A song to read by: "Let's Have a Kiki," by Scissor Sisters
What I’m reading: "Debt: The First 5,000 Years," by David Graeber
The mystery of the misdirected domain
Editor’s note: I had first intended to publish this story on Medialyte alone, but was then convinced to run it on Adweek as well. This is the piece in its fuller form, with a few of the fuzzy details laid out more clearly because I am taking the leap of connecting some very obvious dots.
On Monday, I received a tip that a Politico product that launched earlier that day had been the victim of a light-hearted act of cyber sabotage.
The Beltway publisher had just unveiled its new Congress Minutes website, a mobile-first news product written by reporter Anthony Adragna that promised to cover the “latest exclusives, twists and analysis from Congress in real time.”
However, if in the process of searching for the new product you typed the words “congressminutes.com” into your browser, you would be directed not to the Politico offering, but to the homepage of a rival publisher, Punchbowl News.
(Go ahead and try it — if you can stomach politics, the link is entirely SFW.)
Punchbowl News, which launched to much fanfare in January, is a joint venture spearheaded by two Politico alumni, Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer. At the time, news of their departure had aroused suspicions of backroom bickering. Sources told former Medialyte interviewee Maxwell Tani that the two, who had written the influential Politico Playbook newsletter since 2016, split from their employer in part because of internal dissension.
So when the domain for a new Politico product redirected to the landing page of Punchbowl News, the likely culprit seemed at hand.
However, when reached for comment by Adweek, Palmer denied that Punchbowl owned the URL.
"Punchbowl News does not own the URL," she said via email.
Politico first announced that it would be launching Congress Minutes in a memo on Aug. 24 and featured the news in Playbook later that morning, a spokesperson confirmed. According to GoDaddy.com, where the link is hosted, the domain was purchased on Aug. 24. The owner of the domain is private.
While I was unable to confirm this with the Punchbowl team, Palmer’s choice of words was very particular: Punchbowl News does not own the URL. However, it seems quite obvious that one of its reporters does.
I reached out once more to Palmer to confirm, but have not yet received a response.
The saga of Politico and Punchbowl
In January, when Sherman and Palmer announced their new venture, the news made waves for a number of reasons — their high profiles, the timing, the entrepreneurial verve — but its most delicious plotline was the dash of palace intrigue that peppered the departure.
Sherman and Palmer had been tapped to run Politico Playbook in 2016 after Politico founder Mike Allen left the publication to start a rival operation, Axios. The departure of Allen had been acrimonious, and worse — a threat to the health of the publication.
Politico had risen to prominence in no small part due to the insider know-how and incisive voice Allen had lent to the newsletter since the inception of the newsroom, in 2007. When he left, no less than the future of Politico was at stake.
Luckily for the Beltway Bible, Sherman and Palmer soon proved they were up to the task. According to The Daily Beast, under the stewardship of Sherman and Palmer the newsletter tripled its subscribers, doubled revenue and developed a firm identity.
So when the duo announced in January, at the peak of perhaps the most fraught moment in modern American politics, that they were leaving Politico to strike out on their own, questions of motive quickly reared their heads.
If you subscribe to the Tani school of thought, a rift had grown between Sherman and Palmer and the rest of the newsroom. The duo had apparently grown so comfortable in the limelight that they had begun to outshine their colleagues.
The New York Times’ Ben Smith, on the other hand, normally no stranger to the salacious, appraised the situation differently.
“The Playbook authors’ departure was, even by the relatively dull standards of Washington newsroom drama, sedate,” he wrote back in January.
However, because media reporting abhors a vacuum, the subject of the true state of relations between the outgoing Punchbowl team and the Politico newsroom remained a point of debate for months following the exodus.
As a result, the redirect of the Congress Minutes URL appears to be the latest chapter in the ongoing brinkmanship between the two parties.
Reasons for suspicion
Despite Palmer's denial, the subtle nature of the act of cybersquatting fit the Punchbowl profile perfectly: They definitely had the motive, and the redirection to their homepage certainly served to incriminate.
Plus, as you might have guessed, hardly anyone would physically type in the URL of a website they want to visit. If you simply google “Congress Minutes,” all the top options direct you to the correct domain.
Even fewer people still would assume that the name of the product itself would serve as its domain. After all, if you wanted to read The New York Times’ newsletter The Daily you would hardly think “TheDaily.com” would be its home. No, in all likelihood, very few people would ever even discover that such a prank had been played.
That is, no one except the people it would bug the most.
Such a subtle slight would only be discernible to the people in charge of setting up the website, masterminding its launch, perfecting its SEO and making sure every hyperlink leads in the right direction. In other words, the intended targets of the troll and the only people who would notice it would be one and the same: the architects of Congress Minutes themselves.
In that sense, it appeared to be a nearly perfect bit of digital mischief: entirely harmless, almost completely invisible and yet excruciating to its victims in its pettiness.
Some good readin'
— Here is the original version of this story on Adweek. (Adweek)
— This excerpt from a forthcoming book about Peter Thiel. It makes a strong case that Thiel is at the root of anything wrong with Silicon Valley. (New York Magazine)
— You should probably not be using Facebook anymore. (MIT Technology Review)
— A fascinating look into the ideological tug-of-war inside The Wall Street Journal. (Columbia Journalism Review)
— Must-read reporting that connects the dots about the global authoritarianism and the role platforms have played in it. (Platformer)
Cover image: "The Treachery of Images," by Rene Magritte