Profiles in Source Greasing

Having done the veepstakes to death, awaiting the conventions or another naughty word from a White House official, what’s a political reporter to do to pass the time? Serve up a gentle profile of one of the many top operatives working for one side or the other in the battle for the White House. Such a story serves a dual purpose: it fills the news hole, and it stands the reporter in good stead with a key campaign player who could prove useful later in the election season — it’s a “source greaser,” as a Campaign Desk colleague put it.

A rash of such stories has broken out of late. Today, The Washington Post provides readers with a soft-focus look at Jason Miner, the head of opposition research for the Democratic National Committee, “one of those Washington operatives … important players in shaping the news.” The Baltimore Sun reports today on native son Kenneth Mehlman, Bush’s campaign manager, who “wields enormous influence in the re-election team, though he is not the supreme figure” (that would be Karl Rove). And on May 16, The New York Times’s Rick Lyman offered up a profile of Ed Gillespie, the head of the Republican National Committee, who often “hears himself introduced as ‘President Bush’s pit bull.’”

There’s a handy formula to these profiles. Readers learn, shockingly, that these high-ranking operatives are very busy — their days are long and frantic, they rally their troops via Blackberry and cell phone, they hold conference calls at insanely early hours of the morning (at least, by journalists’ standards). The reporter demonstrates, often by quoting the operative’s coworker, that although these people exist to control media access, twist arms, and spin stories, they’re actually all sweetness and light, innocent as lambs. The Post’s John F. Harris reports that Jason Miner is “even-keeled, fresh faced, and soft-spoken” and that he has, according to a former coworker, “a boy-next-door demeanor and the manners of a Boy Scout while he’s dishing out the most damaging information.” The Sun lets readers know that “[Ken] Mehlman is no slick operative. He gives voice to self-doubt and frets openly at times about his performance,” and he is “often the first person to send an e-mail or to call if a friend has job frustrations or a death in the family.” In The Times, one of Ed Gillespie’s former coworkers calls him “a guy who is incredibly decent and generous,” and, according to his onetime boss, former Republican House majority leader Dick Armey, “he also comes across as somebody you wouldn’t mind having a drink with.” Often, as in The Post and The Sun, it is the operative himself who gets the final, self-important word in the piece.

It’s clear how this sort of profile serves the purposes of the reporter, the news outlet, and the profilee. What’s less clear is how this sort of fluff serves readers.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.