Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mike Allen's productive weirdness

I realize I am predisposed to like this piece because I am a sometimes political journalist, though obviously not on anything like this level, but still let me recommend Mark Leibovich's profile in the New York Times Magazine of Politico's Mike Allen, he of the daily Playbook emails and the dozens upon dozens of scooplets and sometimes real scoops. It's a great piece of magazine writing and a great character study of a really odd and interesting character.

Mike Allen is famous in Washington, which is not the same as being famous-famous, but which still means that there are concentric circles of political junkies who know who he is and already knew many things about him even before this long piece. (I am one of these!)

Here is who he is, or seems to be. He is an extraordinarily successful political journalist. He sends out Politico's Playbook emails early-early each morning, seven days a week, and they are always very long and packed full of interesting/important/agenda-setting national news. He writes a ton of stories, goes on TV all the time and knows everybody in both political parties in Washington. He gets Washington stories that others don't get.

What makes this an interesting magazine profile is that he is also a person who has made professional virtues of every one of his many personal eccentricities: obsessive workaholism, hyper-sociability, total voraciousness toward political information, a desire to write thousands of words every week and no apparent need for regular sleep habits. He is a hoarder, an obsessive rememberer, and he works so much that the people around him routinely worry about is mental and physical well-being.

He is extraordinarily successful, in other words, in part because he is extraordinarily odd.

I see many of my own personal characteristics in this guy: I, too, have an obsessive, workaholic streak, I am more hyperactive and busier than I'd like because, for whatever reason, I am compelled to do what I do, despite certain costs to my personal life. Maybe you also can relate.

But you and I, we are only human. Sometimes we get tired, or we get annoyed, or we temporarily lose our motivation, or don't feel like attending that party or event that we really ought to attend, and we don't keep up those personal relationships that sooner or later will benefit us professionally. Not Mike Allen! Not ever! And look where it's gotten him!

At the same time, you read this piece and you ask yourself, could I ever be like this guy? What is even the point of being like this guy?

What makes this a fascinating profile is that Mike Allen is an absolute outlier in all of these personality traits that are actually fairly common among your driven, ambitious professionals. But in Allen they're maxed out, to the point that they are barely recognizable anymore as the type of standard-issue workaholism and obsessiveness that we lesser political junkies experience. And we are all lesser political junkies than Mike Allen.


A lot is made of the pernicious influence of Politico culture on political culture, and it's not all the way wrong. The scooplet-driven, constant conflict, who's-up-who's-down philosophy that Leibovich critiques does indeed have some big holes to it. Politico is annoying, in other words, and it's often shallow.

But I also think at least some of the criticism of Politico has to be seen as, you know, jealousy and highbrow snobbishness. The fact is that there are political junkies, and they do want to follow all the little ins and outs of the game in the same obsessive way that football fans freak about about the draft and baseball fans want to drill down on every little statistic. Politico, in other words, fills a genuine niche.

The bigger issue is whether who's-up-who's-down political coverage comes at a cost, and I think it's hard to argue that it doesn't. You need a news culture and a political culture that is able to see the bigger picture and not just the minutiae. But I am not sure there is anything mutually exclusive about having some people whose focus is on the minutiae while others are focused on bigger stuff. It makes sense to encourage big-picture thinking, but I am not sure that the existence of play-by-play guys like Mike Allen necessarily make that easier or harder to do. It's always going to be hard.


Saxdrop said...

Ive read some criticism that the piece gets a little too chummy, a little too familiar. And of course Mark explicitly states the nature of his relationship to the subject. But seems to lack a certain NYT dispassion. That said, I found it well written.

I also thought the most valuable part of the piece, other than really trying to catalog Mike's quirks, was the concrete flow-chart it provided on the Washington/media echo chamber. Everyone knows DC is an echo chamber, but Mark was able to cite a specific example of a bit Playbook pushed out, and then how it was picked up that morning by Morning Joe, then CNBC, then...

stridewideman said...

I do think that Politico is damaging to the greater political conversation in the same way that "if it bleeds, it leads" sort of journalism is damaging to journalism as a whole. Allen's insider-y, points-scoring tally sheet will always make more interesting, bite size reading then in depth, nuanced political analysis.

It does have it's place. I couldn't stop reading politico while I was working on the '08 elections, because it was interesting, timely, and often more up to date then anything else. But at the same time, it was always about the score. Very little about the content of the campaigns, the true issue stances that hopefully would lead to one sort of world or another.

For those who are already ideologically divided in to one camp or another, that sort of content makes little difference and so Allen's writing is perfect, as really all we care about is whether our side is winning.

For the huge percentage of the electorate who are currently independent, and seem to genuinely bounce back and forth between major party candidates, it's a real loss when tit-for-tat overtakes the newscycle. Explaining issue stances in depth doesn't play well in the 24-hour news cycle, but political sausage making can and now often does, and I submit that it is to the detriment of the organ of the fourth estate and to the overall decision making process of the electorate as well.

And I live in DC :).