Beat Sweeteners

Posted on



Atrios alluded to this the other day, but part of the peculiar set of institutions that constitutes “journalistic ethics” is the idea of a “beat-sweetener.” This means that when a new set of powerful people is put into place, and most of all when a new presidential administration comes to DC, you see a flurry of journalists penning lavishly flattering profiles of different key players. The idea is that the key player in question and his staff will then become a useful source of future information. I don’t think anyone ever quite admits that a piece they’ve handed in is a beat-sweetener, but people in the game generally know one when they see one and it’s frequently joked about and so forth.

As with a lot of other semi-abusive practices in the news business, I don’t think there’s really anything you can “do about it.” Access is inherently a valuable commodity, as is good publicity. So the exchange of good publicity for access is bound to happen. And since the supply of viable distribution channels exceeds the number of powerful political appointees, a certain amount of profile-writing is bound to be a kind of anti-investigative journalism in which the powerful use the press to advance their own agenda.

The underlying logic of the transaction strikes me as so compelling that I’m confident it will long outlive the newspaper or even the idea of journalistic ethics. Still, the widespread social and professional acceptance of this kind of thing—nobody thinks it’s a shameful thing to do—is one of several dozen reasons why I think most journalists could stand to be less self-righteous about their profession.