Hugh and John F. Harris of Politico about the ideology shift at Politico.
HH: Joined now by John Harris, editor of Politico.com. Hello, John, welcome, and thanks for joining me.
JH: Yeah, by all means, Hugh. Happy to be on.
HH: John, I wrote a piece on Saturday which occasioned a lot of comment.
JH: I saw it. I saw it. You’ve got friends out there who have email accounts, Hugh. I got a bunch of those sent to me.
HH: All right. What’s your reaction?
JH: I thought you were way off base. That’s why I was eager to come on.
HH: Well, I said, for the benefit of the audience, that Politico has become anti-conservative, and anti-Republican in two short years. I was working specifically…
JH: Oh, it’s absurd. Anyway, I’m here to disabuse you of that. But go ahead. Lay out your argument, and then I’ll rebut it.
HH: Let’s start with that day’s coverage, which I went to. So we’ll work from the specific back to the general. I pointed to Joe Scarborough’s column on the Tucson shootings, followed by a comparison of some headline such as “Retreads still drive GOP agenda”, “GOP event dodges immigration fight”, “Jeb Bush, GOP incredibly stupid to ignore Hispanics”, and contrasted it with “Administration reunites Clinton Centrists”, not retreads, “Obama’s speech recalls Reagan.” And I said this is typical. First of all, are those day’s headlines typical?
JH: Well look, you know what, if you want to take out the magnifying glass on any given day and to textual analysis, Hugh, and we’ll put together a focus group about how which words strike which people here which way, I think on any given day, you could argue anything you want. You could it round, you could argue it square, you could argue it flat. We were very proud of our exhaustive coverage of the Arizona tragedy. We covered it from many angles. Now that became, in very short order, it became a politically charged moment, as we all know, and we gave, in our reporting, we gave full airing to people on the right and the left about what they thought about this. Now you’ve rattled off a couple of things. It sounds like you may have an argument with Jeb Bush. I’m calling you from down here in Florida. You should probably try to get Jeb Bush on the air and have an argument with him, or Joe Scarborough. Joe is not on our news staff. He’s one of two opinion columnists that we have. It sounds like you could have an argument with him. I don’t think your argument is with me or with the news professionals who report and edit for Politico, and whose work is very often highlighted on your show, of which I’m deeply appreciative.
HH: Oh, yeah. I like, as I said, I have Mike Allen on and Ben Smith. But here’s, let’s walk through it one issue at a time. I’m not criticizing, I didn’t even discuss your coverage of the Tucson shooting. I criticized Joe Scarborough…
JH: Oh, I took that as an opportunity for a plug of my own.
HH: Yeah, okay. I criticized Joe Scarborough’s column. Are you proud of that column? Does it represent anyone else on the conservative side of the opinion ledger’s reaction to that event?
JH: Again, I don’t tell Joe Scarborough what to write. We recruited him to be one of our two opinion columnists, because he is a Republican on many issues. He is a…he represents a conservative orientation. I don’t think he’s ever said or argued that he’s a down-the-line conservative, in the same way that Michael Kinsley, who argues on our pages from the left, would ever say that he’s a doctrinaire liberal. So I don’t expect those opinion columnists to be doctrinaire. In fact, I’d be disappointed if they were. But yes, I’m sure many of Joe Scarborough’s views do resonate with conservatives. I would expect that column, which didn’t resonate with you, but did in fact resonate with some others.
HH: Did anyone praise that, because I do want to talk specifically about what Joe wrote, because it kicked it off, and ask your reaction to it. Joe said at one point that, “We can’t afford to miss this warning. As I have said for years now, hateful words have consequences. As Giffords presciently warned less than a year ago, so does the violent imagery that has infected our politics. The feedback loop of hate speech has created an angry environment that inspires the most troubled. Do you agree with that, John Harris?
JH: I have not seen evidence, and certainly we haven’t reported any at Politico, that draws a linkage to any specific rhetoric, political or otherwise, that inspired the very troubled young man out in Arizona to do what he did. So my job is not opinion. That’s Scarborough’s opinion.
HH: I understand that…
JH: That’s Scarborough’s job, and so I don’t…
HH: But if my thesis…
JH: I wouldn’t necessarily endorse what Joe wrote, but you’re not asking me to endorse it, I think.
