The Politico's John Harris replies

The Politico's editor in chief responds to questions, raised here and elsewhere, about his organization's relationship with Matt Drudge and general issues of bias.


Glenn Greenwald
March 30, 2007 4:35PM (UTC)

The Politico's Editor-in-Chief, John Harris, has responded via e-mail to the posts I wrote earlier this week, as well as to questions I sent to Politico reporter Mike Allen about the Politico/Drudge relationship (those questions are in the first link above). Harris here also responds to several Media Matters posts concerning the same issue. Following is the exchange which ensued. Harris' email to me (which he agreed for me to post) in its entirety is first, followed by my reply, and then another reply from Harris.

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Harris' email:

Dear Mr. Greenwald,

I read your questions to Mike Allen, who can respond or not as he likes. (He said he did not receive an e-mail from you.) For my part, I wanted to zap you a note, since several of the questions you raise are probably better directed to me and Jim VandeHei as the editors of Politico.

Your speculation about "overlapping connections and clear coordination" with the Drudge Report is wrong. We have no special connections and no coordination.

In its eight weeks, Politico.com has made news with many stories, and attracted a lot of public notice. We do aggressively promote our stories on television and the web. As journalists, we naturally want our work to be seen. As a new publication, it is important to building an audience.

We routinely touch base with television and radio producers about stories we are working on or have published. We also have a roster of dozens of web sites and blogs with whom we often e-mail links to stories after they are published. These blogs run across the ideological spectrum. I am totally indifferent to the ideological orientation of who links to us. Sending a link does not represent us attempting to put the Politico imprimatur on a site. Someone linking to us does not represent an endorsement of Politico generally. This seems self-evident, but the logic of your column implied you believe otherwise.

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Promoting our stories via e-mail does not represent a connection, and it does not represent coordination. We know we will get links based solely on whether sites find our stories interesting and newsworthy. (We get a lot of links to Politico stories that we did not promote, but in general we try not to leave it to chance for our work to be noticed.)

Your own column makes clear why this matters. I do not routinely read your work, but saw your column about Politico, and had several people e-mail me about it, based on the fact it was linked off Romenesko. Did you or someone at Salon send Romensko the link? If so, you were smart to do so. Do you think Romensko regarded the link as anything other than an acknowledgment that some readers might find it interesting?

There is nothing novel about our promotional efforts. New York Times stories are previewed frequently on the Drudge Report before they are posted live. Has this escaped your notice? In any event, it was not mentioned in your column. (As a general matter, I have discouraged people from previewing stories with web sites, but as happens to any boss my edicts are sometimes ignored, and it seems likely this happened in the one case you cited.) When I worked at The Washington Post, there was a staff of at least four people who did nothing but promote reporters and their stories to a wider audience.

I am going to decline your request to detail which percentage of our traffic comes from specific sites. My commitment to journalistic transparency does not include distributing that kind of non-journalistic detail (and I doubt that Salon would share it either.) I will share some general background: Since our launch on Jan. 23, we have had about 1.5 million unique visitors a month. Our traffic patterns show that several sites are capable of producing spikes above our daily average. Among the sites that do this are Huffington Post, Drudge, and RealClearPolitics.

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Just yesterday, for instance, our traffic got a boost when Huffington Post linked to a story on former congressman Bob Barrb

As for changing live stories, we do it, the same way most news organizations update print stories between editions and web stories around the clock. All our stories are time stamped so itb

One point you made that resonated with me as a journalistic matter is the danger that reporters might orient their thinking around chasing the needle, and measure their success by web traffic and links. Conscientious reporters and editors should resist this, and I believe we do. This is reflected in the range of serious reporting we do about Congress, the 2008 presidential election, and lobbying and fund-raising. Although we are a new publication, Politico has several reporters and editors who have been in this profession for two decades or more. They know that what counts is reputation over the long haul, not any individual story or any uproar du jour on the blogs.

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About the particular uproar you are trying to generate: I expect Politico to draw criticism, and expect some of the time to agree with that criticism. The important goal for me is that we be more open about how we do our work than is usually the case at traditional news organizations. As someone who writes about media frequently, you must know that I am answering your questions with a level of detail far beyond what anyone in a leadership position at The Washington Post or New York Times typically would share.

In your case, much of your criticism comes from a distinct ideological perspective. That's fine, but surely you must appreciate that not everyone acts with your degree of ideological motivation. In the case of people at Politico, our motivations are simpleb

I noticed this morning that Media Matters looked up something that I did not knowb

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This is a longer note than you probably expected, but the suggestion you casually throw aboutb

You and I do not know each other. I think it is important to engage with serious criticism, but the reason I am often reluctant to engage with ideological critics is my experience that they are often not on the level. That is, that they are not really trying to illuminate an issue, but instead are looking for any new weapon or shield to use in their daily brawl. I'm taking you seriously, but I do think you owe me answers to the questions I raised about your argument.

Sincerely,

John Harris

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My reply:

Thanks for taking the time to send a thoughtful reply, which I would like to post in full for my readers, but will do so only if you don't object.

Clearly, there is nothing wrong with any media outlet trying to attract Drudge links (or any other links), including alerting Drudge via e-mail or otherwise to stories which you think might attract attention.

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I have no doubt that most media outlets do that, and in fact, in my post, I expressly referenced (and linked to) a liberal blogger who criticized Media Matters (and defended Politico) on that very ground (i.e., that it is perfectly customary and innocuous to alert outlets, including Drudge, of forthcoming stories, and that such behavior, standing alone, reflects nothing improper) -- although, I should say, that I don't think Drudge's ability to "preview" NYT stories in advance is due to the Times' sharing their stories with Drudge, but rather some mix of newsroom leaks and/or other means of accessing Times stories.

