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Inside a Divided Politico: Playbook Drama, ‘Woke Police’ Fears, and Union Fights

·13 min read
Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast/Getty

Politico is known for its wildly popular Playbook newsletter, its vast reporting talent pool, and its success as the most widely recognized Beltway-centric publication. But behind the flashy exterior, billion-dollar sale, and massive draw of their star reporters lies a series of burgeoning newsroom conflicts.

From personnel issues, including complaints about internal “woke police,” to a divisive unionization drive, to increasing competition in the profitable D.C. newsletter space, tensions appear to be growing within Politico, which was recently bought by German-based media powerhouse Axel Springer for more than $1 billion.

The Daily Beast spoke with 22 current and former Politico staffers for this story. Many of these sources said it is within Playbook, the outlet’s signature newsletter product, that disharmony has been most apparent.

Helmed by Ryan Lizza, Rachael Bade, Tara Palmeri, and Eugene Daniels—who were cast as larger-than-life superheroes in a splashy January photo shoot and feature in Vanity Fair—the Playbook team has had much success in the calmer post-Trump news era, breaking a string of scoops and garnering tens of thousands of new subscribers and high advertising sales for their daily newsletter, according to three people familiar with the matter. With increased competition from the likes of Axios, The Washington Post’s Five Minute Fix, and Punchbowl, a newsletter launched earlier this year by Playbook alums Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, the pressure to succeed has never been higher.

“We really wanted to push harder both into official Washington and unofficial Washington, and you need a larger team to be able to do that,” Politico’s editor-in-chief Matt Kaminski told Vanity Fair earlier this year about the Playbook quartet.

But sources said the marquee product has its fair share of juicy tabloid-worthy internal drama—much of it centered around conflicts between Daniels, whose reporting generally focuses on Vice President Kamala Harris and First Lady Jill Biden, and Palmeri, a former Page Six reporter and ABC News White House correspondent.

Palmeri and Daniels are often at loggerheads when it comes to the editorial content of the influential newsletter that once commanded Beltway news cycles. Multiple Politico insiders told The Daily Beast that the pair rarely agree on what should be included in the newsletter. Specifically, sources said, the Playbook team has clashed over Daniels’ expressed desire for social justice issues to be at the forefront of coverage.

“Each of us brings different story ideas to the table and Mike Zapler, our editor, determines which to pursue and ultimately publish,” Palmeri told The Daily Beast.

Daniels, for his part, has considered quitting, two people with knowledge of the situation told The Daily Beast. In particular, they said, his sights have been trained on a gig with MSNBC, where he frequently appears as an on-air political analyst. While network insiders acknowledged they've had conversations with Daniels over the possibility of him joining full-time, he recently signed a two-year contract with Politico, according to three sources. “Not only am I under contract with Politico, but I love my job and the people I work with and am not eyeing the exits in any way, shape, or form,” Daniels told The Daily Beast.

Inside the Politico Playbook Shake-Up

Outside of the tensions within its ranks, Playbook has apparently irked others within the Politico organization.

Much to the chagrin of some fellow Politico reporters, the daily email blast—originally launched by Mike Allen, who went on to found Axios with Jim VandeHei—operates with an unusual level of autonomy from the rest of the newsroom.

And some staffers who spoke with The Daily Beast suggested the newsletter has become the ultimate manifestation of a “sugar high” approach to news gathering, with an allegedly increased reliance on “hot takes” and sensationalist subjects. Others suggested that Daniels’ perceived friendly coverage of the vice president—especially as dysfunction and chaos have reportedly consumed her office—has weakened the newsletter’s standing among Beltway insiders. But several other Politico staffers countered by noting how Daniels has been involved in aggressive reporting on Harris.

Meanwhile, Politico founder Robert Allbritton has privately voiced concerns about the content and editorial direction of Playbook, according to two people who’ve heard his critical remarks.

Ultimately, while the newsletter is premised on its access to power, Beltway insiders suggested the product has been somewhat neutered by President Joe Biden’s relatively leak-averse administration.

Multiple people familiar with the situation conveyed to The Daily Beast that Playbook’s frequent attribution claims to senior officials has become something of a running joke in the West Wing due to a belief that the quoted individuals usually lack concrete knowledge about goings-on within the upper echelons of the White House. And three insiders with knowledge of the matter suggested a well-publicized fight between Palmeri and former White House deputy press secretary TJ Ducklo has contributed to a colder relationship.

