Press Box

Beat Sweetener: The Rajiv Shah Edition

The Washington Post drools all over the new USAID chief.

USAID chief Rajiv Shah.

I want to commend the Washington Post for its thorough and professional coverage of the Haitian earthquake. But not today. Today (Jan. 15), I want to kick the paper in the heinie for pouring a magnum of beat sweetener all over Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development and President Obama’s point man in coordinating the Haitian relief.

The 900-word piece carries a headline that is as flattering as the copy it precedes: “Officials Hail USAID Chief’s Crisis Management Skills.” The article’s author, Philip Rucker, records a halleluiah chorus of praise for Shah from his current and former colleagues. Keep in mind that Shah has been USAID administrator all of one week.


Cue the accolades:

“Dr. Shah has been excellent. … Focused. Calm. Facts-based.”
Denis McDonough, National Security Council chief of staff


“He has the background and deep understanding of the region to effectively lead the U.S.’s response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti. … I know he’s going to do a good job and make a real difference for the people of Haiti during their time of great need.”
Bill Clinton, U.N. special envoy to Haiti. (Shah has also “collaborated” with Clinton’s charitable foundation, Rucker writes.)

“He’s extraordinarily competent, extraordinarily bright and also extraordinarily articulate.”
Gov. Edward G. Rendell, D-Pa., a former boss of Shah’s

“He aspires for excellence. … He’s thoughtful; he’s clearly an engaging personality and friend. Frankly, he’s a leader.”
Aneesh Chopra, a longtime friend and Obama’s chief technology officer


“Raj is the rare breed that combines vision with executional ability. … He’s meticulous about understanding the nature of the problem and then being extremely resourceful about the things that need to be brought to the table to address these challenges.”
Joe Cerrell, a former colleague of Shah’s at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation


“Half the battle here is not just emergency response and humanitarian relief, but creating the basis for long-term recovery and rebuilding. … He has a very clear mind, knows how to ask questions and find the evidence for what’s really going to work. He has a very steady and strong approach, which I think is essential for a leader at this kind of time.”
Kathy Bushkin Calvin, chief executive of the United Nations Foundation, “who has worked with Shah over the years.”


How great art Shah? Not a semicolon of disparagement or even constructive criticism appears in the piece. On the long shot that Rucker’s shower of praise hasn’t moistened Shah to plump and ripe perfection, the reporter squirts a little anonymous praise for his subject into the piece, writing:

Shah has been “unflappable,” said a senior aide to the secretary of state, who called Shah “a superstar waiting to be discovered.” … Friends describe Shah as an ambitious workaholic who is as likable as he is nerdy, as comfortable talking about sports as he is musing about economic policy.

Elsewhere in the article we learn that since the earthquake, Shah has gotten by “on little sleep and lots of Diet Coke”; that top officials in the White House and State Department have been “wowed” by Shah; that he worked until 2 a.m. one night after the disaster and was back before dawn to meet the press. Even though he had never done a TV interview before, “he did not appear nervous,” Rucker writes.


Completely absent from the Post is any substantive discussion of the 36-year-old Shah’s failures—or his successes aside from the many degrees he’s earned and the places he’s worked. It’s all plaudits and platitudes. If this article were a fish, it would be a puffer. It’s a textbook example of a “beat sweetener,” an extraordinarily favorable piece designed to encourage the source to give the writer and his publication access for a future piece.

Haitian Nitpicking Bonus No. 1: Why the goddamn hell is Barack Obama writing the cover story for next week’s Newsweek (which, like Slate,is owned by the Washington Post Co.)? He doesn’t know anything about Haiti outside of what his aides may have told him. He won’t even write it! If the piece is worth publishing, Newsweek should give the byline to its true author.


Haitian Nitpicking Bonus No. 2: CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who is reporting from Port-au-Prince, seems both shocked and outraged that the estimated 4,500 inmates of the city’s prison have escaped. (See Anderson’s transcript and his video.) What were they supposed to do? Seeing as the entire nation has shut down, were they supposed to sit tight in the squalor and starve?


Don’t get me wrong. I’m not disappointed just because the Post didn’t get any dirt on Shah. They didn’t get any clean on him, either. Send dirt or clean with substance to Monitor my Twitter feed for entertaining filth. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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