Just as Al Gore was once described (by Michael Kinsley) as “an old person’s idea of a young person” so is Mike Allen a corporate account executive’s idea of a politics reporter. Or, to put things in the argot to which both he and his power-elite readership are accustomed, he’s the forward-looking mascot of all things breathless, political, and digital in the MAJOR JOURNO REALIGNMENT ALONG THE POTOMAC. A longtime campaign scribe at the Washington Post and Time, Allen was the first marquee hire for Politico when it launched its personality-driven model of politics coverage, way back in 2007.
And whatever else you can say about Mike Allen’s handiwork, it’s proven a perfect fit for Politico, which treats the strangely inert doings of our permanent government with the same rapt-yet-myopic obsessiveness that Gollum reserved for the One Ring of Power. Allen, ever alert to the establishment-sanctioned main chance, seized upon his new Politico perch as the foundation for a full-on brand reinvention, with the influential “Playbook” email, which purports to be the premier early-morning tip sheet for Washington’s power elite. He then proceeded to publish a grimly astounding run of 3,304 consecutive “Playbook” installments, before his final edition blitzed its way into email boxes this Sunday. All this without any time off for weekends or holidays.
History alone can judge whether this heroic effort served any enduring civic purpose. Then again, Allen’s now-legendary “Playbook” run was never intended to advance anything so quaint as a systematic understanding of the inner workings of D.C. power. No, the de facto mission statement of Allen’s franchise is always blaring forth from his subject lines, right after the title and the day’s date. When I pull down the past month-plus of “Playbook” in my inbox queue (yes, I am a subscriber, and yes, I hate myself), the point of the whole thing is driven home quite unmistakably. Allen’s final two “Playbooks” (the franchise will soldier on with a trio of young Politico scribes) are presented by Quicken Loans (i.e., a clearing house of predatory lending, currently under federal prosecution). In the prior week, dispatches had come courtesy of JPMorgan Chase & Co. (a.k.a., the home of Jamie Dimon’s beached London whale). The week before that, Walmart (a rightwing lobbying colossus that at least sports a common-touch brand). And my personal favorite, from May 29: “POLITICO Playbook — presented by BP — HOW CORRUPTION HAPPENS.”
“POLITICO Playbook — presented by BP — HOW CORRUPTION HAPPENS.”
It turned out that the subject-line teaser referred to a front-page Washington Post feature on a Singapore-based Navy contractor convicted of defrauding the U.S. government on a massive scale (introduced in the body of the email with the typically breathless Allenism “A STORY THAT COULD SAVE YOUR LIFE”—an inadvertent admission that the ideal “Playbook” reader carries several multimillion-dollar defense contracts in his or her portfolio, with a suitably lavish expense account to fritter away on bribes IF HE OR SHE ISN’T CAREFUL). But astute readers of the vast “Playbook” corpus could readily pick up on the self-undermining entendre here. As Erik Wemple pointed out in an exhaustive and blistering 2013 takedown of the pay-to-play “Playbook” worldview, Allen has a special place in his pseudo-journalistic heart for BP, since he and the oil giant’s senior VP of U.S. communications, Geoff Morrell, are close friends. So while scandal-tarnished BP gladly forks over the hefty $35,000 fee for a week’s worth of “Playbook” advertising touting its status as “America’s largest energy investor,” Morrell can count on his good friend Allen to go the extra mile in his putatively journalistic email text. As Wemple reported:
Last June [of 2013], for instance, Allen found newsworthy an AP story about a BP campaign to challenge settlement claims stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The item quoted from a full-page ad that the company had placed in newspapers, and that the AP story had cited. It also included a link to the ad.
Companies love it when their ads get passed around.
A followup appeared in the . . . Oct. 3 “Playbook,” which credited a Bloomberg story about how the company had “persuaded an appeals court to order a re-examination of key terms of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil-spill settlement that the company said could have cost it billions of dollars in improper payouts.” “Playbook” quoted BP executive Geoff Morrell as saying, “Today’s ruling affirms what BP has been saying since the beginning: claimants should not be paid for fictitious or wholly non-existent losses. We are gratified that the systematic payment of such claims by the claims administrator must now come to an end.” . . .
On Sept. 7, 2013, Allen devoted a chunky, three-paragraph item to Morrell’s ascension as BP’s senior vice president of U.S. communications & external affairs. Included in the blurb was a quote that careful readers of “Playbook” might find familiar: “BP is America’s biggest energy investor…”
No charge for that one.
In a March edition, Allen picked up a story outlining why “BP, since the spill, has become a much more American company.” And in a February edition, Allen wrote this:
VIDEO DU JOUR, launched quietly on YouTube yesterday and now spreading on Facebook and Twitter, “BP Energy Outlook 2030: America’s Energy Future” . . .
Companies love it when their videos get passed around.
As Wemple went on to detail, Allen showered a long roster of corporate “Playbook” sponsors from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to Goldman Sachs, with similar glorified advertorial air kisses. And whenever his D.C. insider’s gaze might fall on a snatch of text in a rival publication suggesting that the power players overseeing these excellent revenue streams were not, in fact, presiding over the best of all possible worlds, well, then, sponsor-osculating Mike Allen becomes grizzled journo professor Mike Allen. Wemple again:
“Playbook’s” dedication to Washington’s big business lobby leaves something of a space crunch for those who oppose the establishment. Mary Boyle is vice president for communications at Common Cause, which bills itself as “a vehicle for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process” and opposes the agenda of many “Playbook” advertisers. “The one time I remember being in ‘Playbook,’ it was kind of a nasty swipe, a crack at Common Cause. It was not coverage in a serious way,” says Boyle.
Boyle’s memory serves her well. In October 2011, Donovan Slack, then of the Boston Globe, wrote a story about the overlap between politics and high finance in the sphere of presidential contender Mitt Romney. It carried a disapproving comment from a top official at Common Cause, which triggered this brushback from Allen in “Playbook”:
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. . . .
So, yes, Mike Allen’s “Playbook” is indeed in many ways a model for our journalistic future, as the authors of many adoring panegyrics in the wake of its retirement have insisted. It is the portal of entry into a new mediaverse in which repurposed PR copy is indistinguishable from bona fide news items, where corporate sponsors can readily double as sources, where viral ads are gleefully pawned off as organic social-media sensations—and where, most of all, presenting the informed view of watchdogs who chronicle the gruesome private enclosure of our political process by moneyed interests is just never “much of a story.” The stench of corruption around the swamps of Washington may be lifting, ever so incrementally, as our heroic “Playbook” founder moves on to bigger and better things, but make no mistake: it’s Mike Allen’s world now; we’re all just watching its multi-leveraged, expensively leased content fly overhead.