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 AJR  The Beat

From AJR,   August/September 2008  issue

Sweet!   

Welcome to the high-energy world of Lynn Sweet, Chicago Sun-Times Washington bureau chief, indefatigable blogger, Obama watchdog—and interviewing technique guru.


By Lindsay Kalter
Lindsay Kalter (lindsay.kalter@gmail.com) is an Ann Arbor-based writer.      

There are several ways to discover that Lynn Sweet, columnist and Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times and tireless chronicler of all things Obama, is no fan of indirect questions.

Watching her in action at a Barack Obama press conference or being her student would both suffice. But one way to get a particularly vivid look at her interrogation preferences is to appear to her as the village idiot. Or, at the very least, as the green, young journalist who naively took to heart every j-school lesson on the wonders of open-ended questioning. Read: me.

"I mean, you're my interviewer, not my psychiatrist," says Sweet, 57, pointing out what she considers the ambiguity of my third failed question. "I don't have one, but..you know what I mean? This interviewing technique of this open-ended narrative... I mean, my God, we'll be here until tomorrow morning."

Now that was a terrifying prospect for all parties involved.

Sweet continued her tutorial on remedial interviewing by emphasizing the importance of straightforward, relentless, direct questions: "Look, if you want to find out what happened, you gotta ask. Assume nothing. Follow your gut."

This lesson was a jolting one, coming as it did with something of a reprimand, but its message wasn't surprising, given the pedagogue behind it. Sweet, who has followed every twist and turn of Obama's rise since 2004, has become a campaign celebrity for her single-minded focus on, and hard-edged scrutiny of, her hometown candidate. Sweet has appeared on CNN and Fox News Channel and is frequently called on by MSNBC to provide her insight into the latest Obama development. She gets high marks from fellow political reporters for her aggressive approach and her apparently tireless determination to get the whole story – particularly when it comes to Obama's fundraising.

Jodi Enda, program planner for the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and a onetime Knight Ridder White House correspondent, describes Sweet's press conference demeanor as "dogged." "Sometimes politicians will try to answer the question they want to answer rather than the question that was asked," she says. "Lynn does not accept that. She will continue to ask the same question over and over again in different ways to get her question answered."

Kathy Kiely, a political reporter for USA Today, describes Sweet as "feisty." She says the native Chicagoan's crusade for transparency when it comes to Obama's fundraising has opened doors for fellow reporters. During an interview with Obama in New Hampshire, Kiely had Sweet in mind when she broached the topic of opening campaign fundraisers to members of the media. "I felt like she had a really good point, and so I followed up on it," she says. "I went to her later and said, 'I asked this for you.'"

"While we're all competitive," Kiely says, "it's important that when you see someone raising a good point, even if it's not a popular point, it's important to follow that up."

"Feisty" is just one in a long list of energy-fueled adjectives Sweet's colleagues use to describe her. With the Sun-Times Washington bureau since 1993, Sweet broke a story in the mid-'90s on perks the Clinton White House awarded to its most generous donors. In 2004, she turned her attention to Obama's money-raising efforts.

Since Obama launched his presidential campaign in February 2007, he has made several significant changes on the transparency front. For one, Obama now lists all of his fundraising events on his schedule, and Michelle Obama's efforts to raise money are also public. The larger fundraisers are now fair game for reporters, which hasn't always been the case. Sweet credits her reporting with ending the ban on journalists attending fundraising events at private homes. "Politicians like to manage news, manage what people know about them," she says. "And therefore, people read stories sometimes that I think kind of reflect..message management rather than what the story is... I just don't want to write a story that a candidate is doing X when a candidate is doing X, Y and Z. Because then you just feel like, 'Well, gee, I sure didn't do that well.'"

The Obama campaign did not return several phone calls seeking its take on Sweet. Not surprisingly, the camp of Obama's former chief rival for the Democratic nomination expresses enthusiasm for the Sun-Times bureau chief. "She's one of the fairest and most diligent reporters around," says Phil Singer, a former spokesman for Sen. Hillary Clinton. "She's aggressive and will hold your feet to the fire whether your last name is Obama, Clinton, McCain, whether you're a Republican, Democrat, whatever. In many respects, she exemplifies what a journalist should do in her daily routine."

After Obama retreated from aggressive questioning by Sweet and other reporters in March, Hotline, National Journal's political news blog, asked: "If he can't face Lynn Sweet, how can he face Al-Qaeda?"

Sweet first became a political junkie while reporting on local government in the Chicago area, where the fierce competition was a potent draw for aspiring journalists. Covering politics in Chicago is "as good as covering the Cubs and the Bears and the Bulls – it's a major league sport there," she says. "I kind of got it."

Sweet "gets" politics in more ways than one. She's obviously no stranger to legislative intricacies and following the money, but she was also quick to realize the value of blogs as up-to-date sources of political news and commentary. In 2006, she started an Obama-focused blog documenting all that involves the Illinois senator, from his controversial connections with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his thoughts on his mixed-race background to his appearances on the basketball court and his wife's aversion to wearing pantyhose. "Remember..the whole story," she says. While there was no way for Sweet to foresee Obama's emergence as the Democratic presidential nominee, she says it was obvious to her early on that he would have a major impact.

