In a 1988 column for Newsweek, journalist Jonathan Alter used the term “beat sweetener” to describe how access-obsessed Washington journalists curried favor with the powerful politicians they covered.
“To keep access open, reporters need to coddle their sources,” Alter wrote. “In recent years, this cozy system of mutually assured seduction has grown corruptive…. Especially useful sources…are rewarded with occasional ‘beat sweeteners.’ The New York Times…has made a minor specialty of such puffy stories…. Some beat sweeteners are written partly out of hope for future morsels from an important source.”
Two decades later, the beat sweetener remains in fashion among the Washington punditocracy. In 2009, the Washington Post’s Anne Kornblut wrote a fawning profile of then–White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, whom Ken Silverstein of Harper’s deemed “the most egregious beat sweetener of the Obama years.”
Last weekend Jeff Zeleny of the Times penned a worthy successor to Kornblut in the beat sweetener pantheon. His Sunday profile of Messina, now Obama’s re-election campaign manager, was filled with gushing quotes from Messina allies like Rahm Emanuel and David Plouffe, and chockfull of irrelevant details—how many songs are on his iPod, what he ate for lunch—that told us nothing about what he actually did in the White House or what kind of campaign manager he will be. Not surprisingly, grateful administration officials, including White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, quickly circulated Zeleny’s piece via e-mail and Twitter. The incestuousness between a top journalist and his prominent sources was anything but subtle.
Three days earlier, I published an in-depth piece about Messina in The Nation, “Obama’s Enforcer,” which examined his controversial tenure in the White House and for his old boss, Montana Senator Max Baucus, topics Zeleny didn’t bother to cover for his article. (Nonetheless, Bryan Hood of National Journal hilariously called Zeleny’s article “the real substantive Messina piece.”) After my article came out, Marc Ambinder of National Journal and Democratic strategist Bob Creamer, writing on the Huffington Post, posted lengthy and enthusiastic defenses of Messina, which Ben Smith of Politico recounted in a blog called “The Messina Wars.” (Ambinder has defended Messina on repeated occasions and Creamer is one of his closest friends in Democratic political circles.)
Wrote Smith: “This is a moment for some of the media and Democratic infrastructure to pick sides, stake out positions: Do you want the authorized leaks or the unauthorized ones…. Do you want an appointment in the second term or a regular spot on the Ed Show?”
When I reported my piece, a number of plugged-in sources in Washington said that no one would talk to me, because everyone in Democratic politics was afraid of Messina (some courageous souls took the plunge anyway). Evidently, a number of political journalists and operatives in Washington share these fears, viewing it as their job to defend the new Obama campaign manager, which begs the question—why can’t he defend himself? I don’t mean to sound saintly, but that’s a sad commentary on the Washington press corps, which should be focused on reporting critically and fairly about those in power, rather than worrying about how those in lofty positions perceive them.
In any case, “beat sweeteners” rarely lead to a revelatory outcome, as Alter pointed out. “In the end, neither presidents nor the journalists who cover them get much of importance out of this way of doing business,” he wrote. “The truly major stories—like Watergate and the Iran-contra scandal—were missed by the White House press corps altogether.”
Insider access, it turns out, is often overrated.