Last April, former Politico CEO Jim VandeHei had a really bad idea.
Outlined in a roundly pilloried Wall Street Journal op-ed, VandeHei proposed a new third party called the Innovation Party. His plan, simply put, was to take centrist dogma — means-tested Social Security and Medicare, “muscular” foreign policy — and dress it up in an anti-establishment costume.
Bernie Sanders’s social-democratic policies were only popular, VandeHei reasoned, because its spokesperson was “anti-establishment.” If the Innovation Party had its own anti-establishment figurehead, someone willing to “disrupt” the standard political theater — someone like Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg — then that person could easily become president. After all, VandeHei wondered, “who is against innovation?”
VandeHei insisted that the Innovation Party’s positions would simply be the best policies, advocated not out of ideology, but out of merit. It just so happened that what the party would promote aligns with what’s best for its rich leaders.
Now, VandeHei has launched another bad idea, with a similar premise: Axios, a news site that claims to “provide only content worthy of people’s time, attention, and trust.” That raises one obvious question: who decides what content is worthy? Is it the man who thought up the Innovation Party? Or is it cofounder and executive editor Mike Allen?
Allen has a rather checkered past when it comes to journalistic ethics. While at Politico, Allen took payments from businesses in exchange for favorable coverage (i.e. what journalism-school ethics classes would call “the worst thing you can do”). Allen, the Columbia Journalism Review wrote, “obliterated the line between native advertising and journalism.”
Perhaps Allen has learned from his mistakes, and he now cares more about reporting the news than peddling access. If so, he should probably peruse his own website. The Axios “about” page includes this pitch to potential advertisers:
It’s hard to argue with a straight face that newspaper ads or banners or expensive, glossy native advertising programs are the most effective means for communicating. We developed a lower-cost, more measurable, and adjustable way for advertisers to do native advertising within our platform AND within our content on Facebook. We want to work with advertisers so they feel they get awesome, measurable value — and the respect and return they deserve.
It’s true that no one would call banner ads and sponsored content “the most effective means for communicating.” But they do have the virtue of clearly identifying themselves as advertisements. Compare that to the innovative method VandeHei, Allen, and company are pitching: we’ll get your ad inside the content!
For companies like Koch Industries, Walmart, JP Morgan Chase, Boeing, and the others listed as Axios’s partners, this is the dream: to run public-relations campaigns that people trust, while spinning the news to the company’s liking. VandeHei and Allen’s ingenious new idea is a thinly veiled scheme to give their corporate partners exactly what they want.
The Expert Network
Axios’s con goes far deeper than simply disguising corporate PR as journalism; it wants to redefine the very meaning of news until it is fundamentally indistinguishable from PR.
It aims to do this through its “expert network,” a pre-approved list of sources that will inject their supposedly unbiased opinions into Axios’s content. A simple search of these experts turns up red flag after red flag.
The technology whizzes include Gigi Sohn, whom the Hill describes as having “personal relationships with power players all over the capital, from the Federal Trade Commission to Congress”; Reed Hundt, of the Coalition for Green Capital, a nonprofit that wants to privatize wind and solar power; Chip Pickering, a socially conservative former congressman who now runs INCOMPAS, a telecommunications lobbying group; Ellen Schrantz, director of the Internet Association, which lobbies on behalf of “internet companies” like Amazon, Uber, Lyft, and Facebook; and Mindy Finn, a former Lamar Smith staffer who ran for vice president with #NeverTrump conservative Evan McMullin.
Axios‘s health care line-up isn’t much better. Besides John McDonough, professor of public health practice at Harvard, the site relies on more lobbyists, like Christopher Condeluci, whose firm represents the “Self-Insurance Industry of America,” and Yvette Fontenot, who meets with Democrats on behalf of Merck, ExxonMobil, and UnitedHealth; more think tank employees, like Joseph Antos of the American Enterprise Institute and Lanhee Chen of the Hoover Institution; more Washington insiders, like Joel Ario, Obama’s former health exchange czar, who now works for a law firm that regularly defends insurance companies; and a handful of businesspeople: Jon Kingsdale of Wakely Consulting, which offers risk-management consulting to health care providers, and Bob Kocher of Venrock — that’s “ven” as in “venture” and “rock” as in Rockefeller — a venture capital firm founded by the oil baron’s family with substantial investments in private health care and pharmaceutical businesses.
Of these, only Sohn and McDonough could plausibly be considered bona fide experts. The rest are pro-business shills and right-wing ideologues.
