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If you ever need proof that the Beltway media often functions on the level of a high school cafeteria, where weird cliques are formed and the cool kids use their power to keep others in place, look no further than the odd spectacle that unfolded when Politico recently published an absurd gotcha piece targeting Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin.
The paper-thin premise was that the White House is a fan of Rubin’s writing, which often includes calling out misguided coverage of President Joe Biden, and staffers often promote her work online. The relationship is newsworthy, Politico claimed, because years ago Rubin was a conservative. (She bailed on the GOP when Trump arrived.)
Politico also referenced three nameless Post staffers who had unflattering things to say about Rubin’s work. One indignant, and anonymous, colleague insisted, “Jen Rubin is not a good representation of the news coverage of the Washington Post.”
The dopey Politico piece was headlined, “The Jennifer Rubin <--> WH Symbiosis,” suggesting there was something fishy going on between Rubin’s work and the White House; that she functions as a cog in the White House’s p.r. machine.
The gotcha attack also featured Politico’s decision to print an email response Rubin had sent to its reporters, which she indicated was off the record. That move created lots of online chatter about what the guidelines surrounding “off the record” are and if the outlet went out of its way to try to burn Rubin.
For me though, the clear take-away was that a Beltway columnist who writes unapologetically about how the political press often produces awful journalism while covering Biden — the way it hugs the Both Sides narrative and gets played by the GOP — she was thrown a high-and-tight brush-back pitch. Politico sent a message to Beltway insiders that it’s not okay to question the collective Biden coverage. It’s not okay, as Rubin has done, to call out the media’s completely over-the-top and borderline hysterical Afghanistan coverage. And it’s not okay to deride Politico’s brand of click bait journalism, as Rubin likes to do.
Forget about the silly “symbiosis” nonsense that Politico was pushing, since it’s quite normal for an administration to try to boost its advocates in the press when engaging in public debate. The point of the attack piece was to diminish an important voice who has been making Beltway insiders look bad by highlighting media malpractice during Biden’s first eight months in office.
In short, Rubin’s guilty of breaking a DC cardinal rule for the press: Don’t hold each other accountable. And certainly don’t hold journalists accountable when doing it from the left. There’s a reason why there was so little self-reflection after the 2016 election, when the male-dominated political press created an ugly double standard for the first woman nominee.
A long-standing Beltway tradition is that the elite media do not have to answer to progressive critics, and certainly do not have to concede mistakes. Instead, a defensive posture is struck and newsrooms defend their own, even when they come under fire for obvious blunders. But that’s harder to do when voices from inside, like Rubin’s, are the ones calling for accountability. If a columnist for the Washington Post can so clearly find fault with the Biden coverage, that makes it difficult for the Beltway press to claim its coverage is fine and that only fringe voices are being critical.
Which brings us to Politico’s misguided gotcha attempt. Note that Politico didn’t question Rubin’s published work; it didn’t uncover any errors or examples of misinformation. Instead, the premise was Rubin is too cozy with a Democratic White House and that she’s accused of “parroting the administration's critiques of the media.”
For the record, there’s an entire billion-dollar, right-wing media infrastructure that spent the previous four years parroting the Trump administration’s critique of the media. Did Politico ever go after any of those players for their “symbiosis”?
The telltale sign of how Politico was trying to undermine Rubin was the reporters’ decision to publish an email statement she sent them after being contacted about this pending story, which she labeled “OFF THE RECORD.” Politico ignored that and published it anyway, insisting “Since we never agreed to conduct such an off-the-record conversation, we are publishing it below in full.”
The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman rushed in to defend Politico on Twitter, claiming it was common practice to ignore “off the record” requests, such as Rubin’s, if both the reporter and the subject hadn’t agreed to the terms up front.
Anyone want to bet that while covering the Trump White House, sources sent “off the record” quotes to Haberman without setting up the terms first and then she did absolutely nothing with the information, let alone publish it in full with the source’s name attached, because she did not want to burn any Trump sources. Because that’s how Beltway journalism works.
If Rubin’s email were studied in a journalism seminar, participants might conclude Politico acted ethically publishing it. In the real world though, the kind of stunt the news site pulled is only used when engineering a hit piece, which is exactly what Politico published, targeting a columnist who calls out crummy Biden coverage.
The attack sent a clear message — the cool kids in the cafeteria do not approve.
(Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
🧮 GOOD STUFF:
Following up to Friday’s column on how the press is badly overplaying the “Biden Collapse” narrative, take a look at how the good-news-for-Biden poll got played over the weekend:
🎙 EXTRA STUFF:
Had a great time discussing all things media with The Daily Beast’s Molly Jong-Fast. Click on the tweet below for the link to the podcast.
🎧 FUN STUFF:
Eddie Vedder, “Long Way”
Pearl Jam’s lead singer previews his new solo album with this first single, which to my ears sounds like the best Tom Petty song in a decade.
By that, I mean Vedder on “Long Way” seems to be locked in to channeling the late, great rock singer. From the croon, to the catchy mid-tempo highway groove, to Vedder’s backing band which sounds like a note-for-note recreation of The Heartbreakers.
I’m enthralled with all of it.
She was his all and everything
But her strength it needed space
Her love was but a haunting
She left but never went away
🎙 Click here to listen to the music that’s been featured on PRESS RUN, via a Spotify playlist.
Click hereto listen via Apple Music.