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Beat-sweeteners, A Meditation

I've been following the blogosphere's discussion of beat-sweeteners these last few days with vague interest but little passion--my feeling is that you should judge a profile on whether it says something new and interesting, not whether it's favorable or unfavorable. (Within reason of course--no one wants to read an apologia for a genuine criminal, or a scathing indictment of someone who's blameless.) A profile can be damning and tedious, or positive and illuminating; the quality isn't necessarily tied to the light in which it casts the subject.

Which is why I was a little confused by Tim Noah's feature on the beat-sweetener genre yesterday. Tim writes at the outset that:

Such gum-beating [over the propriety of beat-sweeteners] is symptomatic of contemporary press criticism, which tends to define everything in terms of professional ethics because that's the only normative vocabulary even upstart bloggers feel comfortable with. In so doing, these critics pronounce to be immoral what is merely second-rate. A beat-sweetener is unethical only in the attenuated sense that a passionately devoted artisanal cobbler might regard as unethical a handmade loafer with poor stitching. It's lousy craftsmanship, not an ethical lapse warranting extensive debate. It is also an unwise marketing strategy. At a time when readers are abandoning newspapers and magazines in droves, it hardly behooves reporters to bore them.

I completely agree. But then, in his accompanying taxonomy of beat-sweeteners, Tim junks his aesthetic judgment and embraces the same hoary knuckle-rapping he just derided. For example, in the category of profiles he doesn't regard as beat-sweeteners, Tim includes a piece he describes as "not ... the most exciting newspaper profile you'll read in 2009" and another he calls "a decently nuanced if unexciting character sketch." Without passing judgment on the pieces in question, this is the kind of faint praise I give pieces I'd advise friends and loved-ones to skip.

Meanwhile, Tim's problem with the pieces he lists as beat-sweeteners isn't that the prose is leaden or the details are warmed over or the point is pedestrian, but that they include some flattering sentences and omit some uncomfortable details. As I say, this sounds much more like the critique of an ethical literalist than a connoisseur of craftmanship.

Now, I have a personal stake in this discussion because Tim includes my recent profile of Larry Summers on his sweetener list. If Tim was bored by the profile or didn't learn anything from it, then I've clearly failed, as that's the opposite of what I was going for. But if, as it seems, his gripe is that I didn't cover Summers's one-time opposition to derivatives regulation, then it's: a.) wrong (I did) and b.) weird, since the goal was to break new ground.

--Noam Scheiber