Yet Axios has the gall to subtitle one section “Don’t sell BS,” asserting that people want their news with “no bias” and “no nonsense.” “We have one agenda,” the site proudly proclaims, to “help people get smarter, faster.”
This is the Innovation Party all over again. “Smart,” like “innovative,” is presented as a value-neutral proposition: everyone wants more smart things! But what actually constitutes “smart” is a deeply ideological question. Martin Shkreli, for instance, would consider hiking medicine for babies unimpeachably “smart.” But someone who needs that medicine to save the life of a loved one — or anyone with a drop of human decency — would consider such a price hike heinous.
Looking at the list of people Axios considers “experts,” the business interests it considers “partners,” and the profiteering hack it considers an “editor,” it becomes clear that when it says “smart” or “worthy” it means “business-friendly” and “pro-capitalist.”
That’s because Axios isn’t really a news media company: it’s a lobbying firm. It exists to peddle a pro-capitalist line to readers in the guise of journalism. It passes off a series of corporate ciphers as knowledgeable experts and tells its readers they should trust them.
The Real Audience
In 2010, the New York Times Magazine profiled Allen as “the man the White House wakes up to.” Last July, the New York Times described his daily “Playbook” newsletter as “what 100,000 insiders, outsiders, lobbyists and journalists, governors, senators, presidents and would-be presidents read every morning of the week to be in the know. . . . If they say they do not look for it in their inboxes in their first waking minute, they are lying.”
It doesn’t take a top-tier thinkfluencer to see that Allen and VandeHei are counting on this audience to jump to Axios — all for the benefit of corporate partners like Walmart.
A recent sponsored post on Axios’s front page bragged about Walmart’s “$250 billion investment in American manufacturing.” By marketing itself as a boon for American jobs, Walmart aims to burnish its image among people who, if VandeHei and Allen can move their Politico readership over to the new site, have a lot more power to help Walmart than any individual customer.
But banner ads and sponsored content have limits. For Axios’s partners, the holy grail is ensuring their message is not just seen by people in power, but trusted by them as well.
And for that — as Axios’s coverage of the #DeleteUber campaign shows — you have to camouflage your pro-business apologetics in the garb of “just-the-facts-ma’am” reporting.
On January 28, when the union representing New York taxi drivers announced a strike in protest of Donald Trump’s travel ban, Uber kept its service running. It acted as a strikebreaker, treating an assault on civil rights as an opportunity to make a buck. In response, writer Dan O’Sullivan urged people to cancel their Uber accounts. Thousands did, posting screenshots with the hashtag #DeleteUber.
This turned into a nightmare for Uber. The company quickly distanced itself from the executive order, and the president in general. Founder Travis Kalanick left Trump’s economic advisory team, just days after insisting it was a vital tool to gain access to the administration. Some users discovered the company had made it substantially harder to remove their accounts, while those who successfully cancelled received apologetic emails insisting the company never intended to break the strike.
And on Axios, a headline blared, “Uber didn’t deserve #DeleteUber.”
Apart from an introductory sentence admitting that the company “has done questionable things in the past,” the post, written by business editor Dan Primack, bubbled over with praise for Uber’s actions while exhibiting a negligible grasp of the motivations behind the boycott.
Primack seemed to think the #DeleteUber campaign was a one-off response to a single event, rather than the latest episode in a growing backlash against Uber’s exploitative business practices. He noted that Uber competitor Lyft had also agreed to sit on one of the administration’s advisory councils, as if the #DeleteUber campaign was about boosting Lyft’s stock rather than raising the wages of workers across the board.
Despite the pro-Uber bluster, nothing on the post separated it from your average news story (or noted that Uber lobbyist Ellen Schrantz is one of Axios‘s experts). No “sponsored content” label, no “news analysis” or “opinion” — none of the descriptors traditional media organizations use to distinguish news reporting from advertising and editorial opinion. To the reader casually scrolling the Axios front page, “Uber didn’t deserve #DeleteUber” appeared as simple fact, as indisputable as “Mattis warns North Korea on nukes” or “Snap files for its IPO.”
Used to be you couldn’t buy that kind of press.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with melding opinion and news reporting. But by claiming the traditions of a free and independent press to assert its neutrality, Axios offers Uber and other companies something much different, and infinitely more valuable: favorable coverage pumped directly into the minds of ruling elites, with none of the stink of rank propaganda.
VandeHei’s pro-business “Innovation Party” may never exist, but, thanks to Axios, its propaganda arm already does.