How Media Sucks Up to White House

In a profile last month, The Washington Post described deputy White House chief of staff Jim Messina as a “low-profile aide” who begins “fixing President Obama’s problems” before 7 a.m., works 14 hours straight and then hits the gym. 

Not to be outdone, POLITICO noted the next day that White House chief legislative liaison Phil Schiliro — another “low-profile” official but one possessing “Buddha-like Zen” — is already working in the West Wing by 6 a.m. 

Time says reporters admire White House press secretary Robert Gibbs (“The President’s Warrior”) because he “has the president’s ear and can get to the commander in chief when an answer is needed.” The New Yorker says White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is “a political John McEnroe, known for both his mercurial temperament and his tactical brilliance,” yet is also uncommonly indifferent to both criticism and praise. 

Welcome to the “beat sweetener.”

In the early days of any administration, reporters reach out to the men and women who might become their sources over the next four years — then slather them with glowing profiles suitable for framing in their mothers’ bedrooms. 

Even garden-variety government officials become political superheroes, each one harder-working and more down-to-earth than the last — and all of them enjoying the ear of the president. 

Reading once again about Gibbs’ folksy ways, his pastel ties and his Alabama roots, a part-time political junkie might question the need for yet another profile of the hard-working press secretary who’s always within earshot when the president weighs a big decision. 

But this proliferation of profiles isn’t about the reader’s need to know, or at least not entirely. It’s also about reporters’ need to introduce themselves to and ingratiate themselves with the White House officials they’ll need as sources over the next four years. 

It’s far easier for a reporter to get time with a key staffer when both parties know that a flattering profile is coming. And it’s a lot easier to get calls returned from the staffer’s colleagues — especially subordinates — if they know it’s an opportunity to suck up to the subject. 

Jonathan Alter, a senior editor at Newsweek, describes the beat sweetener as “a tribal custom” among the press corps. 

“It’s emblematic of the way Washington journalism often works,” Alter said, noting that the problem is when a reporter “puts the ease of their working relationship ahead of the interests of the reader.” 

Alter holds the distinction of being the first to use the term “beat sweetener,” back in 1988 — at least as far as Lexis-Nexis is concerned. However, Alter said the term dates back further, having remembered hearing it thrown around the offices of the Washington Monthly in the early 1980s. 

Coinage aside, the beat sweetener probably has existed as long as reporters have relied on official sources for background information. It’s also a phenomenon that occurs regardless of which party is in power. In December 2000, Slate editor-at-large Jack Shafer noted the flood of positive profiles for Bush administration officials — enough to hold a contest for readers to create their own beat sweetener. 

Editors and reporters can justify a profile as worthwhile on the basis that the person is in a new position. 

Even those covering those who cover an administration aren’t immune to the temptation — see, for example, this reporter’s January profile of incoming network correspondents, “Meet the (new) press.”

But with each passing week — with each passing iteration of the folksy ways, pastel ties, Alabama-roots tale — the red-face test gets a little harder to pass.

When Obama first picked him as his press secretary in November, Gibbs received a lot of immediate attention and profiles, including a Washington Post take that dubbed him the “Barack whisperer.” The New York Times Magazine checked in the following month with a sprawling, 5,300-word study by Mark Leibovich. The Washington Times and New York Post followed suit.

So when Time finally popped its own Gibbs profile in its March 2 issue, it risked coming off as another spoonful of sugar in a pretty sweet cup of tea. White House correspondent Michael Scherer’s piece was executed with all the relevant biographical details. But the piece relied heavily on praise from colleagues such as Valerie Jarrett and Pete Rouse, and it checked off most of the usual boxes again, including the pastel ties and the Alabama roots.

But does it work? Will Gibbs or Emanuel or adviser David Axelrod really start returning phone calls they wouldn’t otherwise just because a reporter has painted them in rosy hues?

“I don’t know if the Obama world is going to read nice profiles and now repay this person with every state secret that comes across the desk,” said Leibovich.

He added that a flattering profile “isn’t necessarily evil,” pointing out that the Messina and Schiliro profiles had “intrinsic news value,” since both officials are probably not as well-known to the public but play key roles in the administration.

Reading both profiles, you’d think the White House would come to a screeching halt if either slept past 8 a.m. The Post said Messina has “already become known as a key ‘fixer’ in the operation” — and that staffers figure that whatever’s he’s dealing with at the moment must be the biggest logistical crisis of the day.

Meanwhile, Schiliro, being a humble public servant, not only declined to be interviewed by POLITICO, but in the process of passing began giving credit to his colleagues — who, of course, returned the favor in the form of glowing quotes about him.

Alter acknowledged that such pieces on lesser-known officials can serve a dual purpose. “There are some times when the interests of the reader and the interests of beat sweetener are indistinguishable,” Alter said.

But Mark Feldstein, an associate professor at George Washington University, suggested that the average reader isn’t served well by a beat sweetener because he probably doesn’t know that it is what it is.

Such stories prove that there is “this hidden conversation going on among the cognoscenti,” Feldstein said, adding that “whenever I see a laudatory profile, there is always usually some hidden agenda going on.”

Feldstein said that in the early days of the Obama administration, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see written transformations of figures like Joe Biden (“from blowhard to statesman”) or Larry Summers (“from sexist to steady hand of our fiscal policy”) through beat sweeteners.

The problem, Feldstein said, is that beat reporters “are kind of captives to this bureaucracy, [and] they know that some laudatory pieces at the outset will pave goodwill in the future.”

A publication could avoid the quasi-conflict of interest by assigning these early profiles to reporters who won’t be covering the beat regularly. Leibovich, who’s not strictly a White House reporter but profiled Gibbs and Emanuel, admitted that “it’s a really tricky thing to write about someone you’re dealing with every day.”

While reporters are unlikely to admit that questions about future access cloud their minds while reporting, everyone knows that a negative piece can have repercussions down the road.

Last week, The New Yorker’s Washington correspondent, Ryan Lizza, penned his 5,100-word profile of Emanuel, aptly titled “The Gatekeeper.” And indeed, Emanuel is the kind of guy who, once wronged, might keep a reporter on the outside in the future. In addition to his New Yorker gig, Lizza needs access for his forthcoming book on the Obama administration — the one he’s gotten a six-figure contract to write.

Lizza’s piece was well-reported and written, but, with more quotes from Emanuel’s friends than his enemies, it also didn’t rock the boat or reveal any warts that might lead to a shutdown of access.

Of course, while early-going beat sweeteners may have a saccharine quality, they don’t preclude reporters — even the ones pouring honey now — from writing harder-hitting pieces later on.

Adam Clymer, the former New York Times national political correspondent, said that profiles early on tend to be friendly because the officials haven’t been on the job long enough to develop grudges with colleagues.

“It takes a while for that type of stuff to leak out,” Clymer said, noting that new White House staffers “haven’t been around long enough to tell the mean things.”

But Feldstein contends that beat sweeteners don’t go away after the first hundred days — they remain part of the Washington journalism firmament because of the fundamentals of supply and demand.

“There are more reporters than sources with exclusive information,” Feldstein said. “The sources are in the driver’s seat, and they can leak to whoever they want to. How do you position yourself? One way is with the brown-nose profile.”

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