Beat sweetener: The Benjamin J. Rhodes edition
If you’ve ever wanted to see a White House staffer dressed in frosting and candy sprinkles like a gourmet cupcake, pull your Saturday, March 16, New York Times out of the recycling pile and read Mark Landler’s adulating “beat sweetener” about Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes, “Worldly at 35, and Shaping Obama’s Voice.”
A beat sweetener, as press-watchers know, is an over-the-top slab of journalistic flattery of a potential source calculated to earn a reporter access or continued access. They’re most frequently composed on the White House beat when a new administration arrives in Washington and every Executive Office job turns over, but they can appear any time a reporter is prepared to demean himself by toadying up to a source in exchange for material.
As a beat sweetener, the Rhodes piece excels on so many levels that I’ll bet the subject’s parents have framed and hung the clipping over the family mantel. Landler portrays Rhodes as a young fella with “old man” wisdom; as possessing a “soft voice” that delivers “strong opinions”; as one whose “influence extends beyond what either his title or speechwriting duties suggest”; and as someone who “cares” to the point of “anguish” but is “very realistic.”
The information content of these testimonials, made by both Landler and his sources, is just about zero. We learn that he “channels Mr. Obama on foreign policy,” as if a 35-year-old deputy who writes speeches for the president would have his boss on a leash. His unnamed friends and colleagues attest that he’s “deeply frustrated by a policy [in Syria] that is not working,” as if anyone could be anything but frustrated by a policy that isn’t working. Indeed, in the article’s next sentence, we learn from anonymous “administration officials” that Rhodes “is not alone in his frustration over Syria.”
Drawing liberally from the reporter’s big book of clichés, we learn that Rhodes wrote Obama’s “landmark address” given in Cairo in 2009 and that the upcoming Israel speech he has composed for Obama will assert America’s “unshakable support” for that nation. The salient fact about Rhodes’s landmark address — unmentioned by Landler here — was that it flopped, at least among the locals. According to a Pew survey, confidence in Obama in Muslim countries dropped from 33 percent in 2009 to 24 percent in 2012.
According to Landler, in “many ways” Rhodes was “an improbable choice for his current job at the heart of the national security apparatus.” Improbable? How so? After a couple of paragraphs of biography, in which we learn that Rhodes has an unfinished novel in his drawer (show me a speechwriter who doesn’t have at least one), that he grew up in Manhattan and that he worked briefly on Rudy Giuliani’s 1997 re-election campaign, we’re told that Rhodes toiled for former Representative Lee Hamilton, a “Democratic foreign-policy elder,” and helped him draft the 9/11 Commission report and the Iraq Study Group report. The latter document was “a template for the anti-Iraq war positions taken” by Obama when he was a senator.
Hiring Rhodes — or somebody with his resume — wasn’t an improbable choice. It was entirely predestined. Unnoted in the Times profile are the facts that Rhodes also wrote policy speeches for former Virginia Governor Mark Warner, that other Hamilton aides joined the Obama campaign, and that Rhodes’s wife, Ann Norris, works for Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) on foreign policy and defense issues. For more Rhodes details, see this PR sketch published by his alma mater, Rice University: He studied there with novelist Max Apple, double-majoring in English and political science, and later got an MFA in fiction at New York University, where he also taught writing.
Why pretend Rhodes was an outside shot for the job? Did the Times decide the piece lacked sufficient tension to hold reader interest, and inflated the story with the bogus notion that he’s an accidental West Winger? Your guess is as good as mine.
Sucking up to Rhodes won’t necessarily earn Landler or other journalists covering the White House an automatic scoop. But beat sweeteners aren’t written with anything so crass in mind as scoops. They’re designed to keep the information conveyor lubricated (“source greaser” is another term for the practice) with journalistic goodwill. As someone who is inside the White House decision loop, Rhodes is a much better friend than an enemy.
That said, there was no reason for the Times to serve its readers a giant vanilla cupcake with vanilla frosting and vanilla jimmies. As your mom used to tell you, too much of anything will give you a stomach ache.
At my previous outlet, I flung the “beat sweetener” insult at pieces about Robert S. Mueller III, Rajiv Shah, Pete Rouse, Nancy Pelosi and the Care Bears of the West Wing. If you’ve spotted a beat-sweetener, tip me with email to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed comes in two flavors: sour and extra-sour. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: A tray of cupcakes is pictured at a Crumbs Bake Shop, which specializes in over 50 varieties of cupcakes, in Hollywood, California June 29, 2011.