Slate’s Beat-Sweetener Reader

Good, but goes a bit too easy on the practice

Timothy Noah has a fun column over at Slate on the journalism practice of “beat-sweeteners,” stories written about key sources to get in their good graces so they’ll give up the goods in the future.

The topic, normally a sort of wink-wink inside-baseball thing among reporters and their editors, has been bubbling a bit on left-leaning blogs, who’ve largely said that the practice is evidence of hypocrisy among the truth-tellers brigade.

Noah says he thinks differently:

A beat-sweetener is unethical only in the attenuated sense that a passionately devoted artisanal cobbler might regard as unethical a handmade loafer with poor stitching. It’s lousy craftsmanship, not an ethical lapse warranting extensive debate.

I’ll disagree with that. To the extent that a reporter purposely leaves out negative information to curry favor with a source, that’s unethical. Point blank. And that’s what too often happens with this genre.

Now, as with everything, it’s not that simple. You have the Access Problem, as we’ve called it, which forces the vast majority of reporters to walk a tightrope on what they say and how they say it. Beat writers have to develop good sources to stay ahead on their beats. But get too tough on somebody and they’re likely to cut you off and give your competitors the scoops. And reporters develop friendly relationships with sources—that has to have an effect on coverage. That’s in large part why so much reporting gets stuck in the mushy middle, giving readers false balance. Can’t offend the sources!

This is especially pronounced in business journalism, with its emphasis on deal reporting and C-suite machinations. Companies, unlike the government, don’t have to tell reporters anything that’s not in their public filings.

As Dean Starkman wrote:

It’s hard to write about business without access to sources, and it is considered better to have sources at the very top. People at the top of corporations are hard to reach, and they typically don’t have to talk to reporters unless they want to. They’re protected by a phalanx of public relations specialists, who are not dummies and know when they have leverage. It is therefore much easier to write a story that is largely complimentary—or at least within some unspoken bounds of acceptable discourse—than one that is largely the opposite.

But this applies to all journalism, too—especially nowadays when politics has so much influence over commerce. It’s interesting to look at Noah’s beat-sweetener chart, which helpfully lists the most cringeworthy grovel lines in the pieces along with the negative information they left out. Most of the stories involved business or finance in one way or another.

Noah points out this example of puffery in The New Republic’s glowing profile of Larry Summers:

“Maybe the issue isn’t whether Summers plays well with others, but whether Obama’s economic effort should be led by an ensemble cast or a single virtuoso performer.”

The piece’s subhed also fawned all over Summers, calling him the administration’s “economic oracle.”

Noah notes that the magazine didn’t feel the need to write that Summers:

fervently opposed regulating derivatives when he was deputy treasury secretary; as Harvard president, Summers protected his friend Andrei Schleifer, whose financial misbehavior while heading a Harvard project in Russia later required Harvard to pay a $26.5 million settlement to the U.S. government.

Or check out the failure of the Washington Post in a big profile on Valerie Jarrett, top Obama advisor, to note that her real-estate company was a slumlord in Chicago—a story pieced together, coincidentally enough, by now-WaPo reporter Binyamin Appelbaum, then at The Boston Globe.

Wouldn’t have been good form to write about Jarrett’s slumlord past. Access denied!

Those are some good ones, but how about the business press?

For that, see my next post.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.