Politico correspondent Mike Allen has insisted that his obsequious attempts to secure an interview with Chelsea Clinton, in which Allen promised to conduct a “no risk” exchange and to clear interview questions beforehand, did not reflect his normal practices or Politico’s editorial standards. New emails obtained by Gawker, however, indicate Allen has repeatedly offered similar terms to at least one politician on Capitol Hill.
Earlier this week, Allen appeared to come clean about his pledge to provide positive coverage of the former First Daughter: “I said I’d agree to the questions in advance. I have never done that, and would never do that.” But in the same breath, he offered an expansive defense of his interview series with Washington figures as “spontaneous” and unscripted. “We challenge guests to address newsworthy topics, and to be original, relevant and revelatory,” he wrote. “A scripted back-and-forth would be a snore.... My bond with readers and newsmakers is built on knowing I don’t pull punches.”
But in seven emails sent in 2011 and 2012 to a senior Democratic lawmaker’s office in hopes of securing a live interview, Allen assured the opposite of a spontaneous, unscripted exchange. Instead, he repeatedly pitched a “no surprises” interview whose topics would be explicitly limited to those the lawmaker was already “comfortable discussing,” and cast himself as a “low risk” alternative to the “high-wire act of a Sunday show.”
From: Mike Allen
We have chatted in the past about Playbook Breakfast as a great potential forum for [the senior Democratic lawmaker]. The innovative format gets big pickup in traditional and social media, and it’s a convenient, high-impact, low-risk way for [the senior Democratic lawmaker] to put [their] frame and stamp on a busy summer. We have a Breakfast next week, and we would be honored if [the senior Democratic lawmaker] might consider participating. We could keep it to 30 minutes, and it could be Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, at your convenience. I would take your cues on the messages and topics you want to emphasize. [Other lawmakers] all got great coverage from their Playbook Breakfast appearances and enjoyed the format, which allows the guest to show a human side as part of an extremely substantive conversation. To refresh your memory about the format:
—It’s a relaxed conversation in side-by-side chairs on a classy, Charlie Rose-ish set on the Newseum’s HD set
—an efficient way to deliver your message, drive the agenda, frame conversation
—event is livestreamed, and attended by an influential audience from the Hill, downtown, media, etc.
—“no surprises” interview: big reach and impact, without the high-wire act of a Sunday show
In this and other messages, Allen took care to emphasize the “no surprises” aspect of his interviews. “No surprises: I would stick to the subjects we discussed — no prep: all subjects [the senior Democratic lawmaker] is comfortable discussing,” Allen wrote in one. “I have a long track record of ‘no surprises.’ ... I’d love to chat about how we could maximize your comfort,” he wrote in another. Despite such highly favorable terms, the interview with the lawmaker never panned out.
It’s not as if Allen is incapable of asking pointed questions. He once asked the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, “It sounds like Republicans are less afraid of you now. Are you like Frosty? Are you melting, losing your power before our very eyes?” But as his emails to the senior Democratic lawmaker demonstrate, Allen and his subjects tend to be wary of any unmanaged spontaneity. When Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel blew up during a Playbook Breakfast interview on Wednesday, after Allen mentioned Emanuel’s (possibly illegal) vacation plans in Cuba, the correspondent quickly issued an apology: “I’m sorry. I didn’t know that wasn’t known.”
In a statement provided to Gawker, Politico’s chief operating officer Kim Kingsley defended Allen’s softball pitch:
All of our events are open to the public, on the record, with reporters from other organizations present and video posted for all to see: I can’t imagine a more transparent process.
In all of my years in the news business, never once have I heard a reporter pitch an interview with the promise of being unfair, risky, gotcha, full of surprises or with similar terms. If you question whether or not our interviews are tough, fair, and newsworthy, read the transcripts, watch the video or ask all of the reporters in attendance.
Mike Allen declined to comment on the record. When we offered to interview him on-the-record, on the condition that we would clear our questions with him beforehand, he did not respond.