Questioning the 'Michelle Beat' Story
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.
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