The Beat Creator

3 Sep

If in the early days of a new administration, newly minted White House correspondents are eager to pump out what has come to be known as “the beat sweetener“, then it is the regional political reporters, the journalistic know-it-alls of state based politics that stand to gain the most from “the beat creator”.

The beat sweetener is defined by Word Spy Paul McFedries as “A flattering, non-critical profile of a public figure written by a reporter whose regular beat includes coverage of that person.”  Typically they are understood to be a means to cull new sources, and soften up their subjects to make the reporter’s long-term coverage easier, or more effective.

The beat creator on the other hand is a (maybe flattering/non-critical) profile of a newly national public figure, written by a reporter who has a long history of covering that person at a local level.  Beat creators are what happens when local political reporters suddenly find the somewhat obscure political figure they have long covered earning national attention.  They help bridge the gap from anonymity to ubiquity.

But just as reporters stand to gain access and trust from a beat sweetener, the beat creator helps advance its author’s career ambitions in as much as it supports further speculation about the candidate’s political viability.  In an unusual symbiotic accident the local political reporter’s professional and financial fate becomes tied to the success or failure of the subjects of their reportage.  Because as the politician grows in stature, the reporters who hold the institutional knowledge of their political history are suddenly in possession of a valuable commodity, which can be leveraged to reach the top of the journalistic heap.

Take Jeff Zeleny, who covers the White House for the New York Times.  Jeff is a talented newspaperman who cut his teeth the old fashioned way, grinding it out early in his career at the Des Moines Register, eventually becoming the Chicago Tribune’s national political correspondent for 5 plus years including on the campaign trail in 2004.  He was part of the Chicago Tribune team that won a Pulitzer for documenting gridlock in the nation’s air traffic control system.  He’s got legitimate credentials.

But it’s revealing that in the September 2006 press release announcing Zeleny’s acquisition, New York Times DC bureau chief, Phil Taubman says, “If you don’t know Jeff or his work, take a look at his lively, revealing coverage of Senator Barack Obama.” In the fall of 2006 the Times made a shrewd move picking up one of the preeminent chroniclers of the man who would just over two years later be elected President of the United States.  So after seven years following State Senator Obama, then Senate candidate Obama, then Senator Obama, then Presiedential candidate Obama, Zeleny got himself the job of a lifetime as White House correspondent for the paper of record.  Obama’s success had skyrocketed Zeleny to the top of the pack in the political journalism establishment.

This is far from a new phenomenon.  It is conventional wisdom that the fate of reporters on the campaign trail are tied to that of the candidates they cover.   Those on the bus of the winning campaigns are more likely to end up in the White House correspondents room than the poor suckers stuck following the Mike Huckabee’s of the world.  There are countless examples.  But it’s the regional guys and gals, the ones who are there long before the campaign busses are gassed up that have the most at stake.  And on some level, one has to wonder if this intrinsic conflict of interest impacts the resulting stories.

So when Sasha Issenberg, former DC reporter for the Boston Globe, writes a well-sourced, largely vanilla beat creator on “Mitt Romney in exile” as he plans his 2012 rise, do we fully understand the motives at play?  When we read, “While other 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls crash, burn, and sputter, Mitt Romney has quietly been raising millions, casting himself as a New Hampshire son, keeping cozy with the NRA, and otherwise perfecting his Mr. Perfect approach,” how does it color the reader’s impression to know that Issenberg stands to gain a lot from a more prominent Mitt Romney?

When Minnesota based AP reporter Brian Bakst, writes, “Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is a man on the move. Next stop, the Republican National Committee meeting in California. Future stop? Maybe the White House,” what are we to think?  How many times does a guy like Bakst get to write nationally syndicated stories based out of the MN bureau?  Does that number go up if Pawlenty becomes the front runner for the GOP nomination?

When Arkansas Democrat Gazette scribe Matthew Cate says, “He doesn’t have Mitt Romney’s money or Rush Limbaugh’s microphone, but Mike Huckabee is still working to sow seeds of influence among the Republican Party,” is it this just a trend, a tired cliché, or are we witnessing something more pernicious.

I don’t have much to say about Issenberg, Bakst or Cate’s motives. I’d imagine they’re pure. In the end they’re probably just trying to tell what seem like interesting stories to their local readers.  But there is no denying that each of these somewhat minor journalistic figures has a lot of skin in the game when they are shaking the political eight ball of the presidential hopefuls they describe.

You could argue that any reporter has a lot to gain from their beat’s sudden prominence in the national dialogue.  But more than most other topics, coverage of politics has the ability to directly impact future outcomes.  That’s why politicians spend so much time, energy and resources focused on the press.

Surely there’s a case to be made that journalists stand to gain even more from a candidate’s demise than their success.  Just look at Woodword and Bernstein.  But Watergate is an exception to the rule.  Would the reporters covering Mark Sanford be better off in the long run had he become a viable candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012?  Certainly the reporters at The State who broke story after story of Sanford’s steamy “hiking trip” got a lot of temporary notoriety and attention in the immediate aftermath, but two years from now, who’s going to need the foremost expert on Mark Sanford on their reporting staff?

So maybe it isn’t so surprising that the early days of a politician’s rise to prominence and power are marked largely with shiny, gleaming press coverage. And when they finally hit that pinnacle, when the villagers begin to get collectively restless and feel that frothy sense that it’s time for the grand take down, those loyal, good old friends from the local paper will be leading the charge, pitchforks shiny and sharp from years of preparation. Because what’s the point of building somebody up if you can’t be there to kick them on the way down?

So for now, maybe we should just add another one to the moronic lexicon and file it away as we interpret the series of shallow, glowing profiles that are the foundation of any presidential hopeful’s candidacy.  Long live the beat sweetener and long live the beat creators that made such sweet beats possible.

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