HH: No, I’m asking you if Politico does a good job of covering center-right opinion, or has fallen into the ditch by having Joe Scarborough represent the conservative point of view on your opinion column, he isn’t a conservative anymore, and whether or not you feel that there is justified criticism of what’s going on in your headlines, and your choice of story. Have you heard it other than me, John?
JH: You’re the one that’s really been chewing on this, Hugh. And I respect you, and I appreciate the fact that you regularly cite our stories, have our reporters on, not just Mike Allen. I’ve been on before, Jonathan Martin has been mentioned, and I think on your show. And you’re interested in our reporting, presumably because we report aggressively on both sides. There’d be no value to our news reporting if we didn’t do that.
HH: But have you heard from others besides me, that they believe Politico has been pulled left?
JH: I have not.
HH: You’ve not heard from anyone?
JH: I have not. I have heard from a bunch of people who sent your blog post or your column the other day on, Hugh.
HH: And no one else, though?
JH: So you’ve got an audience of followers. That’s why I take your views seriously.
HH: But I’m just curious. I’m the only one out there who said John, when you publish a headline that says retreads still drive GOP agenda on the same day you publish another headline that says administration reunited Clinton centrists?
JH: Well, you’re just comparing apples and oranges, Hugh. The retreads was a reference to ideas and proposals that were making a return engagement.
HH: Did you see that story?
JH: The Clinton thing was about the Clinton staffers.
HH: Wait, wait.
JH: But you know what? If you’re in that job…
JH: What’s that? Go ahead.
HH: Time out. Under old guard still drive GOP agenda, the retread story, you have two pictures of Newt Gingrich. Two pictures of Newt. And I’m looking at it right now. Under the Clinton story, you say reunites Clinton centrists. That’s just one example from the same day of the Scarborough story, and from the same day as the immigration story. And I think…are you guys tone deaf as to how this strikes conservatives, that you really have started to almost routinely flog them?
JH: Well, look. Anybody can have an argument on any given day’s headlines. And if we were having an honest argument, there would be some days where I think you would say oh, I don’t see…I can see how that happened, I perfectly get the understanding. And there would be days where I’d say you know what? We could have had a better choice of words there. What’s important to me, and where I really did take vigorous exception to your column, Hugh, is that you were suggesting some kind of ideological agenda onto the news professionals…
HH: Oh, I think it’s there, John.
JH: …that work at Politico. And that’s just no the case.
HH: I think…I mean, Jonathan Allen went to work for Deborah, help me out here.
JH: Debbie Wasserman Schultz. That’s right.
HH: Debbie Wasserman Schultz. And she’s as hard left as they come, and he immediately comes back to Politico. You don’t think that affects his coverage? You don’t think that reflects the newsroom?
JH: Hugh, I’ve made judgments that when we hire people at Politico, we have expectations of their performance. And they have responsibilities that they embrace, that are different than if they were working somewhere else. So I’ve hired people to report for us who used to report for the National Review. That’s a conservative publication. You’ve heard of it?
HH: When we come back from break…
JH: And that doesn’t bother me, because their responsibilities at Politico are different than if they were working at National Review.
HH: When I come back from break…
JH: I, by the same token, have hired an editor who used to work at Salon, a liberal publication.
HH: Okay, question when I come back from break…
JH: I don’t care about their background. I care about their performance.
HH: John, I’ve got to go to break. I’ve got to go to break. I want to come back to you. I hope you can stick for another segment. I want to ask you. Have you ever hired a reporter who worked for a conservative political action committee when we return to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
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HH: My proposition is, and I’m joined by John Harris, editor of Politico.com, that in the four years since its launch, Politico has marched steadily left, and that Joe Scarborough is not a representative conservative columnist, but that their reporters as well, and their headline writers, have begun to allow the bias to seep through. We went to break, John Harris, I asked you if you had anyone who had worked for a political action committee like Jonathan Allen had worked for Debbie Wasserman Schultz’ political action committee, if you had any of your staff had ever worked for a Republican political action committee.
JH: Well, I’ve had members of my staff work for Republican political candidates. I don’t know whether they worked for political action committees.
HH: Which one would that be?
JH: Jonathan Martin, who in an earlier career, was interested in being a political operative, and then decided that he’s got news in his blood.
