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Clear it with SidneyHow our blog got its name >

Notes on journalism for the common good
by Lindsay Beyerstein

How our blog got its name

Sidney Hillman was a powerful national figure during the Great Depression, a key supporter of the New Deal, and a close ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

When the rumor spread that President Roosevelt ordered his party leaders to “clear it with Sidney” before announcing Harry S. Truman as his 1944 running mate, conservative critics turned on the phrase, trumpeting it as proof that the president was under the thumb of “Big Labor.”

Over the years, the phrase lost its sting and became a testament to Hillman's influence.

It's hard to imagine a labor leader wielding that kind clout today, but we like the idea—and we hope Sidney would give thumbs up to our blog.

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The Most Important Reporter in America (but only for one news cycle)

Above the Fold

     If you’re looking for one article that encapsulates everything that’s wrong about mainstream journalism in general and Washington journalism in particular, don’t miss Mark Leibovich’s 8,100 word love letter  to Mike Allen on the cover of tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine.

    The theme of the piece is that Allen’s Playbook on Politico is the new bible of the Washington establishment, the must-stop shopping spot in the morning for everyone who wants to know what is going to be “driving the conversation” in the nation’s capital that day. (Times readers seem to have been instantly convinced: Two days after Leibovich’s piece was posted on the Times website, Allen reported that 7,500 new subscribers had signed up for Playbook's morning e-mail.)

    Allen has all the talents needed to make him a superstar on the Internet–he seems to work about 23 hours a day, he has a good eye for a telling detail, and his morning summary of the must-read stories in the MSM is as competent as anybody else’s.  Serious analysis of an issue is not something he has ever excelled at--but that talent is completely irrelevant to  his current craft. 

   Allen has no known personal life, apart from attending an endless round of Washington love fests, kissing women’s hands and sending flowers to almost every acquaintance on his or her birthday--in short, all of the talents honed for generations by great Washington PR men on all sides of the aisle,  from  Mike Deaver to Bob Strauss.  As Leibovich puts it, “[Allen's]mannerisms resemble an almost childlike mimicry of a politician — the incessant thanking, deference, greetings, teeth-clenched smiles and ability to project belief in the purity of his own voice and motivations.”

    Or as a former Allen colleague put it to FCP, “He lives to please authority”–which is probably the single worst quality a serious reporter can have.

    Has Allen ever had a girl friend, or a boy friend?  Apparently 8,000 + words weren’t enough to allow Leibovich to ask or answer those questions.   For the record, Allen’s friends told FCP he has had a few, short-term girl friends, but he seems to get most of his emotional sustenance from the “nondenominational Protestant church and a Bible-study group” he belongs to,  which Leibovich does manage to mention.

    But even if you don’t think that one of the longest profiles you have ever read should tell you much of anything about the subject’s personal life, except for the fact that he is so secretive that most of his closest friends don’t even know his home address, that is far from the biggest failure of this piece.

    While you do learn that “the political and news establishments love him,” that “the feeling is mutual and somewhat transactional,” and–according to Leibovich--“throughout his career, he has been known as an unfailingly fair, fast and prolific reporter,” what you don’t learn is the other side of the story: the fact that Allen is deeply loathed by the liberal blogosphere, for repeatedly acting as Dick Cheney’s stenographer, and for conducting an interview with then-president George W. Bush which prompted Dan Froomkin to ask on the Washington Post’s website, “Has there ever been a more moronic interview of a president of the United States than the one conducted yesterday by Mike Allen?" 

    Sample Allen fastball to Bush:  “Now, Mr. President, you and the First Lady appeared on American Idol's charity show, Idol Gives Back.  And I wonder who do you think is going to win? Syesha, David Cook, or David Archuleta?

    To his credit, Leibovich does explain why his piece is so wholly inadequate, but not until you are 2,000 words into it:

    I should disclose a few things: I have known Mike Allen for more than a decade. We worked together at The Washington Post, where I spent nine years and where I came to know VandeHei and Harris. We all have the same friends and run into each other a lot, and I have told them how much I admire what they have achieved at Politico. I like them all.  In other words, I write this from within the tangled web of “the community.” I read Playbook every morning on my BlackBerry, usually while my copies of The New York Times and The Washington Post are in plastic bags. When Allen links to my stories, I see a happy uptick in readership. I have also been a source: after I “spotted” Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner at an organic Chinese restaurant in my neighborhood last year — picking up kung pao chicken with brown rice (“for Tim”) — I dutifully e-mailed Allen with the breaking news.

    In other words, if Leibovich had the slightest notion of what someone as hopelessly old-fashioned as FCP considers journalistic “ethics,” he never would have considered himself qualified to write this profile for The New York Times Magazine.   The even deeper mystery is why his editors didn’t realize that either.  Or why they permitted this extraordinary display of boastful journalistic laziness:

    “I asked Allen if I could talk to his siblings. He said he would consider it and maybe set up a conference call but never did. I did not press. It felt intrusive.”

    So there you have it: never interview a members of a subject’s family, unless he produces them for you in a conference call!

    For the record, FCP’s first instruction to every journalism student he has ever taught about how to write a profile is: never write one until you have interviewed at least one member of your subject’s immediate family.  Whether or not you are being “intrusive” is not a question any serious journalist would ever ask himself in this circumstance.  (On the other hand, asking the parent of the victim of an airplane crash, "How do you feel?" is another matter altogether.)

    FCP does retain a faint hope that Leibovich did not actually do what he said he did, since the only important scoop in his piece is about Allen’s father, a person none of Allen’s friends seems to have known anything about, until Leibovich unearthed these nuggets.  Perhaps this information actually came from one of Mike Allen’s siblings, but Leibovich didn’t want his subject to know that:

    “Gary Allen was an icon of the far right in the 1960s and 1970s. He was affiliated with the John Birch Society and railed against the 'big lies' that led to the United States’ involvement in World Wars I and II. He denounced the evils of the Trilateral Commission and 'Red Teachers.'  Rock’n’roll was a 'Pavlovian Communist mind-control plot.'  He wrote speeches for George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama and presidential candidate.”

    In Leibovich's defense, if you manage to get six thousand words into this unfortunate specimen of hagiography, you will learn the real contribution of Politico and its star reporter to political discourse in America, in this rare paragraph of  "balance."  According to Mark Salter, a former chief of staff and top campaign aide to John McCain, it is this:

     “They have taken every worst trend in reporting, every single one of them, and put them on rocket fuel,” Salter says. “It’s the shortening of the news cycle. It’s the trivialization of news. It’s the gossipy nature of news.  It’s the self-promotion.”

    No wonder The New York Times has now anointed Mike Allen one of the most influential journalists in America.  For twenty-four hours.





Update: The New Yorker's George Packer compares  Allen's contributions with those of Nay Phone Latt, a young Burmese blogger honroed by PEN, now in the second year of a 12-year prison sentence.   The effect is stunning.


Good piece Charles. I remember the good old days, when the Times magazine was merely mediocre.


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