The speed of the blog world is perfect for Sweet. Being first is her top priority, and she often succeeds. The morning of my interview, she had attended a reporters' breakfast where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi discussed her personal experience with sexism. Sweet posted the story on her blog, and it was picked up by The Huffington Post and The Drudge Report. In the two-and-a-half hours we sat in the National Press Club restaurant, she missed out on six or seven potential blog items. "You hesitate, you lose," she said, looking anxiously at her BlackBerry.

As a one-person Washington bureau, Sweet works quickly and independently. She's a self-sufficient blogger with no editorial assistance. "I am not even a Ma and Pa operation," she says. "I'm just a Ma." In June, Sweet was one of five panelists discussing "The Digital Future of Washington Journalism." Audience members, including several bureau chiefs, sat in a crowded conference room at a downtown D.C. hotel listening to McClatchy Washington Editor David Westphal introduce the participants. Sweet saw this as precious blogging time. When Westphal got to her, she asked for a brief pause so she could fix a typo in the blog entry she had just posted.

Roger Simon, Politico's chief columnist, says Sweet has exhibited the same unyielding determination since they both worked at the Sun-Times in the 1980s. "I think it amazes any reporter how many people get missed the first time around. She finds those people and she pursues the story," he says. "She also has a pretty encyclopedic knowledge of [Obama's] past connections. Someone with some kind of institutional memory about someone is very valuable. She has raised the level on the Obama beat."

"She's relentless and very fast," Politico blogger Ben Smith wrote in an e-mail interview. "She regularly beats me on reporting things at press conferences."

Chicago Tribune reporter John McCormick recalls a "classic Lynn Sweet" moment when the two got stuck in traffic on their way to cover Oprah Winfrey's 2007 fundraiser for Obama. McCormick remembers Sweet saying, "This is a waste of time," and getting out of the car while it was on a freeway off-ramp. "Even in the middle of traffic she was willing to get out of the car and start interviewing people," he says. Once they arrived at the event, they stalked the red carpet until McCormick was spotted by a campaign official. Sweet coolly continued on, but soon she was busted as well. As security guards moved to escort the two off the property, one of them grabbed Sweet's arm. It didn't go over well. "She said something like, 'That's assault, don't touch me!'" McCormick recalls. "We realized that any productive reporting we could do at this venue was over."

So what sort of valuable learning experiences has Sweet gained as a journalist playing political hardball? "Too vague, it's just too vague, it won't work," she says of my question. "I mean, we can try again later..it's just too vague."

She may be mum on lessons learned, but she's quick when it comes to dispensing lessons taught. When not immersed in the political whirl, she spends time teaching journalism students (hence the constant critique of my interviewing techniques). In 2006, she taught for two quarters at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, where she received her master's degree. Sweet sees mentoring as "part of her journalistic duty," says Enda, who met Sweet in 1996 while covering the presidential campaign. "She's very supportive of younger reporters and really teaches them how to get at a story." When I ask Sweet what principles she emphasizes during instruction, I immediately pardon myself for being vague again. "No, no, this one I'll do!" she says, pointing her finger to the ceiling. "To tell the whole story. To be mindful that just because someone tells you something, it doesn't represent the whole story. To independently know how to research and deal with the facts. To know how to analyze and synthesize and to research, research, research."

And despite the anything-goes nature of much of the blogosphere, Sweet sets stringent ground rules for herself when it comes to accuracy. In her office, a picture she took of a sign in Amsterdam sits on a shelf by her desk. The sign reads: "Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise." This, she says, reminds her to not only keep a check on political players but to watch herself as well. "Reporters have to be careful and not abuse the power they have as writers and work hard to get everything right," she says. "All the time."

But power, to a blogger, can take on several meanings. When she comes back to the question of what she's learned, she has valuable advice for journalists bending to the demands of technology: plug in your electrical devices. "To me, when people talk about power in covering politics, it's making sure that my computer, BlackBerry and cell phone have power and are always charged," she says. "That to me is what power really means. Because if these vital tools..if you can't use them, you get behind. Then you might lose scoops, you lose phone calls, you lose tips, you lose e-mails, and then you get beat. And I hate like anything to ever be beat."

Despite her all-business exterior, Sweet occasionally allows herself the luxuries of escapism. Her favorite television show is the NBC sitcom "Scrubs." When its star, Obama contributor Zach Braff, made an appearance at one of the candidate's fundraisers last February, Sweet snagged an interview with him by staking out the lobby of the Beverly Hilton "just as some security man was giving me the hook," she wrote on her blog. She listens to music ranging from Chicago blues to "moldy oldies" to show tunes, when she's doing housework and needs to get "cranked up." She likes to swim, run and work out, which Enda says she does with "the same determination" that characterizes her professional life.

But at the end of the day, Sweet is still a Chicago-style news addict. She eats a late dinner at her Northwest Washington home while watching the 10 p.m. Chicago news on WGN. The next morning, she wakes up for another unpredictable day, during which a new Obama development can entirely alter her focus. But that doesn't bother her. "I can never really get off track, since I'm always on so many different tracks at the same time," she says. "Whatever bothers me in life, these things don't. My air conditioner not working. My roof having a leak. That bothers me. This doesn't."

Probably realizing that her attempts to educate me weren't exactly pleasant, Sweet ends our session with one final instruction. "Go get a drink," she says with a grin. "You probably need it."

I did, by the way.

"See, you get to end your day now. I have to go home and write a column," she says. "And exercise."