Politico is facing backlash on Thursday—both internally and externally—for handing over the keys to its signature news product for the day to Ben Shapiro, an oft-incendiary right-wing commentator.
“We published a piece by a very prominent writer, provocateur, and podcaster. We stand by every word in there, it was very closely edited,” the outlet’s top editor Matt Kaminski said as part of his response to staffers during a Thursday meeting.
At another point, the top editor added, “Mischief making has always been a part of Politico’s secret sauce. We were an upstart. Some of that sensibility is always going to be a part of this publication.”
Hours later, during a staff-wide Zoom call to address the controversy, staffers were vocally upset and demanded answers for why company brass published Shapiro the day after Congress voted to impeach President Donald Trump for the second time. “We’re not going to back away from having published something because some people think it was a mistake to do so,” Kaminski told the employees, according to multiple sources on the call.
Over the past several weeks, Politico has filled the temporary editorial vacancy atop the Playbook by inviting high-profile political reporters and commentators to author the highly influential morning political newsletter and tip-sheet for Beltway insiders. The tipsheet in recent weeks has been authored by well-known TV hosts like MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, as well as reporters like CBS’s Weijia Jiang, PBS’s White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor, and the Washington Free Beacon’s editor-in-chief Eliana Johnson. NBC’s Meet the Press host Chuck Todd is also expected to guest-author the Playbook in the coming weeks.
But on Thursday, Politico turned the newsletter over to Shapiro, who used the space for a column making the case that the House Republicans who voted against impeaching Trump—despite his repeated lies about the 2020 election and his stoking of rioters who stormed the Capitol in his name last week—are right to feel aggrieved.
“If you supported Trump in any way, you were at least partially culpable, the argument goes. It’s not just Trump who deserves vitriol—it’s all 74 million people who voted for him,” Shapiro wrote, further claiming, “Opposition to impeachment comes from a deep and abiding conservative belief that members of the opposing political tribe want their destruction, not simply to punish Trump for his behavior.”
Shapiro’s guest appearance was not particularly well-received.
Internally at Politico, several staffers raised concerns about the decision to allow him to guest-write the key newsletter, even for a day. One staffer pointed out in a company-wide Slack channel that the right-wing pundit has a “long history of bigoted and incendiary commentary,” making it especially inappropriate to elevate him in the wake of last week’s violent attack on the Capitol by rioters who, critics say, have been radicalized for years by the fiery rhetoric of right-wing media stars like Shapiro.
“It has clearly generated a wave of negative attention, and I fear it’s already overshadowing a lot of great work being done by journalists across this newsroom,” the staffer added. The comment received several dozen upvotes from Politico colleagues.
“This is especially confusing given the newsroom’s welcome efforts over the last year to cover issues related to race in a more intentional, elevated, thoughtful way,” another staffer responded.
Outside the Beltway-centric outlet, reporters and columnists alike voiced anger and disappointment with Politico’s decision—all noting Shapiro’s long career in divisive, toxic rhetoric about the LGBT community, Muslims, Black Americans, and Jews who support Democratic politicians. Others, like NBC’s Mehdi Hasan, lambasted the outlet giving free air to Shapiro to make bad-faith false equivalences between Trump and Bernie Sanders or Stacey Abrams. Critics also noted that, on Wednesday, Shapiro seemingly downplayed the severity of the Capitol riot by remarking “literally every human I know owns zip ties” in response to images of MAGA mob members toting zip ties and flex cuffs.
I would appreciate if someone from @politico would read all the racist things Ben Shapiro has said about Arabs and Muslims here and then explain why they chose to give him a platform https://t.co/bH5CmhiqE4
— Sabrina Siddiqui (@SabrinaSiddiqui) January 14, 2021
During a previously scheduled meeting on diversity and inclusion, editor-in-chief Matt Kaminski addressed the internal concerns, telling staff that Politico had tried to put together a stable of prominent guest authors to represent a range of perspectives. He said that the publication was “not part of a team,” and that it had “always very successfully managed to rise above that and not become associated with one group.”
And during a heated afternoon Zoom call to address Politico staffers on the controversy—a meeting that reportedly attracted at least 225 attendees—several employees compared Shapiro to right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and questioned Kaminski’s response that such comparisons are false equivalences. Another staffer said the top editor was “dismissive” of the concerns brought up throughout the chat.
But some Politico staffers stood by the publication’s decision to publish, saying they were too afraid to speak up on the calls out of fear of being criticized by their colleagues. “There are people who stand by the company’s decision to publish it,” said one staffer, “and the backlash is a little strange to observe since we’re supposed to represent all respectable voices on the ideological spectrum.”
Shapiro, 36, has long been a divisive conservative firebrand, with stints as a bomb-throwing syndicated columnist and talk-radio host as well as playing a prominent editor role with far-right outlet Breitbart until 2016. He founded The Daily Wire in 2015, a clicky conservative website that, when it is not aggregating other outlets’ reporting or peddling culture-war outrage bait commentary, often acts as a vehicle to promote Shapiro’s own punditry. The outlet has largely found success on Facebook, where Daily Wire content is ubiquitously promoted and shared by a coordinated network of right-wing pages owned by the same person, Popular Information reported last year.
As such, Shapiro seemed to revel in the online backlash to his guest-authoring of Playbook, tweeting that critics were “pretty much proving my point. So keep at it guys, you’re doing great!”
Thursday’s ordeal came as Politico gears up to relaunch its signature newsletter early this year. As The Daily Beast previously reported, top editorial leaders are hoping to expand the scope of the Playbook, which some believe has been too narrowly focused on Congress over the past several years; and are likely to tap several high-profile writers to broaden the tipsheet’s scope as a new Biden administration takes shape.
Company brass announced during Thursday’s staff-wide calls that they will reveal the new Playbook team on Friday.