NYT’s Beat Sweetener on New Interior Secretary

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell (cc photo: Jack Storms/Burke Museum)

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell (cc photo: Jack Storms/Burke Museum)

When reporters pay tribute to rather than scrutinize the powerful people they cover, it’s what’s known as a “beat sweetener”–a story in which the reporter kisses up to a subject in hopes of gaining easier access down the line.

Beat sweetener was written all over John Broder‘s April 30 New York Times profile of new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, “a woman of untamed energy, competitiveness and confidence in the boardroom and on a mountain trail.”

In a hike in a National Park in Virginia, Jewell impressed Broder by not just climbing up boulders, but bounding up them, her progress “slowed only by a party that included two park officers, a press aide, a bodyguard, a reporter and a photographer, none of them as fit and agile as she.”

But how would she run the Interior Department, the purview of which includes, as Broder points out, supervising oil drilling on public lands and waters, protecting endangered species, managing public lands, coping with climate change and coordinating federal relations with hundreds of American Indian tribes? 

Broder has little to say on this, besides that at Jewell’s Senate confirmation hearings, “Senators largely glossed over the major missions of the Interior Department.”

Which is sort of what Broder does too. He does report Jewell’s previous jobs as a petroleum engineer, banker and  “corporate titan,” in her role as CEO of REI. It’s a background that raises interesting questions…that Broder never asks.

Jewell has some green bonafides, as Grist (2/6/13) reports: She acknowledges climate change, served on the board of the mainstream conservation group the National Parks Conservation Association, and REI is known as a “green” company. But her long stints in the oil and banking industries are interesting too. As a 2005 profile of Jewell in the Seattle Times (3/23/05) reported, Jewell began her career at Mobil Oil:

Jewell stayed with the company for three years, but bigger opportunities lay ahead. The 1980s marked a boom time for the oil industry, with record prices fueling new exploration.

Banks began to hire engineers to understand the value of the collateral in the ground, and Jewell signed on as petroleum engineer for Rainier Bank.

One of the few glimpses Broder give us of Jewell’s opinions about Interior Department issues is when he quotes her describing, in technocratic terms, how the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf was “unfortunate”…for her predecessor Interior Secretary Ken Salazar: 

“You never know what’s going to hit you in a job like this,” she said. “For Secretary Salazar, very unfortunate, but the Deepwater Horizon spill happened relatively early in his term and it took an enormous amount of time and energy that one has to deal with. Things happen. Earthquakes happen. Natural disasters happen. The American West is a tinderbox right now.”

That might have provided a good opening to ask the new Interior Secretary deeper questions about the disaster and coverup, and how she sees her role with respect to oil and gas drilling, tar sands and fracking. Her predecessor Ken Salazar oversaw a huge increase in domestic drilling; would she continue that policy? And, if so, how does that square with her (and her boss’s) professed concerns about global warming? The only answer that Broder’s beat sweetener seems to provide is that the Interior Secretary is one hell of a mountain climber. 

About Steve Rendall

Senior Media Analyst and Co-producer of CounterSpin Steve Rendall is FAIR's senior analyst. He is co-host of CounterSpin, FAIR's national radio show. His work has received awards from Project Censored, and has won the praise of noted journalists such as Les Payne, Molly Ivins and Garry Wills. He is co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error (The New Press, 1995, New York City). Rendall has appeared on dozens of national television and radio shows, including appearances on CNN, C-SPAN, CNBC, MTV and Fox Morning News. He was the subject of a profile in the New York Times (5/19/96), and has been quoted on issues of media and politics in publications such as the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and New York Times. Rendall contributed stories to the International Herald Tribune from France, Spain and North Africa; worked as a freelance writer in San Francisco; and worked as an archivist collecting historical material on the Spanish Civil War and the volunteers who fought in it. Rendall studied philosophy and chemistry at San Francisco State University, the College of Notre Dame and UC Berkeley.