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Questioning the 'Michelle Beat' Story

By Andy Alexander

Reporters who strive for detachment and neutrality view themselves as distinct from those who inject personal opinions into their writing. That difference is at the core of a dispute over a Post piece about the small group of black female journalists who cover first lady Michelle Obama.

Post media writer Howard Kurtz referred to the five women named in his story as "main beat reporters," but one of the women -- Rachel Swarns of the New York Times -- objected. She said Newsweek’s Allison Samuels, based in Los Angeles, shouldn't have been lumped in with the “beat reporters,” because her writing on the first lady has included some highly favorable first-person pieces.

“As a journalist with 20 years in the business, I am very disappointed that you chose to conflate her work with the work of those of us who are beat reporters, who write news and features without including personal commentary,” Swarns told Kurtz.

He addressed Swarns’s complaint a few days later at the end of his column, writing: “I understand her concern, but everyone covers the subject differently and both the first lady’s office and Newsweek consider Samuels to be the beat writer.”

Swarns was unsatisfied. “His response fails to deal with the substance of my complaint,” she wrote to me in an e-mail. “It’s quite clear to Mr. Kurtz... that first-person commentary and the work of beat reporters who write news and news features without personal opinion is not the same at all. He had an obligation, at the very least, to make that distinction plain in his article.”

I think she has a point. To reporters who strive for objectivity, the distinction is important.

With Samuels grouped with the others, Swarns told me she worries that readers will “assume that this is the kind of work that we, as a group, do.” She is concerned that “readers will see this and say ‘these black female beat reporters are cheerleaders for [Michelle] Obama.’”

Some of the Newsweek stories Samuels has written about the first lady are flattering and highly personal. In her writing, she often refers to Obama as “Michelle.” In one article, she wrote that it was “remarkable” how “quickly and decisively Michelle has taken on the issues that matter most to us.” In an earlier story, headlined "What Michelle Obama Means to Us," Samuels wrote of being “taken by her warmth and eagerness to chat about everything.”

But that doesn’t make Samuels's writing less credible or diminish its value. In reviewing her stories on the first lady, I find them favorable yet informative – especially when she has probed Obama’s views on diversity and assessed her as a role model for African American women.

In an e-mail to me on Tuesday, Samuels said she was upset that “I am being forced to defend and explain my work.” She added: “I’ve done a combination of straight news and (personal) commentary articles on her for Newsweek – a magazine that allows me to cover Mrs. Obama in several different ways.”

Mark Miller, Newsweek’s editorial director, noted that as a veteran Newsweek senior writer, Samuels is given the latitude to “write about certain subjects depending on their idea for a piece or the point of view they bring.”

“For us, she is doing exactly what we want her to do and, as far as we are concerned, doing it well,” he said.

A separate issue is whether Samuels, who is based in California and writes on everything from Hollywood celebrities to sports stars, should be considered a Michelle Obama “beat reporter." Clearly, she has not written about the first lady with the frequency of Swarns or the other reporters Kurtz named – The Post’s Robin Givhan, Politico’s Nia-Malika Henderson and Darlene Superville of the Associated Press. And she does not cover Obama’s regular appearances in and around the nation’s capital.

Katie McCormick Lelyveld, the first lady’s spokesperson, said her office considers Samuels a “beat reporter” in the sense that she is in “regular contact” about Obama’s activities. Samuels is among the reporters invited to have tea with the first lady next week.

Asked whether he thinks Samuels covers Obama as a beat, Newsweek's Miller said no. “But she definitely has written substantial pieces about her and will continue to do so,” he added.

Kurtz told me that he now wishes his original story had made it clear that some of Samuels’s writings were first-person and positive toward the first lady, thus setting her apart from the work of the other reporters who cover Mrs. Obama. “In retrospect, a phrase noting that... would have been helpful,” he said.

By Andy Alexander  | July 22, 2009; 5:22 PM ET
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The pen is mightier. You get beat with a pen. Ouch.

Posted by: Dermitt | July 23, 2009 6:46 PM | Report abuse

the head-nodding dreamgirl chorus line of female "reporters" assigned to Mrs. The One embarrass themselves weekly. sad to see that progress on one front means a total abandonment of professionalism on another.
they are so dazzled by Mrs. The One that they blither and stammer, scrap and bow.
yawn. glad to see MSM circle the drain and this is why.

Posted by: mrcrister3 | July 23, 2009 7:16 PM | Report abuse

And, you have nothing else to write about?

Not to mention that reporters who are
objective and honest are extinct.

How much long for Katherine's little
silly sheet?

Posted by: whistling | July 23, 2009 7:43 PM | Report abuse

I'm not aware of/familiar with the others named, but Robin Givhan seems to be losing her edge since she moved/was moved to the Michelle Beat -- fluffy and adoring of the First Lady's appearance when, truth to tell, there's more yet to be desired in her costume choices.