HH: Well, that’s important for…
JH: And he made the right choice, and we’re better for…
HH: I say Martin’s a good guy. Which candidate? Which right winger did he work for?
JH: Republicans up in Connecticut. The name escapes me.
HH: All right. I’ll look further into that. Now let me ask you as well, when Joe Scarborough writes this, you’re the editor of the website, so in many respects, John, you own it. It says, Joe writes, “No one should give a free pass to talk show hosts and their political guests who have spent the last several years spreading hate speech in search of big ratings, political contributions, and book sales.” He doesn’t name anyone. Are you aware of anyone who you believe has been spreading hate speech in the past several years for big ratings, political contributions and book sales?
JH: Hugh, I do think that there is an industry on both sides of the political spectrum that profits from, in direct and indirect ways, from stating political arguments in the most incendiary fashion. I don’t think I would describe it as hate speech. But I do think…
HH: But your lead conservative columnist…
JH: I do think that there is not just an appetite for, but a market for extreme rhetoric. But I don’t think that’s confined to either one side or the other on the political spectrum.
HH: In the middle…but I mean, you don’t see a problem in the middle of the debate over the responsibility for violence in America, your lead conservative columnist, Joe Scarborough, who I argue about his credentials, yes, a Republican Congressman, but he’s MSNBC, he’s gone left himself, and he’s a fine guy. He’s a nice guy. But he writes something this inflammatory about hate speech, doesn’t name anyone. I ask you, and you don’t name anyone. Is that good journalism?
JH: Look, I think, I’m all in favor of naming names. Our opinion columnists at Politico have wide latitude to make their arguments as they see fit. And you have wide latitude to criticize them.
HH: But you haven’t…
JH: Again, you’ve got a problem with Joe. Try and get him on the air.
HH: No, I’ve got a…with you, John. You’re the editor, and I just asked you to name a name, and you agreed that there are people out there. Who are you talking about? And what is it that they said is hate speech?
JH: I don’t think that’s what I said. Didn’t I say the opposite, that I don’t use the term hate speech. I think that’s inflammatory.
HH: Well, you said extreme.
JH: But I do think that there are, I do think there are voices on the right and left who deliberately pose arguments in the most incendiary…
HH: Who are they, John? Who are they, and what is it that you’re talking about?
JH: (pause) Look, I’m not making any arguments about the Arizona murder. I came on to answer questions about Politico coverage, not to get in an argument with particular columnists or commentators on the right or the left.
HH: All right.
JH: If you disagree with me, that’s fine. But I happen to believe that.
HH: I’m saying in the middle of, well, I think you understand my argument.
JH: I just have no particular interest in picking a fight. I’m not an opinion columnist. If someday I retire and become an opinion columnist for Politico, I’ll pick public fights. But as the editor of Politico…
HH: John, your bio…
JH: I have a responsibility, that’s why I’m here now, to defend our news coverage.
HH: John, your bio says…I know.
JH: I don’t have a responsibility to get into public arguments with others on your show.
JH: …even though it’s a show that I respect as much as yours, Hugh.
HH: Your bio says at Politico, we at Politico, I’m including you at Politico, “have assembled a team of reporters and editors who will wake up each day looking for fresh ways to attack the best political stories in and around Capitol Hill, and then in the 2008 campaign trail.” I don’t think that’s hate speech. I don’t think that’s violent or incendiary. I think that’s metaphor.
HH: And I…do you agree with me?
JH: I do.
JH: And what’s more, I probably agree with you, Hugh, that I think there was a lot of bombast in the early reaction to the Arizona tragedy. And I think some of the bombast was quite irresponsible.
HH: Where in Politico was that said, because that’s what conservatives said. There isn’t anything I can find on your website that made that argument. In fact, your conservative columnist did exactly what the most radical voices did, and accused conservatives of spreading hate speech without naming names, in what was a group attack on people in broadcast, who are attacking stories. I’ve got 30 seconds, John. Go ahead.
JH: Look, you can go through our news coverage, and you’ll find plenty of conservative voices that made that argument and were quoted. I don’t have a fast clip here in front of me. I’m calling you from down in Florida. But that argument was there, and reflected in our pages.
HH: All right. We have to continue this conversation, John. I very much appreciate your coming on. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you. But Politico’s got a problem, and I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks it. Thank you, John Harris.
End of interview.