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The Ideological Emptiness of “PlayBook”

The controversy over Politico’s decision to publish Ben Shapiro reveals the lengths media outlets will go to prove they listen to both sides.


Ben Shapiro almost certainly got what he wanted out of a stint guest-hosting Politico’s flagship “Playbook” newsletter last Thursday. His turn at the helm—he followed Chris Hayes, Ken Burns, Yamiche Alcindor, James Bennet, and others, all of whom were filling in before a new quartet takes over on Inauguration Day—was, by his standards, unspectacular. Shapiro, who at 37 resembles a sadistic junior camp counselor, has in the past claimed that 800 million Muslims were “radicalized” around the world and that Arabs “like to live in open sewage,” while suggesting that Trayvon Martin deserved to be murdered. In “Playbook,” however, he merely argued that Republicans oppose Trump’s impeachment because “members of the opposing political tribe want their destruction, not simply to punish Trump for his behavior.”

He also said that companies that had stopped donating to Republicans who had attempted to overthrow the election results were hypocrites for continuing to donate to Democrats who supported last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.

A staff revolt followed, and a company-wide call about the controversy had over 300 participants. “Ben Shapiro is a racist, he’s not a journalist. We wasted our readers’ time with that piece because it included inaccurate information that wasn’t based on reporting. Not only was it not based on reporting, it directly undermined and was countered by” Politico’s own reporters, one person on the call reportedly argued. “It’s not just that he’s incendiary or conservative,” said another. “It’s that he sells falsehoods as an incendiary persona.”

Some defended the decision by suggesting that Shapiro and Hayes, an MSNBC host, were ideological analogues, a comparison that both demeans Hayes and overlooks the strongest argument against Shapiro. The problem isn’t that he traffics in opinion, but in bad faith arguments and lies.

Shapiro was practically gleeful, tweeting for the next two days about how Politico’s employees were “proving his point” about liberal demands to ostracize Republicans such as himself. On Friday, his website The Daily Wire announced it was sending glass tumblers inscribed with the words “liberal tears” to 225 Politico employees.

What did Politico get out of it? Giving Shapiro a run at “Playbook” was at best a bit of stunt-casting, at worse a kind of troll. “Mischief has always been a part of Politico’s secret sauce,” editor Matt Kaminski told staffers, citing the amount of attention that Shapiro’s column received. (This is a statement that demands a citation. The idea that Politico and especially “Playbook”—a favor-trading, access-driven newsletter sponsored by companies like Chevron—is mischievous or playful is at best debatable.) Politico also shored up its reputation as an outfit that is friendly to all political persuasions. People may criticize the mainstream media for not listening to conservative voices, but you can’t say that about Politico—hell, it just handed its most important asset to Ben Shapiro.

Backing Shapiro—and, in the process, alienating large portions of Politico’s young staff—only enhances the case that it’s an outlet that won’t be bossed around by the woke. The decision to feature Bennet, whose tenure at The New York Times ended amid a similar staff revolt, could also be read as a subtler way of making the same point.

“What sets Politico apart in this intense political and media moment is that we rise above partisanship and ideological warfare even as many seek to drag us into it,” Kaminski wrote in a statement. “It’s a core value of the publication that is unchangeable and that above all protects our ability to do independent journalism. It is a part of our mission.”

It’s a statement that is practically bowing under the weight of its contradictions. It’s not immediately clear, for instance, how handing over the organization’s most important piece of real estate to a partisan flamethrower is part of a mission to “rise above partisanship and ideological warfare.” Kaminski’s statement, moreover, was released precisely because Politico had been drawn into partisanship and ideological warfare. Finally, there’s the suggestion that Politico’s critics are upset about the outlets publishing conservative voices—that attacks on Shapiro are really about silencing the right. But Politico had already exemplified its commitment to hearing from the right when Eliana Johnson, an ex-Politico journalist who now edits the conservative Washington Free Beacon, guested at “Playbook” with little controversy—suggesting the problem was with Shapiro and not ideological diversity per se.

One could argue that an outlet devoted to an unbiased approach that transcends partisanship would steer well clear of the likes of Ben Shapiro. What Politico is actually doing here is performing a lack of bias—which in our current media environment means giving space to bad faith bullshit. It reveals that Politico is still more than willing to be a stenographer for bad faith actors, even in a moment in which one of the country’s two main parties has gone insane. In this sense, what Shapiro actually says is secondary to the fact that Politico is happy to have him.

This is all in keeping with the legacy of “Playbook.” Although “Playbook” is devoted to who holds power in Washington, it has never taken much interest in judging how that power is wielded or in holding it to account. What matters is who’s up and who’s down—and, of course, which multinational corporation is sponsoring. Shapiro’s guest spot is embarrassing, but then again so is “Playbook.”