Exchanging positive press for access to the White House is a kind of fluff journalism that dilutes the truth and dismantles the agency of the Free Press.
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The way to understand the relationship between the Trump administration and the reporters who cover it is to picture an asymmetrical war where the one side has declared themselves to be a non-combatant. That gives those who are trying to discredit all journalism the power to control the fight. While not all political reporters act in unison, the outlets that portray themselves as without bias or viewpoints—what some call the mainstream media—have essentially decided that in the campaign to discredit journalism they are going to ignore the campaign against them and perform as they always have.
For example, last February, Washington Post’s executive editor Marty Baron described his view of the relationship between his newspaper and President Donald Trump in these terms: “The way I view it is, we’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work. We’re doing our jobs.”
A few days after those remarks Trump tweeted that many of the news outlets that cover him are “the enemy of the American people. SICK!” After that shocking declaration, he repeated the phrase at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
Think Trump’s increasingly more aggressive statements made the political press rethink their non-combatant status? In September the New York Times changed its social media rules for all its staff in order to preserve the relationship between the White House and the Times’ reporters that cover it. Executive Editor Dean Baquet said in a speech which justified the tighter social media rules that it’s harder for their White House correspondents like Maggie Haberman to go into the White House and ask about tax plans when people think the Times staffers dislike Trump.
However, the policy only controlled sentiment in one direction, as a barrier against staffers’ negative observations of the Trump administration. It wasn’t intended to prevent positive observations of the White House for a good reason: Because sometimes a positive or sympathetic tweet is a tool the reporters can use in the service of a story.
“Beat sweetener” is a term used in the media to describe essentially a puff piece that makes someone look good as a way of building a relationship with them as a source. So if you want a White House staffer to give you inside info, for example, you might write a glowing profile of either them or the person they serve under.
One of my favorite press-crit terms: 'beat sweetener.' When a reporter new to the beat does a glowing profile; its subject becomes a source.
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) January 5, 2018
No journalist or editor will admit to beat sweetening, of course, and it’s too nuanced to really hold anyone accountable for it. The grease that makes the wheels of access journalism turn, beat sweeteners aren’t so much bribery as flattery, employed to get people to open up about more important stories. It’s meant to demonstrate to the source that, “Hey I’m not against you, I’m fair. Sometimes I write stories that make you look good. It’s not all bad stuff.” Author Michael Wolff has a diminished reputation among other journalists to some extent because he admitted to using the tactic. He said the quiet part of journalism out loud.
Is it so awful that a journalist might want to bank a little goodwill with a source in order to get better information in the future for more critical, important stories? The relationship between political reporters in D.C. and sources—be it members of an administration, a campaign, or other areas of governance—can’t exist in pure acrimony. A source who thinks the journalist only writes negative stories about them, whether or not that coverage is fair, will hardly be willing to answer that journalist’s questions the next time they come calling. But are there consequences to beat sweetening in the era of Trump? Can journalists really operate using the same methods they’ve always used if Trump and his administration have exploded all the norms? Journalists who cover Washington politics may acknowledge Trump is changing all the rules, but it doesn’t seem clear whether they’ve considered how that impacts their own norms, or how it should, and how they might be contributing to his campaign to discredit all journalism—because many reporters have yet to amend or altogether change tactics. That’s at least partly due to the ultimate goal of beat sweetening: access. In the world of political reporting, journalists still believe that they require access to cover their subjects. You can’t be a White House correspondent if you don’t have access to the inside of the White House so the thinking goes.
Beat sweetening is how to best understand some of the media’s wildly disparate reactions to comedian Michelle Wolf’s scathing routine at this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner.
That @PressSec sat and absorbed intense criticism of her physical appearance, her job performance, and so forth, instead of walking out, on national television, was impressive.
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) April 29, 2018
Watching a wife and mother be humiliated on national television for her looks is deplorable. I have experienced insults about my appearance from the president. All women have a duty to unite when these attacks happen and the WHCA owes Sarah an apology.
— Mika Brzezinski (@morningmika) April 29, 2018
Outrage at a comedy routine is the new beat sweetener.
