Does America Really Need More Inside-the-Beltway Journalism?

Does America Really Need More Inside-the-Beltway Journalism? thumbnail

While newsletters have long been on the rise in the media landscape, 2020 has become the year they finally reached “so hot right now” status. Perhaps not coincidentally, 2020 has also been a year of atomization, consolidation, and contraction for the media industry. Large outlets, particularly The New York Times, have spent the year plucking media stars from smaller, typically digital, outlets. Many of the luminaries that haven’t felt the gravitational pull of the most prestigious media organizations have broken free, starting paid newsletters on Substack, the upstart platform of the moment. With media organizations shedding thousands of jobs in the age of Covid-19 and the Google/Facebook ad duopoly, independence and self-sufficiency, once enormously risky, suddenly look almost as stable as a staff job—provided, of course, you have the audience and name recognition to make the leap.

Tuesday brought news of the latest media uncoupling. Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, the writers of Politico Playbook, the infamous Beltway tipsheet that’s tracked who’s up and who’s down in D.C. for a seeming eternity, will be teaming up with longtime editor John Bresnahan to launch a competing newsletter starting next year. The resulting product “will include a heavy focus on Capitol Hill reporting, given the expertise of the trio, but it’s not designed to be a carbon copy of Politico’s flagship newsletter Playbook,” Axios reported.

You’d be strained to discern the distinctions, based on what’s been reported about this “not a carbon copy,” however. According to Axios’s reporting, “The new venture will include other offerings aside from the newsletter.” It’s not clear what those offerings will be. Even with the details still fuzzy, this forthcoming, as yet unnamed offering, will serve as a test for an increasingly atomized media and for the post-Trump press corps, which will be tempted to return to business as usual.

Although the national media industry has been devastated by layoffs, inside-the-Beltway reporting has arguably never been more competitive. The New York Times and The Washington Post spent the last four years reestablishing themselves as heavyweights. Axios, the bullet-point production factory founded in 2017 by Politico veterans Mike Allen (who himself launched Playbook) and Jim VandeHei, exploded onto the scene as a scoop machine par excellence, albeit one torn between the sharp elbows of some of its younger reporters, such as Jonathan Swan, and Allen’s own credulous and accommodating approach. (“For Allen,” wrote my colleague Alex Pareene in 2013, “a source is indistinguishable from a friend and both are indistinguishable from sponsors. The result is a daily exercise in favor-trading carried out by people using him as a conduit and people using him as an unpaid spokesman.”) The Daily Beast continues to punch above its weight as a chronicler of Washington’s backrooms. And Politico remains influential and agenda-setting, particularly with the real-life Veep characters who have roosted in Washington, D.C., during the Trump era.

So, any scrappy new competitor, let alone a newsletter start-up, will not only be entering a crowded field of well-established incumbents, it will be doing so at a time when the daily chaos of the Trump administration will be retreating from the scene. Playbook’s focus has always been on Congress; its partisan divisions will almost certainly provide fodder for scoops. Even if the Biden administration delivers on its promise to be substantially more boring than its predecessor, the legislative houses will remain as full of action as a Jacobean tragedy. Bresnahan, Palmer, and Sherman bring deep sourcing to that task, as well as a yen for conveying the drama and pageantry of congressional horse-trading.

Much like style, ideology has been absent from Playbook’s editorial concerns. The tipsheet has always placed a higher premium on detailing the day-to-day winners and losers, a tale told by an unending array of off-the-record sources. Lloyd Green, reviewing Palmer and Sherman’s book about Congress in the first two years of the Trump era in The Guardian, described their approach like so:

Sherman and Palmer reward strong performances and political savvy. Mitch McConnell earns props for ramming Trump’s judicial picks through and keeping the Senate in Republican hands. As the authors make clear, for McConnell it is only and always about winning—which he does with unapologetic aplomb. Describing his role in the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation fight, the majority leader acknowledges that he emerged as an unlikely “rock star.”

In this version of things, McConnell isn’t a cynic or an obstructionist. He’s not someone who has thwarted democratic norms or damaged American institutions. He’s Mick Jagger with an empty briefcase, a figure who can’t help but win. Start him up, he’ll never stop; he’ll make a grown man cry.

And that’s the Politico way: The ethos that Esquire’s Charlie Pierce famously described as “Tiger Beat on the Potomac,” a cynical and myopic exercise in reflecting Washington, D.C.’s most grotesque qualities. In this version of political reporting, the world outside Washington, D.C., barely exists at all, and the powerful within the gilded capital are rarely held to account because the reporters involved don’t even begin to contemplate that journalism might have that purpose. Instead, we get what Pierce has described as an enterprise “dedicated totally to gossip, triviality, and Drudge-baiting to the exclusion of what’s actually going on in the country to the people these politics are supposed to serve.”

There will still be a huge market for this type of enterprise in the Biden era. There may be, in fact, better days ahead for this sort of journalism, as the misrule and shame that Trump brought to This Town was often quite hard for Beltway scribblers to revise into a shape that they might respect. More important, of course, is that this sort of content will continue to attract advertisers who look to well-sourced Washington reporters to deliver an in-the-know audience with money and influence to burn.

But—and this may be too optimistic—we may be nearing a saturation point in this field of journalistic endeavor. Any new outlet, however well sourced, will have to compete with giants in the field. This is a competition that Politico already won; having outpaced staid predecessors such as The Hill and Roll Call with the high-metabolism, micro-scoop approach it more or less invented, it’s moved on to influencing the coverage of major papers such as The Washington Post. Politico will simply insert two new lifeforms into the Playbook slots vacated by Palmer and Sherman, the same way it replaced its founder, Allen. All of these successions have gone off without a hitch, and there’s likely no concern among Politico’s top brass that the next one won’t be just as seamless. The pressure will be on Playbook’s self-deportees to demonstrate their continued ability to land the scoops and score the sources that they did while working under a larger institution.

But this is a problem for a handful of elite Beltway journalists to resolve. The more interesting problem is how much more of this insider-driven political insight we can take. The big lessons of the past year point to the fact that important political stories are happening outside the 202 area code. The pandemic year led to a Biden win but not to the total collapse of Trumpism that many expected. The defeated incumbent actually improved his standing with some surprising constituencies; and it seemed that local canvassing efforts made a bigger difference in political outcomes than many expected. The next big political story, the runoff elections in Georgia, might be an acid test for a political media industry that’s increasingly concentrated in Washington, D.C., and New York City, and which remains too fixated on gossip-laden political content. A new kind of newsletter might challenge these hoary institutions by exploiting their blind spots and beating them to a richer set of stories. If this isn’t what Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer intend to do, what’s the point?

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