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.