Despite this perception, Politico has certainly had no trouble getting key Biden officials—White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, Press Secretary Jen Psaki, senior White House advisers Anita Dunn and Cedric Richmond, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm among them—to appear at their Playbook live events.

“The Playbook team of four unique and extraordinary journalists has made this franchise even more of a must-read in 2021 on everything that matters in Washington. You don’t do this kind of critical reporting without upsetting some people,” Kaminski wrote in a statement to The Daily Beast. “No one on the team—not least Tara Palmeri or Eugene Daniels—is driven by ideology in their coverage. They’re great political reporters who deliver original insight and news that readers can’t find elsewhere. Eugene’s reporting on Kamala Harris’s first year in office, both her successes and struggles, has been ahead of the curve consistently including his most recent story about uncertainty within the Democratic party about the Vice President’s electoral future.”

While Playbook remains in an apparent state of strain, elsewhere in the newsroom sparks have allegedly flown over issues surrounding diversity and racial justice.

Seven current Politico reporters who spoke with The Daily Beast claimed the newsroom now centers around younger, more politically “woke” staffers who wield large amounts of influence, especially when it comes to ensuring a more diverse set of voices are featured in the outlet’s reporting.

The new dynamic has ostensibly vexed some of Politico’s older guard, with several staffers perceiving a vigilant “woke police” force within the newsroom. There are “woke police around every corner,” lamented one veteran reporter.

In particular, people with direct knowledge of the matter pointed to a previously unreported March incident that unfolded over an article penned by reporter Gabby Orr on the topic of transgender athletes in women’s sports. According to three people familiar with the matter, two colleagues raised concern about what Orr had written, leading to a Zoom call between the reporter, who has since joined CNN, and Politico’s director of editorial diversity initiatives, Robin Turner, among others. The in-house diversity champion ultimately agreed that the article was not inclusive enough of transgender voices, the people familiar with the matter said. Orr declined to comment on the incident.

100+ Politico Staffers Send Letter to Publisher Railing Against Publishing Ben Shapiro

That situation came on the heels of a major controversy just two months prior, in which Politico staffers fumed over management’s decision to allow right-wing firebrand Ben Shapiro to take the reins of the Playbook newsletter for a day. Kaminski initially stood by running “every word,” claiming that publishing the career bomb-thrower was part of the “mischief making [that] has always been a part of Politico’s secret sauce.” He continued to defend the editorial choice in a contentious staff-wide Zoom meeting. In response, more than 100 staffers sent a letter to Politico’s publisher asking for an apology and a commitment to increased newsroom diversity.

The term “woke police” has seemingly found some footing among the now mostly virtual newsroom. Unionized Politico staffers have, at various points, been forced to address concerns about it after the term was initially referenced during a meeting in which union staffers pitched unionization to several White House reporters.

“Are you guys the woke police?” read one question on a union FAQ handout reviewed by The Daily Beast. “No,” the collective bargaining unit responded, “We are trying to get people paid fairly and protect their benefits.”

The unionization drive among Politico staff itself continues to be a point of contention within the newsroom.

Organizing leaders see the formation of a Politico union, officially called “PEN Guild”—under the Communications Workers of America and NewsGuild, which also represents staff at The Daily Beast, including this story’s reporters—as a preventative measure to ensure the newsroom remains an equitable workplace. But some staffers, especially those of the outlet’s older guard, have expressed concerns about the unionization effort.

While union advocates point to strength in numbers, especially under new ownership, several veteran reporters who spoke with The Daily Beast argued that talk among staffers about pushing to be allowed to attend “activist marches” in a personal capacity could spell trouble for an institution claiming the mantle of a non-partisan news operation. “The PEN Guild has never advocated for reporters to be allowed to attend activist marches,” a union spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “This is a conversation that existed in the newsroom before the union effort began, and though an employee inquired about it once in a group chat, it has never been part of our organizing activities.”

And although 80 percent of the newsroom overwhelmingly supported the union’s formation, this unorganized group of staffers, all of whom spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations, grumbled about how the union outreach was conducted.