Posted by: esthermiriam | July 23, 2009 10:08 PM | Report abuse

I like Howard Kurtz; I read his columns, his chats and watch his Sunday morning tv show. I enjoy his perspective on media behavior. I find it ironic that he has a hard time accepting criticism of his own behavior, though, which he does. His first response seems to always be to blow it off. I wish he would be more thoughtful about his own behavior sometimes, and this is an example.

Posted by: pmi1027 | July 23, 2009 10:30 PM | Report abuse

None of the Michelle Obama sycophants can even come close to the horrific writing executed by Sally Quinn.

Posted by: Tupac_Goldstein | July 23, 2009 11:28 PM | Report abuse



On the recent article title: "OFFICER TELLS HIS SIDE OF THE STORY IN GATES ARREST", written by Krissah Thompson and Cheryl W. Thompson, Staff Writers, Friday 24, 2009.

The story ran from around 4:00pm -11:00pm Thursday 23, 2009.
The number of "COMMENTS", on the 'website' as of 11:00pm was "1,862 COMMENTS". At 10:30pm, I contacted 5 of my UNION BROTHERS, to check the 'COMMENTS', on their computers.

We found some of the "COMMENTS" had been repeated 'NUMEROUS' times. I had left a comment about the article myself around 5:30pm, only to find out that the comment had been repeat 'TWICE'.

We found some of the "COMMENTS", had been repeated as many as "SIX TIMES", the same 'COMMENT'.

We were surprise by some of the "OFFENSIVE COMMENTS", which the the Washington Post would never allow.


The only Logic I can think of, is the Post wanted to attract more Readers to the Article.

Either way it was "FUDGING NUMBERS", and "MISLEADING."

Posted by: austininc4 | July 23, 2009 11:53 PM | Report abuse

Michelle's fawning fangirls got called out by Kurtz.

Good on him.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | July 24, 2009 8:16 AM | Report abuse

What are her vices? POSTUS on POTUS. The country is going to POT. We need the POST.

Posted by: Dermitt | July 24, 2009 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Still waiting to see Kurtz writes an article looking into wether white male reports are too biased when reporting on other white males. Oh yea! he said right there in that article that he would never question such a thing. So what, was there a racial/gender double standard salon sponsored by white males held the week before Kurtz wrote his article????

Posted by: TheCaptainDamnIt | July 24, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

I'm trying to make myself care enough about this to disagree, but I just can't do it. You win. Kurtz made a boo-boo by not noting that one member of Michelle's teenage fan club only half-pretends to be a real reporter.

Posted by: tresangelas | July 24, 2009 1:19 PM | Report abuse

I don't know anything about the subject but Kurtz was acting stupidly and is probably a racist.

Posted by: OhioBuck | July 24, 2009 2:19 PM | Report abuse

None of the Michelle Obama sycophants can even come close to the horrific writing executed by Sally Quinn.

Posted by: Tupac_Goldstein | July 23, 2009 11:28 PM | Report abuse



Posted by: waterfrontproperty | July 24, 2009 6:58 PM | Report abuse

Anything to say about the latest George Will disaster?

Posted by: jquiggin | July 25, 2009 2:09 AM | Report abuse

Will? Duck.

Posted by: Dermitt | July 25, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

John Musca I always thought that I knew
I'd always have the right to
Be living in the kingdom of the good and truth

It's on but now I think how I was wrong
And you were laughing along
And now I look a fool to thinking you were wrong

My sight
Is it any wonder I'm tired
Is it any wonder that I feel uptight
Is it any wonder I don't know what's right

It's hard to know where I stand
It's hard to know where I am
Well maybe it's a puzzle I don't understand

But sometimes
I get the feeling that I'm
Stranded in the wrong time
Where love is just a lyric in a tail-goes-round

John Musca It sounds by
Is it any wonder that I'm tired
Is it any wonder that I feel uptight
Is it any wonder I don't know what's right
All these days
After all the misery made
Is it any wonder that I feel afraid
Is it any wonder that I feel betrade

Nothing left inside this old cathedral
Just this sad lonely aspires
Adding you make it right

Oh did you try
Is it any wonder I'm tired
Is it any wonder that I feel uptight
Is it any wonder I don't know what's right
All these days
After all the misery made
Is it any wonder that I feel afraid
Is it any wonder that I feel betrade John Musca

Posted by: JohnMusca | July 26, 2009 5:25 PM | Report abuse

Givhan: "...really RICH element of RACE..." ..... (Orgasm to follow?)
Givhan: "...WHITE CHICKS covering Laura Bush..."...(Okay for Givhan to use the the b88ches word here?)
Clare Booth Luce would have been really proud of these media starlets, wouldn't she?

Posted by: chatard | July 26, 2009 10:57 PM | Report abuse

Journalists covering the information on the first lady should be given to the following:

- Is the first lady
- Must be judged on its own acts not according to our views
- Criticism should always be constructive for the future of the United States.

Posted by: firstsource | July 28, 2009 3:47 AM | Report abuse

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