This is the season of the beat-sweetener. A beat-sweetener (some prefer the term source-greaser) is a gratuitously flattering profile that a reporter writes about a government official in the hope that it will encourage (or, at the very least, not impede) that reporter’s access to the official in question. Newspapers and magazines have been full of them, and even the uninitiated may feel they’ve been reading a lot of dull profiles lately without knowing exactly why. My advice is to adopt a defensive-reader posture and treat all profiles of Obama’s new team as guilty until proven innocent. If you encounter emollient rhetoric in the first five paragraphs, skip the rest and move on. A beat-sweetener is a meal prepared for someone other than yourself, and there’s no reason you should waste precious time ingesting it.
Bloggers have lately been debating the ethics of beat-sweeteners. Atrios denounced them as an artifact of “elite pristine journalism.” Matthew Yglesias bemoaned “the widespread social and professional acceptance of this kind of thing.” Ezra Klein said beat-sweeteners “tend to be positive because, well, the players haven’t done anything yet” and defended them as “legitimate profiles with positive side effects.” Such gum-beating is symptomatic of contemporary press criticism, which tends to define everything in terms of professional ethics because that’s the only normative vocabulary even upstart bloggers feel comfortable with. In so doing, these critics pronounce to be immoral what is merely second-rate. A beat-sweetener is unethical only in the attenuated sense that a passionately devoted artisanal cobbler might regard as unethical a handmade loafer with poor stitching. It’s lousy craftsmanship, not an ethical lapse warranting extensive debate. It is also an unwise marketing strategy. At a time when readers are abandoning newspapers and magazines in droves, it hardly behooves reporters to bore them. What’s the value of access if you have no public to share it with?
The beat-sweetener, I submit, is best regarded not in a spirit of censure but in a spirit of playful mockery. That’s why, at the start of George W. Bush’s presidency, I sponsored a Slate contest inviting readers to submit parody beat-sweeteners of people like Adolf Eichmann and Kim Jong-il. (Click here for the winners.) This time out, I’ve created a sampler of real beat-sweeteners: a chart that identifies author, subject, one or more examples of shamelessly flattering writing, one or more examples of less-flattering details that were left out, and links to less-flattering information sources that might serve as antidotes to the praise—a beat-sourer, if you will. I chose my samples carefully, knowing the beat-sweetener designation can be a little indiscriminate. For example, there have been some cavils about Anne Kornblut’s Washington Post profile of White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina. It may not be the most exciting newspaper profile you’ll read in 2009, but it doesn’t strike me as excessively kissy-face, and I can’t identify any obvious skeletons in Messina’s closet that Kornblut left out. Similarly, Louise Story’s recent New York Times profile of Steven Rattner, the Obama administration’s unofficial car czar, smells from a distance like a beat-sweetener—Rattner is, among other things, a onetime business reporter for the Times, and he’s pretty tight with Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.—but if you take the trouble to read it, you’ll find a decently nuanced if unexciting character sketch, neither especially favorable nor especially unfavorable. These profiles flunked my test for an authentic beat-sweetener, which requires the conscious reader to pause, smite his forehead, and ask: “Who the hell wrote this crap? His mother?”
My beat-sweetener survey does not attempt to be comprehensive. Rather, it allows you to sample the variety of pablum that’s out there and offers some explanation of how each source-greaser falls short of the usual standards. (See below.)