Self-appointed union leaders failed to reach out to numerous members of the Politico newsroom, these people familiar with the matter claimed, with most of their outreach allegedly aimed towards younger staffers. More senior staffers suggested to The Daily Beast that the union’s failure to initially invite them to join a unit-wide group chat on encrypted messaging app Signal was a clear sign of PenGuild not being “inclusive.” At the end of October, three current Politico reporters were removed from the Signal chat for having not yet signed on as supporters. Acknowledging these staffers were given the boot, a union spokesperson told The Daily Beast that those kicked out “continue to be notified about union news through other channels, like email and individual communication.”

The union’s statement continued: “The PEN Guild reached out to everyone we believed to be eligible for the unit, including those we knew would oppose the unionization effort. Those conversations occurred over the course of ten months, as the organizing effort progressed toward attaining 80 percent support across the newsroom.”

The unionization efforts have largely been led by Politico Pro staffers, many of whom are paid less than the average Politico journalist but generate half of the publications revenue in the form of subscriptions with an annual price tag upwards of $10,000. Joining forces with reporters at E&E News, a smaller publication acquired by Politico late last year, Pro staffers led the charge to make a union palatable for most colleagues.

New York Times’ Star Reporters Push Back Against Union

Top editors announced in September last year they would be one big happy family under the banner of “One POLITICO,” in an announcement that was designed to quell internal unrest, according to two people familiar with the matter.

“Going forward, we’ll group people together based on what they do—not on which business unit their team was initially created to support,” the memo to staff read. “So, for example, there will be Pro subscribers (we want more of them), but no more Pro reporters or editors. We’ll elevate our work on policy, on the states and internationally. We’ll look harder for different and surprising stories and ways to tell them… to stay the best on Washington and politics… and to make some mischief.”

That announcement fell flat with Pro staffers and only emboldened those agitating to unionize. Initially, the organizing efforts were not well-received by Allbritton. “If you’re working in a warehouse, it makes sense,” the media mogul told The New York Times at the end of August. “But when you’re talking about smart folks who are using their minds for a very creative project, I don’t get it.”

But the union ultimately achieved its recognition goal. On Nov. 9, the two parties struck a deal to voluntarily recognize the organizing unit. Kaminski, the top editor, declared in a staff-wide email that “overwhelming support” was on the side of the workers.

In his statement to the Beast, Kaminski added: “Journalists come to POLITICO because they want to break news, have impact, and be authoritative on the stories they cover. What we’ve heard from PenGuild is that they want to make this great publication even greater—an ambition that we enthusiastically share, and we look forward to discussions about ways to do that.”

Over the last six months, Politico has lost a string of top editors, raising questions about its future direction.

Longtime editor Carrie Budoff Brown, whom staffers described as beloved by the newsroom, left in June to serve as senior vice president of NBC’s Meet the Press, while managing editor Blake Hounshell and senior editor and former executive editor Paul Volpe recently both defected to The New York Times.

A number of Politico reporters claimed to The Daily Beast that if Brown were still around, the union may never have needed to form. Her long-running work as a “stabilizing force” for the newsroom would likely have eased the tensions that led to an organizing effort.

And with competition like Axios and Punchbowl making further inroads in covering Beltway power circles, and a relatively leak-free Biden camp making work difficult for the genre, multiple people with knowledge of the situation fretted that Playbook’s relevancy may be in decline.

Despite current and former Politico staffers questioning the future direction of the outlet, the publication's top editor remains optimistic.

“For 15 years now, POLITICO has inspired strong feelings and been something of a lightning rod for our media competitors and those we cover day-in, day-out. It’s also true that the publication is at a transformative moment, starting at the top with new owners at Axel Springer,” Kaminski wrote in a statement. “I know there are some jitters in the newsroom about that and other changes here, and that’s natural, and something we talk about openly. But we’ve never been stronger as a business or editorially, have welcomed amazing new talent this year and will bring in more in weeks to come, including into top editing ranks. Last month’s sale cemented POLITICO’s place as the most successful digital journalistic enterprise of the 21st Century. We’re now embarking on a new leg of POLITICO’s journey to grow the publication substantially and make us the digital media leader in centers of power here in the U.S. and globally.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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