conservatives like Matt Drudge and supplying Republicans with daily story lines.

I have to confess to having mixed feelings about our shots at Politico (about having taken them, not about their content; Grieve and Greenwald were perfectly accurate and, in my opinion, fair). I don't want Salon's criticizing Politico to be mistaken for competitiveness. I root for the Politico and other growing publications less new to the Web, like the Huffington Post and Josh Marshall's growing Talking Points empire, because if Salon is right about the future of Web publishing (and I believe we are) we can't, won't and shouldn't be the only ones (besides bloggers) making an independent go of it out here. So I applaud the Politico and the journalists who've been lured from old media to explore the new world.

In the end, my worries about being unfair to a newcomer were outweighed by the obvious importance of noting, early and often, what the Politico is getting wrong. For one thing, they're purporting to bring mainstream journalistic values to the wild, wild Web -- solid reporting, fairness and accuracy chief among them. So when they stumble, as they did in reporting that Alberto Gonzales was about to be fired, or that John Edwards would suspend his campaign -- they should be called on it. Personally, I was most disturbed that Mike Allen's story reporting Gonzales' impending departure was rewritten to change its meaning, once White House insiders began denying the attorney general was on his way out. It's not that Salon hasn't made mistakes over the years -- we have -- but we hold ourselves to a high standard about running corrections, not merely changing the story and pretending we never made a mistake. It's just too easy, on the Web, to get caught covering your tracks, and take a major hit to your credibility with readers. The Politico has learned that the hard way. (Or maybe they haven't learned it; I could find no mention of the controversy on the Web site.)

I'm a little more reluctant, personally, to toss around charges of political bias, since that's a subjective judgment. Where Allen stands accused of cozying up to Matt Drudge, I've been challenged by some Salon readers for regularly being on MSNBC's "Scarborough Country," jousting with the conservative ex-congressman. I'd argue the situations are different, because I'm on the show to represent a liberal point of view and Scarborough and I disagree regularly, most recently on whether there's anything besides incompetence at the heart of the U.S. attorneys scandal (he's come over to my side on the war). And the recent Media Matters revelation that Drudge was hyping the Obama story as "Developing" suggests a higher degree of coordination than was previously known.

The Drudge controversy aside, I found Allen's piece "Rookie Mistakes Plague Obama" shallow and unconvincing. And I found it, literally, not via Drudge's prominent link (which used the same headline), but in an e-mail from the Republican National Committee, headlined simply "The Rookie." The RNC hit piece on Obama leads with Richard Cohen's nasty column in the Washington Post today, but follows up with several quotes from Allen's story, as well as the Chicago Tribune piece on Obama's background that both Allen and Cohen quote liberally. It's when you read the RNC talking points that you understand the rage of the liberal blogosphere against the so-called MSM: It is as if Cohen, Allen, the Tribune reporters and the RNC all got on a conference call and said, "Here's how we're hitting Obama this week."

That didn't happen, of course (or at least I have no evidence it did). But Allen and the Politico are getting hammered because it didn't have to; somehow Beltway insiders frequently wind up talking the same clubby, conventional-wisdom language. (Thanks to Greenwald for noting that MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell, on Chris Matthews' show Sunday, parroted the same "legislation, not investigations!" line about the Democrats I'd criticized the New York Times' Adam Nagourney for using on Sunday. No, I don't think they were on the same conference call, but it's still remarkable, and disturbing.) In its early days the Politico is demonstrating the same coziness with power and pack reporting mentality that's sadly been the hallmark of old media -- even if you find it on the Web. I wish I'd baked a cake to welcome my new neighbors, but Grieve and Greenwald's criticism will ultimately be better for them, even if it's hard to swallow.

By Joan Walsh

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