May 1, 2009
In today’s outrage culture, everything from the cute guy getting dumped from “American Idol” to AIG bonuses inspires some segment to start waving pitchforks.
The latest apparent atrocity is “beat-sweeteners,” supposedly saccharine stories about officials whom reporters routinely cover in a naked attempt to curry favor. Esteemed writers Matthew Yglesias of the liberal group Think Progress, Timothy Noah of Slate and Michael Calderone of Politico have all decried the practice, which often commences with a new White House administration.
There’s certainly a good argument to be made against getting too cozy with sources and for writing hard-charging, issue-driven pieces. There’s no better example of that than business reporters who, by and large, managed to completely miss the meltdown of our financial system. We need investigative journalism now more than ever, especially as newspapers are folding in Michigan and all over the country.
But beat-sweeteners aren’t necessarily incongruous with that; adept journalists know how to do hard and soft stories. They also aren’t the death knell of journalism. And they serve a purpose, though not what the outraged may think.
First of all, less articulate critics in the blogosphere seem to confuse any profile with a beat-sweetener. If the point of said story is to butter up a source, tracking down her first-grade teacher, the opponent in her first election and her bitter ex-husband for a 10,000-word piece seems like an awful lot of trouble to go through. Ditto for following the subject around for days or weeks at a time and transcribing hours of tape. A long-form profile contains plenty of warts, like the one I did on Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop for Dome in March (“Bishop Was Born to Run”). I doubt he thought Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer’s quote calling him “far and away the worst legislative leader in the modern history of the state” was very sweet.
And nowadays, when there are too few in-depth stories and an abundance of info-graphs in magazines and newspapers, I think trying to get inside the heads of the folks who run our state, country and corporations is admirable. Plenty of those stories — especially by scribes maligned with the beat-sweetener stigma like the The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza or the The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber — are beautifully written. Eloquence is often the first casualty of the 24/7 online news cycle. For a snob like me, it’s a welcome change to read a layered, polished, well-sourced piece instead of the barely decipherable, all-caps rants that pass for political commentary on many websites.
In contrast, beat-sweeteners are short, peppy looks at a notable person, peppered with positive quotes from a colleague or two. They’re fairly popular in small newspapers, though not because reporters are sucking up. Often there’s a directive from management or the writer is inexperienced or that’s just the way things are done at Ye Olde Town Courier. There are plenty of puff pieces on Lansing and D.C. politicos, too, and many of them are not particularly well-written. Those that ignore controversies or fail to include even one other source may seem particularly useless, only providing a scrapbook page for the subject’s mother.
But even the most banal often contain an interesting anecdote or two. Jennifer Granholm reminisces about door-knocking for Jerry Ford. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs gives a behind-the-scenes look at the implosion of Tom Daschle’s cabinet nomination. These stories humanize people and give some insight into their psyches. They can show how the sausage is made. That serves the public well.
As for the idea that beat-sweeteners will buy reporters goodwill, that presumes a healthy level of naiveté for both reporter and source. Veteran newsman Jack Lessenberry has written a couple glossy profiles of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. He also penned a number of acidic columns, likening Hizzoner to “Bart Simpson trying to be a gangsta pimp.” Evidently, Kwame’s posse wasn’t sufficiently charmed by Jack’s profiles and slandered him as a member of a racist “lynch mob.”
Likewise, my profile on Bishop won me some kudos from Republicans and snipes from liberals, who conveniently forgot my dozen-odd acerbic columns on the Senate leader. Trust me, his allies haven’t forgotten, as they frequently accost me, whether I’m covering the Senate or grabbing a drink at the Exchange. This is nothing new. I found that out the hard way after I wrote a sweet story on a little old lady quilter for a small Michigan daily. After I profiled another seamstress, I got an earful from the first, trash-talking her rival’s stitching skills and my journalistic integrity.
But I’m a big girl and get that this comes with the territory.
Years ago, when partisan blogs were popping up all over the place, I expected to see plenty of beat-sweetener-type profiles. After all, you’d think sympathetic bloggers could get access, especially since many of them do work for politicians and parties anyway. Officials always want to get out their message, and this would be a great way to do that. I’ve spotted some fawning Q&As on Michigan blogs and, of course, the ever-popular practice of letting legislators post their video press releases (great journalism, that). But profiles are nonexistent.
Why? Even the one-source beat-sweetener takes work — transcribing quotes, composing a narrative, maybe throwing in some analysis. Rants are easy and fun. And you don’t need to be a journalist to pound them out. Writing eight lyrical pages on Budget Director Peter Orszag, as Lizza just did, is frankly above the average blogger’s pay grade.
Personally, I love writing profiles on people I know nothing about or disagree with politically. I am a journalist because I am insatiably curious and want to uncover what makes someone tick. That also helps me better cover issues, because I know where someone is coming from. Too often in politics, people dismiss one another based on ideology and forget that they’re dealing with actual human beings.
The easiest thing in the world is to write sycophantic sonnets on people with whom you agree. Now what I’d love to see is a right-wing citizen journalist throw himself into writing a detailed personality profile of Gov. Granholm. After hearing about her kids’ science projects and vacations with the family pup, I bet it would be harder to blast her as a baby-killing, tax-hiking machine in every other sentence.
Contrary to the old adage, familiarity can breed respect. Not that we’d want that in politics, of course.
Susan J. Demas is a 2006 Knight Foundation Fellow in nonprofits journalism and a political analyst for Michigan Information & Research Service.