All of that is fair enough. But I think you're ignoring the context here. You are the one who wrote in your book that Drudge rules your world, and the world of mainstream journalists generally, called him the Walter Cronkite of your era, and said that no other source was as important in influencing the news other than Associated Press.

Beyond that, it isn't just that Drudge has linked to Politico; it's that Drudge has linked to you an unusually high number of times. In general, the fact that someone links to you does not mean that you share their ideology.

But Drudge's links are different. He and his website are cogs in the right-wing machine -- he is a virtual arm of the RNC -- and the stories he links to are most certainly designed to promote a very partisan agenda. The fact that he apparently considers not only isolated Politico articles -- but The Politico itself -- to fit so snugly and so frequently as a tool within his agenda is obviously noteworthy, particularly in light of all the other facts suggesting a connection, including your very own admission that he "rules" your world.

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As for the questions you asked and other comments you made:

Did you or someone at Salon send Romensko the link?

I didn't send Romenesko a link to that post or any other I've written, and I don't know of anyone who did.

Do you think Romensko regarded the link as anything other than an acknowledgment that some readers might find it interesting?

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I don't know enough about Romensko to know if he links to pieces he finds interesting as opposed to ones he believes bolsters a specific political agenda (there definitely are bloggers who only link to my posts when they believe it bolsters their worldview, not merely because it's "interesting"). I do, however, know that, by and large, Drudge only links to pieces which promote his worldview and advance his political agenda. These days, apparently, that includes many, many Politico articles.

New York Times stories are previewed frequently on the Drudge Report before they are posted live. Has this escaped your notice?

See above. You seem to be suggesting that the NYT actively courts Drudge links in advance of their stories being published by notifying him what they intend to publish. That has never been my understanding. Are you suggesting that the NYT does do that (and does The Politico do that? - that was one of my central questions, which you never answered).

You said: "Although we are a new publication, Politico has several reporters and editors who have been in this profession for two decades or more. They know that what counts is reputation over the long haul, not any individual story or any uproar du jour on he blogs."

It's natural for a new venture of any kind to cater to those necessary for its short-term prosperity, even if such behavior conflicts with its long-term strength. It seems like attracting Drudge links is, at least for now, a central part of The Politico's strategy - something you're not so much denying as you are claiming that it's customary.

More importantly, your co-author, Mark Halperin, believes exactly the opposite of what you just said here about how newspapers thrive long-term. He thinks a key to a successful business model for media outlets is to court right-wing viewers. He said this on Fox News: "As an economic model, if you want to thrive like Fox News Channel, you want to have a future, you better make sure conservatives find your product appealing."

Do you agree with that? Does that consideration shape The Politico's editorial decisions?

You and I do not know each other. I think it is important to engage with serious criticism, but the reason I am often reluctant to engage with ideological critics is my experience that they are often not on the level. That is, that they are not really trying to illuminate an issue, but instead are looking for any new weapon or shield to use in their daily brawl.

My criticism of The Politico was completely serious and well-documented. My readers would not tolerate my launching fact-free criticisms in order to advance a partisan agenda. That isn't what my blog is about in any way, but you couldn't know that, because - as you acknowledged - you don't read it, which leads to this question:

On what conceivable basis do you label me an "ideological critic"? Don't you find it ironic that in the same e-mail where you're complaining about what you believe are unfair criticisms of journalists as being ideologically motivated, you're making exactly the same criticism of me - although in your case, without (as you admit) any basis?

I have a great deal of respect for the role journalists are intended to play in this country. I am a great admirer of, for instance, of your former colleague, Dana Priest. I devoted large parts of my litigation practice when I litigated to defending the First Amendment. My criticism of the press is based on my sincere belief that it is supposed to play a critical role -- but has abdicated its responsibility -- to serve as a watchdog over our government and to check abuses of power by political leaders. I don't think journalists should promote partisan storylines or promote any political agenda. I think they ought to fulfill the function the founders envisioned, because our country's political health would be substantially improved. That's what motivates my media criticism.

I'm taking you seriously, but I do think you owe me answers to the questions I raised about your argument.

I believe I answered all of your questions, and I tried to do so with as much good faith as possible. And while I appreciate your reply and the thoughtfulness of it, there were just a couple of questions you ignored that I'd be really appreciative if you would answer, or at least indicate that you refuse to answer (incidentally, the e-mail I sent to Mike Allen was sent through your website's email system - by clicking on ABOUT US and then Allen specifically):

(2) Has the Politico ever instructed any of its writers or other employees to cater story lines to Drudge or try to attract Drudge's attention or approval?

(4) How long have you known Matt Drudge, and what would you say is the general nature of your relationship with him? Do you respect him as a journalist?

Thanks again - Glenn Greenwald

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Harris' reply to the latter two questions:

Has the Politico ever instructed any of its writers or other employees to cater story lines to Drudge or try to attract Drudge's attention or approval?

No. As I mentioned, we promote stories to websites and blogs across the political spectrum after they are published, but we emphatically do not cater story lines to gain approval of any of these websites or blogs. This includes the Drudge Report, Huffington Post, and RealClearPolitics, all of which have driven high traffic to our site with links to stories that broke news.

How long have you known Matt Drudge, and what would you say is the general nature of your relationship with him? Do you respect him as a journalist?

It's a stretch to say I know him. We met once at a White House Correspondents Association dinner in the late 1990s and have not spoken or corresponded since then. I do not consider him a journalist. I consider the Drudge Report a successful aggregatorb

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My observations about this exchange are in the post above.


Glenn Greenwald

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