— Clara Jeffery (@ClaraJeffery) April 29, 2018
Political reporters are continuing to employ the same short-term calculations that used to work in their favor in covering other administrations. The same night Wolf made her pointed jokes about White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s penchant for lying, the President of the United States was at a rally in Michigan, once again telling his followers that press is full of liars who conceal their true agenda. Just this week Trump tweeted: “Why do we work so hard in working with the media when it is corrupt? Take away credentials?” This isn’t only coming from Trump either. In an extreme bit of irony, the office of the First Lady used the phrase “opposition media” when it was pointed out that her office was not that author of a booklet she was promoting as part of her new anti-cyber-bullying campaign. In support of a campaign against name-calling, Melania Trump called reporters names.
The problem for journalists who cover politics is that while Trump’s intentions to discredit them may seem obviously transparent to them—and to perhaps as much as 56 percent of the country—at least 40 percent of the country completely believes him when he says the press are liars and not to be trusted. Can political journalism continue to operate as it always has if 40 percent of the country has been coached to believe they are discredited liars? More importantly, is that 56 to 40 percent ratio a static number? A temporary spike in distrust in the era of Trump that will return to previous levels once this whole Trump era is over? Journalists shouldn’t bet on it.
Trump didn’t start the campaign to discredit journalism, he’s merely reaping the benefits of decades of past work by conservatives. Without tracing the entire history of political reporting, when America first became a country “unbiased” was not the way newspapers touted themselves to their audiences. Since anyone could own a printing press, it was largely understood that printed media reflected the views of the printer, be it pro-slavery, anti-slavery, pro-Federalism or anti-Federalism. Political reporting realigned itself over time largely in response to the beginning of broadcast journalism, first radio and later TV. The reason being that while anyone could own a printing press, radio spectrum was limited. Once the United States government began to regulate radio frequency ownership, starting in 1927 and later expanded to include broadcast television—stations couldn’t tout themselves as being representatives of a political viewpoint. As TV and radio journalism grew in strength and audience, newspapers largely followed that trend and rebranded themselves to the model we still see them touting today, as an unbiased observer in a world of partisans. The honest broker of information because it has no agenda. This is a positioning New York University’s Jay Rosen has dubbed “The View from Nowhere.”
If broadcasters like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite were seen as more trustworthy than the politicians they reported on, that gave an advantage to reporters over politicians. This put journalists in the position of being the “referees” to call the rules of political fights and facts themselves. (And where the phrase “working the refs” comes from, as a carryover from sports.) Most historians trace the beginning of the campaign to discredit journalists with the Lyndon Baines Johnson administration over the coverage of the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration over, well, Nixon, because one way to fight a scandal is to discredit the source of information. Like any cultural trend, it can take decades to garner support and become widespread. This is how we have gotten to our present moment. Roger Ailes’s Fox News was not the sole reason there is now a deep partisan split on how political news coverage is viewed but he is surely the most successful general conservatives had in the war against journalism prior to Trump himself.
“We’re doing our jobs” might seem like a steady principle to guide journalism through this chaotic period of history. The problem is when a campaign to discredit an industry takes root, even if the tree (which in this metaphor would be Trump himself) is felled someday—either by impeachment or election—the roots underpinning the campaign aren’t ripped out with the stump. The conservative campaigns against journalism didn’t die with Roger Ailes. It didn’t lose steam when Steve Bannon’s stock with Breitbart News rose and fell. When audience is captured by a side that says “you can’t trust those people,” how can journalists get them back if only by saying they aren’t the ones doing the fighting? An asymmetrical war tends to leave one side steamrolled over the other.
The impact of one fancy dinner, one tweet, one article, even one statement by an important executive editor, cannot be implicitly weighed on the long-term campaign to make audiences distrust journalism. There isn’t really a straw that breaks the camel’s back in this situation. But eventually, over time, enough straw combined with enough mud will build bricks. And those bricks get stacked on top of each other. When the bricks get heavy enough, at some point, maybe in the distant future or maybe in a much shorter timeframe than they realize, journalists are going to notice they’ve been entombed, and getting out will take a lot more effort than when it was just straw and mud being hurled at them.
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