Today, Politico’s DC-famous newsletter Playbook went off, y’all. It dropped some major truth bombs. It did NOT hold back.
Oh, didn’t you realize our country is impossibly corrupt in ways likely too entrenched to ever fully overthrow? Aw, bless your heart; not everyone can be a PLAYBOOK INSIDER (sponsored by BP).
To be fair, it’s not just Playbook playing the smug “Oh, didn’t you realize?” game: Politico’s Josh Gerstein tweeted that “Much of the dudgeon and pearl clutching on [Michael] Cohen selling access to the new admin is feigned or groupthink,” and former Foreign Policy editor David Rothkopf tweeted and deleted a similar sentiment on Wednesday:
Politico’s Playbook, a newsletter that positions itself as a must-read morning briefing for DC insiders, does big business selling that brand: During creator Mike Allen’s tenure, a week-long sponsorship cost $60,000, and as recently as last week it was “presented by Goldman Sachs.” The newsletter was Allen’s baby, and he ran it until he left to start Axios in 2016. Mike Allen’s Playbook was aptly described by my colleague Alex Pareene as “a daily exercise in favor-trading carried out by people using him as a conduit and people using him as an unpaid spokesman.” As New York’s Jonathan Chait wrote, Allen would accept “lucrative payments from advertisers and lend his editorial voice to hyping, and sometimes parroting, their agenda.” It was a very expensive disgrace that pioneered a whole new kind of money-making, pseudo-journalism venture: the access newsletter.
Ads are more clearly marked in Playbook these days, and Allen is now sharing his worldly wisdom at Axios instead, but it’s important to remember this shameful history as we dive into Playbook’s Tellin’ It Like It Is special today:
Good Friday morning. AND, WELCOME TO THE REALITY OF WASHINGTON. ... In the last two days, we’ve seen the world get introduced to two elements of D.C. that many of us know well: political intelligence and big-dollar fundraising. Here are a few things that happen in D.C. that might — but shouldn’t — catch some people by surprise:
— YES, Paul Ryan flew across the country to meet with Sheldon Adelson, and when the super PAC asked for $30 million, he had to leave the room. Yep, it’s weird. That’s how campaign finance works. They can do everything but ask for the big dough. Happens routinely in both parties.
“Weird” is not the word I would go for. “Insanely corrupt” works better for me, personally. It doesn’t make you clever or savvy to already be well aware of this terrible thing, nor to diminish its importance by describing it as routine. Just because your shirt has been on fire for a while now does not mean the flames are no longer worthy of mention. If people are truly surprised by this information and not just outraged, that means journalists, including Playbook’s reporters, are failing at their job of informing Americans exactly how corrupt their political system is.
Today’s edition continues:
— YES, guys like Michael Cohen routinely get paid amounts like $1.2 million to offer insights about their boss or former boss. Yeah, it’s crazy. But many readers of this newsletter would not have their McMansion in McLean, their BMW, their membership at Army Navy, second homes in Delaware, cigar lockers and endless glasses of Pinot Noir at BLT Steak and Tosca if that kind of stuff didn’t happen. Newsflash: $1.2 million is not even a rounding error for massive corporations. (The smart companies route these deals through law firms.)
A scintilla of information gives a company an edge. That price tag would be completely worth it for a member of Hill leadership — and intel on Trump is worth much more than that. It seems like Cohen offered squat. See WaPo story on Cohen advising AT&T on Time Warner merger
I do respect the roast of the Playbook reader here, but Playbook cultivated this readership. It exists to serve the BMW-driving class of Washington insiders, and it serves them just as much as the readers serve Playbook by giving them the subscriptions that entice literally Goldman Sachs to sponsor their newsletter. Playbook gives corporations like AT&T and Novartis and their representatives, including the “smart” ones, the intel they need to Win The Day. They make life easier for people whose entire job it is to make America worse on behalf of their corporate paymasters. You don’t get to spend years carefully growing a large readership of bastards and then turn around and say wow, aren’t you guys all bastards?
But most telling is Playbook’s acceptance of the “offering insights” spin that AT&T and Novartis have offered in the wake of the latest Cohen news. It’s true that corporations routinely pay lobbying and consulting firms for “insight” into what politicians are thinking, but for all their posturing as savvy insiders, Playbook is playing at deep naiveté if they think payments like this, routine as they are, are merely for intel-gathering and not straight-up buying influence and access.
— YES, people work for years on the Hill for $60,000 to make three times as much money on K Street to work much shorter days. And, guess what, random 24-year old Hill aide: they don’t like you for your personality. You’re boring and green. They want to know what your boss is talking about, what he’s worked up about and what he’s thinking about on random bill X.
First of all, people often make a lot less than $60,000 for a long time on the Hill. Your first job on the Hill can easily pay $30,000 or less. But again, Playbook betrays its comfortable position nestled among the swamp things here by saying this is Just How Things Work, rather than a continuing threat to democracy.
— YES, people pay for access. It’s called a fundraiser. Why do you think many restaurants in D.C. have five private rooms? Why do you think some companies buy massive townhouses on Capitol Hill? Why do you think members of Congress hold PAC retreats at swanky resorts, and lobbyists go in droves? It ain’t for the camaraderie.
I... know? I don’t imagine many people think fundraisers are about anything other than access, except the liars whose quotes Playbook prints and who they give cover to on a daily basis? Playbook consistently mistakes the public outrage and disgust at the Cohen payments for surprise. The average American already hated Washington for exactly these reasons. The only people who pretend fundraisers are about anything other than access are people who read Playbook religiously—or sponsor it.
— YES, all of the people who say they are against the system participate in it. Yes, the people who rage against the machine are greasing the skids. Watch cable TV, look for a lawmaker who says the system is broken and then take a gander at their campaign finance report. Bet you they have tons of PAC contributions, and tons of lobbyists giving them dough.
All of the people who say they’re against it participate in it? Fact check: Not me, mate! Maybe they’re just talking about the lawmakers they see on cable TV—which is a huge problem in itself. Those aren’t the only people who matter, nor are they the only people who should matter, and a journalistic enterprise predicated on tracking only who’s winning and losing and what soundbite politicians are using today what is doomed to fail readers. It is accurate to say that basically every politician is tainted by big money, but does that give you the right to smugly sit back in your chair and say ugh, you CRETINS, of COURSE that’s how the system works, while—and I can’t stress this enough—accepting a sponsorship from Goldman Sachs?
— AND NO, the swamp is not drained. Give us a break. We’re not defending the status quo — but welcome to reality. This is the campaign finance/lobbying/government system Congress created and D.C. fostered.
Welcome to reality, of which we are the arbiters. Everyone except us, Playbook, created this system in DC; we’re just the ones brave enough to tell you about it—sponsored by Morgan Stanley, which, by the way, of course had nothing to do with the creation of this system.
The conversation around the payments to Cohen is a fine needle to thread: It’s important to acknowledge that this sort of thing does happen all the time without excusing it in any sense. It would seem to be unpalatably radical to admit corruption is baked into every step of Washington decision-making, that the people who sponsor your newsletter are currently using their vast wealth to make America worse, that probably the only way forward is to tear the whole thing down and start again. How can you exist as Politico Playbook if you fully acknowledge the real extent of lobbying and influence in Washington? How can you serve the worst insiders in DC while telling them that they’re snakes? You can’t, so don’t pretend you can have it both ways.