|Sweetener||Venue||Profilee’s position||Profiler’s position||Flattery||Fails to mention…………………||Antidote|
|” Free Larry Summers,” by Noam Scheiber||New Republic||Director, White House National Economic Council||Writes and blogs about politics and economics||“Maybe the issue isn’t whether Summers plays well with others, but whether Obama’s economic effort should be led by an ensemble cast or a single virtuoso performer.”||Summers fervently opposed regulating derivatives when he was deputy treasury secretary; as Harvard president, Summers protected his friend Andrei Schleifer, whose financial misbehavior while heading a Harvard project in Russia later required Harvard to pay a $26.5 million settlement to the U.S. government.||” How Harvard Lost Russia,” by David McClintick, Institutional Investor|
|” Obama’s ‘Super-Nerd,’ ” by Andrea Seabrook (profile of Peter Orszag)||National Public Radio||Director, White House Office of Management and Budget||Congressional correspondent||“That’s what he really wants to do: combine caring for people with good economic decisions.”||In a March 25 press briefing, Orszag replied to a question about the federal government’s “spiraling debt” by saying, “I don’t know what spiraling debt you’re referring to.”||Nominee Orszag’s Jan. 13 testimony before the Senate budget committee: “The simple fact is that, over the long term, the federal budget is on an unsustainable path.”|
|“ The President’s Warrior, Robert Gibbs,” by Michael Scherer||Time||White House press secretary||White House correspondent||“[W]hat matters most to White House reporters is that Gibbs has the President’s ear and can get to the Commander in Chief when an answer is needed.”||In 2004 Gibbs was spokesman for a 527 group that bankrolled an ad attacking presidential candidate Howard Dean for lacking sufficient experience to battle Osama Bin Laden.||” Robert Gibbs, The Drag on Obama,” by blogger and former Dean campaign aide Jerome Armstrong|
|” The Gatekeeper,” by Ryan Lizza (profile of Rahm Emanuel)||The New Yorker||White House chief of staff||Washington correspondent||“He is a political John McEnroe, known for both his mercurial temperament and his tactical brilliance. In the same conversation, he can be wonkish and thoughtful, blunt and profane.”||Appointed to the Freddie Mac board by Bill Clinton in 2000, Emanuel collected at least $320,000 for doing essentially nothing while the federally chartered mortgage company misled stockholders about risky investments and hosted political fundraisers later found to be illegal. The board was briefed on both matters. Lizza notes only in passing that after leaving the Clinton White House, Emanuel “in less than three years earned nearly twenty million dollars” as an investment banker.||” Rahmbo’s Revolving Door,” by Ben Protess of ProPublica|
|” Savvy Players Are Big Factor in Current Success of Democrats,” by Stuart Rothenberg (column praising Rep. Barney Frank, Sen. Charles Schumer, and Rahm Emanuel)||Roll Call||Massachusetts representative , New York senator , and White House chief of staff||Editor and publisher of a nonpartisan political newsletter, columnist, and self-described “ frequent soundbite”||“[R]ight now, the Republicans on Capitol Hill have no match for Emanuel, Frank and Schumer, or the other talented Democrats. Taking nothing away from GOP legislators, staffers or interest groups, Democrats are simply more aggressive, better organized and more poised for the kill.”||Frank wrote into the Troubled Assets Relief Program a provision targeting assistance to OneUnited, a minority-owned Massachusetts bank, and also spoke to bank regulators on its behalf. As a result, the bank received $12 million. In 2007 Schumer blocked a plan to double taxes on hedge-fund and private-equity managers.||” What They Said About Fan and Fred,” Wall Street Journal editorial page|
|” Gates Securing a Role Under Another President,” by Elisabeth Bumiller (profile of Robert Gates)||New York Times||Defense secretary||Pentagon correspondent||“[T]his canny, deceptively bland Washington master of adaptation … has an authority and rapport with Mr. Obama that exceeds his low wattage in public.”||As deputy to CIA Director William Casey during the Iran-Contra scandal, Gates almost certainly misrepresented to independent prosecutor Lawrence Walsh what he knew and when he knew it. Walsh declined to prosecute because “given the complex nature of the activities and Gates’s apparent lack of direct participation, a jury could find the evidence left a reasonable doubt that Gates either obstructed official inquiries or that his two demonstrably incorrect statements were deliberate lies.”||Final Report of the Independent Counsel For Iran/Contra Matters, Chapter 16: “ Robert M. Gates”|
|”High-Powered and Low-Key,” by Michael A. Fletcher (profile of Valerie Jarrett)||Washington Post||Senior adviser and assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs and public liaison||White house correspondent||“Trim and tough-minded, Jarrett speaks in tones that lend a matter-of-fact air to almost whatever she says, according to friends.”||The Habitat Co., the real estate firm Jarrett joined in 1995 as executive vice president, rising in 2007 to president and CEO, managed Chicago’s Grove Parc Plaza from 2001 to 2008. Here is how the Boston Globe’s Binyamin Appelbaum described Grove Parc Plaza in June 2008: “About 99 of the units are vacant, many rendered uninhabitable by unfixed problems, such as collapsed roofs and fire damage. Mice scamper through the halls. Battered mailboxes hang open. Sewage backs up into kitchen sinks. In 2006, federal inspectors graded the condition of the complex an 11 on a 100-point scale—a score so bad the buildings now face demolition.” Jarrett, then a senior adviser to Obama’s campaign and still president of the Habitat Co., “declined to answer questions about Grove Parc, citing what she called a continuing duty to Habitat’s former business partners.”||”Globe Article Makes Hash of Housing Policy,” by Matthew Schwarzfeld on Rooflines.org, a blog maintained by the nonprofit National Housing Institute. In the course of attacking the Globe piece’s critique of Obama’s record on tax credits for low-income housing, Schwarzfeld nonetheless concedes: “National low-income housing groups agree that Jarrett’s company, Habitat Co., mismanaged Grove Parc.”|