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Axios Criticizes “The Media” for Acting Like Axios

“Awful scandal porn” shouted an Axios headline Tuesday. The unit of content, by Axios principles Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen: 1) summarized much of what Sam Nunberg said in a remarkable group of interviews Monday; 2) chastised the news media for giving the interviews so much coverage. “This is one of the reasons America hates the media. Our entire industry lit itself on fire because a troubled Trump hanger-on made an ass of himself — live.”

If only Axios had listened to its boss! It had, by the time that post appeared, found multiple ways to feed the flames:

  • Jonathan Swan posted a grand jury subpoena “Robert Mueller’s team sent to a witness”–apparently Nunberg–“last month.”
  • Zachary Basu aggregated Nunberg’s Washington Post and MSNBC interviews.
  • Basu and Lauren Meier typed up highlights from Nunberg’s CNN interview.
  • Axios’ afternoon email, written by Allen, aggregated highlights from three Nunberg interviews.
  • An unbylined piece advanced the story with a quote Nunberg gave the AP, illustrated with a screenshot of Nunberg on CNN.

None of those items carried a disclaimer that they were contributing to Americans’ hatred of journalists.

This isn’t the first time VandeHei and Allen have criticized “the media” for doing something their own organization prosecuted with enthusiasm. When both men were at Politico, they published a series called “Behind the Curtain” that purported to hoist Washington up on a hydraulic lift so readers could see its inner workings. One item tried to show why Republicans felt “the media” was unfair to Mitt Romney. Its central argument: The media, by which they apparently meant the New York Times and Washington Post, overplayed stories about Romney’s wealth and a cruel prank he played as a teen and downplayed a story about President Obama smoking pot. They called the prank story “more voyeuristic than relevant to assessing Romney’s readiness for office.”

Let’s overlook, for now, the fact that these two pioneers of digital journalism measured this “play” by noting where the stories ran in the print editions of their respective newspapers. The more important point is that by the time this “Behind the Curtain” appeared, Politico had written six pieces about the prank story alone.

Politico helped invent the iterative, reporting-mixed-with-aggregation model of news coverage that treated “narratives” as things that were built and redirected in real time. But in the case of Romney’s prank, at least, two of its most important voices found that impulse was a net negative for the Republic. At the time I wrote that by running those pieces, Politico was “fulfilling its mission to aggressively and thoroughly cover the stories of the day, no matter how voyeuristic or irrelevant they may be.” (Politico later aggregated my piece.)

So does today’s piece about scandal porn augur a change of heart at Axios? Perhaps! As of 12:18 PM, it has published no further stories about Nunberg.

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.