The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Beat Sweeteners

An Old Journalistic Trick

I was surprised to see a story on "beat sweeteners" - an insider term to describe the puff pieces mainstream media reporters sometimes write in order to make their jobs easier at the expense of the public's right to know. Critical even of itself, Politico explains:

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....

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.”

The problem said Mark Feldstein, an associate professor at George Washington University, 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. Mark 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.

I've seen those "repercussions" locally first hand. When the Valley Advocate did a series of negative articles about the administration of former Springfield Mayor Michael Albano in 1996, the Mayor responded by cutting off all contact with the paper and directing staff not to answer questions from Advocate reporters. When the Advocate still refused to give Albano the puff pieces he demanded, the Mayor went so far as to ban the Advocate from being delivered to City Hall, despite the fact that all other free publications were allowed to be distributed in City Hall. When the Advocate insisted on leaving copies at City Hall anyway, mayoral aides were spotted throwing piles of issues of the Advocate into the City Hall dumpster.

In typical jackass fashion, none of the other Valley media outlets came publicly to the Advocate's defense. The official ban on the Valley Advocate in City Hall remained in place until January 1, 2004, when on his first day in office newly sworn in Mayor Charles V. Ryan ordered that the ban on the Advocate be lifted.

Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. Ryan's successor Dom Sarno has, while not going so far as banning the Advocate from City Hall, once again refuses to provide Advocate reporters journalistic access to his administration. You can read more about it by clicking here.

Happy Birthday

Speaking of Springfield, yesterday was the birthday of the city's favorite son, Dr. Seuss! (Theodor Seuss Geisel - March 2, 1904 – September 24, 1991). The dedication in 2002 of the Dr. Seuss National Memorial was attended by a rogue's gallery of sleazy politicians.

I once did a compare and contrast piece regarding Seuss and Springfield's least favorite son, Dr. Timothy Leary (October 22, 1920 – May 31, 1996).

You can read it by clicking here.

Bearish on Deval

This Dave Roback picture I swiped from Masslive shows our Governor Deval Patrick posing with some cute baby bears during a visit to Western Mass last week.

It will take more than cute animals however to revive Deval's sinking popularity in the wake of his proposal to raise the gas tax by 19 cents. While Boston drivers would benefit from the tax money being used to avoid steep toll increases on the Big Dig tunnels, the tax increases offer nothing to us here in Western Mass. That explains why so many local people are flocking to sign this petition at Springfield's WHYN protesting the hike.

Vanished Children

Historian Mark T. Alamed has on his blog this picture of newsboys in Northampton way back in August of 1912. Notice the shadow of the hat-wearing photographer at the boy's bare feet.

Fresh Perspective

Many people photograph the Civil War statues next to Hamp's Pulaski Park, but Tony Mateaus is the first I've seen take a photograph from the statue's point of view.

Snow, snow and more snow.

I didn't post yesterday because of the big snowstorm. As you can see downtown Northampton was swimming in snow from one end of the street....

To the other....

Pulaski Park looked like it was still Christmas time. But notice that no weather discourages New England bike riders.

There was nothing to do but pile it all in the middle of the street, as you can see from this picture I took last night.

Publicly owned UMass was closed, but privately owned Amherst College was open, as you can see from their employee parking lot.

There is a lesson there about the difference between public and private.

High Chair

I like this psychedelic chair that local writer Alex Ross made.

Today's Video

In 1970 the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane united along with some friends from other groups to make some music. The resulting recording sessions (called PERRO for Planet Earth Rock n' Roll Orchestra) are legendary, but contractual and legal hassles prevented anything from the sessions from being commercially released. However some of the material is mysteriously surfacing on YouTube and the lawyers aren't ordering it removed - yet. Before they do check out this lost masterpiece "Mountain Song" the only known songwriting collaboration between Jerry Garcia and Paul Kantner.

Vocals: David Crosby, Graham Nash, Grace Slick
Banjo: Jerry Garcia
Rhythm Guitar: Paul Kantner
Acoustic bass: Phil Lesh
Drums; Mickey Hart


Anonymous said...

Something many people fail to realize, when living out in a rural area of astate that also contains a decent sized city, is that improvements on the city ultimately impact the rural areas too.

Improving transportation in the city, for example, increases business, travel - in and out of the city. It generates money that ultimately is taxed and then directly benefits the state as a whole.

How much does a place like Northampton contribute in tax money to the state compared to Boston? Far less, I guarantee it.

Yet there is a strange sense of spite held by people in rural western mass when it comes to Boston. It's OK for Boston's tax dollars to contribute to funds that may help the whole state, but when it comes to helping boston with funds from all over the state, people throw shit fits.

Anonymous said...

Re: public vs. private university -- Many students commute to UMass, the same cannot be said for Amherst. Moreover, snow removal on the Amherst campus is hardly the logistic nightmare it is at UMass. I agree private schools run a tighter ship, but a snowstorm is a poor illustrator of the difference.

Tommy said...

Okay, I'm always looking for excuses to be nice to UMass.

Michael Henry said...

Speaking of Deval. He was in Springfield today talking about the proposed gas tax hike.

He was at STCC from 4 to 7. I had no clue. I work across the street and just happened to be on my lunch break when I saw four protesters at the STCC building and walked over to see what was up.

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