Opinion

This is how journalists become pro-Trump propagandists

It starts with a party platter from Walmart

Journalists like to flatter themselves as being a vital part of democracy. In movies like All the President's Men and Spotlight, they are bold truth-tellers holding the powerful to account. Indeed, that is how some journalists behave. But there's another side of journalism, a more seamy and unpleasant side: that of the courtier press, hacks always ready to serve those in power. Donald Trump — who has repeatedly whipped up hatred against reporters at his rallies and speculated about opening up libel laws to make them easier to sue — is a clear and present danger to morally upstanding journalism. But for the hacks and lickspittles, Trump is an opportunity. There is status to be had, and money to be made, abasing themselves before the new regime.

For the prime example of this latter breed, look no further than Mike Allen. Trump is going to take power soon, and what is Allen doing? Tweeting pictures of a friendly off-the-record gathering at his Mar-a-Lago estate between various journalists and the Trump entourage. None of Trump's slanders of the press, or contempt for democratic norms, will stop the practitioners of access journalism. He hasn't held a real press conference since July, but all it takes to get this crowd warmed up for President Trump is what appears to be a party platter from Walmart.

This is nothing new from Allen, perhaps the most morally compromised journalist in Washington, D.C. (and that is saying something). Until recently, Allen was most well-known as the author of "Playbook," a Politico email newsletter consisting of day-old links to political stories, birthday notices for the D.C. power elite, some humanizing sports trivia, and lavish praise of Joe Scarborough. It's just the sort of faux-sophisticated, insidery, elite-flattering content that the political establishment breathes day in and day out, and it was an enormous success.

It was also more or less a pay-for-play operation. As Eric Wemple of The Washington Post discovered with a bit of simple searching, it was all but impossible to distinguish the paid advertising sections — obtained at a whopping $35,000 per week back in 2013 — from the worshipful glosses of the same organizations that Allen would write in his own voice. (Wags remarked that it should be called "PayolaBook.")

But now Allen has left Politico, along with co-founder Jim VandeHei, to found something called "Axios," funded by a big pile of venture capital. It apparently means "worthy" in Greek, and its motto will be: "Media is broken — and too often a scam." Yeah, no kidding.

Journalists like Allen are often called centrists. Though they often espouse political centrism, and are especially huge pro-austerity partisans (while pretending to be ideology-free), it's not a completely accurate description. What they are, at their core, is worshipers of power, regardless of the party who holds it. There is no doubt whatsoever that had Clinton won the election, Allen and company would be pulling the same stunt. Indeed, through a records request, Gawker once found Allen attempting to get an interview with Chelsea Clinton by promising "no risk" softball questions and indeed helping her formulate the topics: "I would work with you on topics, and would start with anything she wants to cover or make news on. Quicker than a network hit, and reaching an audience you care about with no risk."

As Alex Pareene once wrote, "Allen is so hopelessly embedded within the establishment that he can't cover it in a remotely fair way."

But the election of Trump changes the logic of this sort of access journalism. Clinton had her share of problems, but she was fundamentally a status quo politician. Bending over backwards so as to preserve insider access would still be grotesque journalism, but it wouldn't really change much from the Obama years.

Trump, on the other hand, is a radical outsider who is signaling loudly that he will transform the entire federal government into an instrument of self-enrichment. What's more, he comes completely unglued at the slightest criticism in the press; he will no doubt demand total obsequiousness if any journalist is to remain on good terms with him — and it will no doubt be highly profitable for those who can manage it.

Allen and his cohort will have to become outright propagandists in favor of Trump — and if history and current practice is any guide, they'll do just that.

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