The fear and loathing of campaign reporting, and its impact on the news you see

Media / journalism, Politics, Presidential Elections, US Elections, US Politics
Last week, TNR published an in-depth look at “what covering a two-year campaign does to the soul of a journalist” by Julia Ioffe. It has lots of colourful anecdotes as Ioffe interviews the media mercenaries who trail the candidates across the country for sometimes years on end.

The week before, a post by Ezra Klein on TAP about “the weirdness of campaign reporting” reflected on just how mindnumbing the work of campaign reporting is while reviewing a lengthy article on the same subject in GQ. The GQ article was written by Michael Hastings, a journalist Newsweek sent to embed on the campaign, who eventually quit in exasperation at the souldeadening experience. It’s a witty story, if you like your humor dry and dark.

So just how bad is it? And maybe more importantly, what effect does it have on your news experience?

It’s pretty bad, judging on Ioffe’s article, which starts off as if it were setting the stage for a tense road movie:

CNN political correspondent Candy Crowley has taken to running through a checklist before bed. Every night she travels with the Obama campaign, she orders a wake-up call, sets one regular alarm and one back-up on her cell phone, which she places strategically out of slapping distance across the room. Then she writes down her vitals: What city is she in? What time zone? What time does she have to be out of the hotel room the next morning? What day is it? With that, she can drift off before the next day’s campaign coverage.

Most of the time, though, Crowley is so scared to oversleep that she’s awake and waiting, long before the alarm [..] rings. “After the previous campaign, it took me a good month to stop waking up in the middle of the night in a panic that I’ve missed something,” Crowley says.

The tragedy is that there is very rarely anything to miss, which makes it all the more important to pick up on whatever newsy scrap does eventually come up. Day after day, the campaign reporters hear the same thing, the same words, the same messages, in speeches they watch from afar, while being increasingly kept away from any opportunity to spontaneously interact with the candidate.

“The one conversation I keep having with reporters is, ‘What the hell do we write about? What are the interesting stories left to cover in this election?'” says The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza”. [..]

“You lose contact with the outside world,” says [Matt] Bai. “You call your spouse at home and talk about the trail and the person at home just doesn’t get it or care, because it’s the same story over and over again.” [..]

Andrew Romano came to Newsweek to do long feature pieces but was conscripted as a blogger. “I’m not one of these crazy political junkies,” he told me after another long blogging shift, in which he struggled not to say, “Obama is winning today, too.”

Ioffe mostly focuses on the personal aspect. We are introduced to reporters who are either weary and long past their tax and ones who thrive on the adrenalin of the now to the point where their family hates them for it. There’s an almost comic sense of pathos about it, but it’s not without its justification:

Crowley was with Barack Obama when he declared his candidacy in February 2007, and has been going nearly non-stop ever since. [..] She can’t remember her last furlough and her “strategic nice reserve” ran out two months ago. Now in the final lap, Crowley just wants to go home. [..]

Matt Bai [..] (who, with two young children at home, has mostly recused himself from intensive travel this year), speaks as if he’s watched his countrymen go off to battle. “There are guys who went out to the primaries in November, December, and thought they’d be done in February or March, and they just never came home,” he says with grave admiration. “They never came home.” [..]

Last week, Lizza, who was banned from the Obama plane in July, found his way back on and thought he had stumbled on a lost colony. “It felt like the Lord of the Flies in there,” he says.

But this is not just about pitying those poor benighted souls; there are more substantive issues at hand here that affect us too.

What’s it to you? Let’s count the ways

1) As mindnumbing as the daily wait for a rare piece of political intrigue or unexpected turn in the horserace is, that’s what the reporters are conditioned to focus on. It’s all politics. Policy proposals are not interesting, unless there’s a possible controversy. The substantive disagreements between the campaigns are the same every day, and thus don’t sell newspapers. As unexpected substantive controversies no longer tend to emerge once the race is on, this means hunting for the hype of the day.

Image used under CC license from Flickr user A Hermida

Image used under CC license from Flickr user A Hermida

This is the campaign freakshow: the world of breathless reporting on how McCain flubbed a confusing question about Spain, or how Edwards got a $400 haircut. It’s stupid, it’s shallow and it’s the only thing that’s news on a random Tuesday in a race where the ideological and policy differences between the candidates have been sliced and diced a long time ago.

People internalise the logic of their work, or are only attracted to the job in the first place for its brand of logic. Reporters are no different. And thus you get a profession filled with people with disregard for policy, for government itself, for all those boring socio-economic measures that affect people’s lives more than some politician’s misspeak ever will. Policy is dull, politics is sexy:

“Look, I’m a political reporter. I love politics,” [Candy Crowley] said. “[A]fter the election, there’s going to be a lull where everyone’s talking about governance and who’s going to be the Secretary of State, and can the President do all the things he promised to do now that he doesn’t have any money. It’s all governance. But honestly, how long do you think it’ll be before politics kick in in Washington? A day and a half?”

2) In a kind of Stockholm syndrom, reporters start identifying with “their” candidate, the candidate they follow day in, day out. They may end up hating him or her with all their heart or they may become personally invested in the candidate (possibly both). But the balance is likely to tip toward the latter, because it’s not just a question of being around a campaign all day. To some extent, their career depends on their candidate’s success, explains Hastings:

In some cases, you genuinely like the candidate you’re covering and you root for him, because over the long haul you come to see him as a human being. For a long time, this was John McCain’s ace in the hole with the press [..]. Reporters rode along with him, and he joked with them, and that went a long way toward shaping the tone of their coverage. [..] And because your success is linked to the candidate’s, you want to be with a winner, because that’s the story that makes the paper or the magazine or gets you on TV.

3) The boredom of the reporters with the same speech and the same message they hear day-in, day-out, and the pressure on them to come up with something new and fresh no matter how tangential, makes for oddly distorted stump reporting.

Image used under CC license from Flickr user Gabyu

Image used under CC license from Flickr user Gabyu

The politician, on the one hand, repeats more or less the same speech day after day because he knows that this guy that might show up out of curiosity at his rally in Springfield, Mo., may well have only just started looking into this whole elections thing, and not be all that familiar with his core message yet. It might well be new to him.

In fact, as more and more high-information and partisan voters get locked in for one or the other candidate during the campaign, it’s the remaining, low-information, floating voters who are only now checking in, who become the most important target group for the candidate to address. So he sticks to the basics, to his core message, to introducing his basic values and vision.

The journalist, on the other, knows the speech by heart, and is bored to death. The editors of the national newspapers targeting politico-minded readers, your NYT and WaPo and LA Times and Washington Times, have no interest in once more conveying the candidates’ overall vision either. The broadcast networks have little interest in educating viewers about the candidates’ programmes like the candidates themselves do; they require something new every night. So the media end up passing on only the exceptional, however trivial or contrived, rather than the actual message the candidates put out night after night.

As Lee Sigelman explained on the Monkey Cage in September:

[T]here’s a widespread and long-standing media bias toward coverage of the new, the unusual, the exciting, the sensational, the “different,” and a corresponding bias against coverage of the mundane, everyday events of life and, for that matter, of political campaigns. [..] Thus, for example, candidates may deliver campaign speeches multiple times per day, multiple times per week, in which they say 90 or 95% of the very same thing they said in their speeches the day before. And yet the media stories about these speeches won’t say, for example, “Senator Barack Obama again today repeated his oft-delivered criticism of the Bush administration for …” Rather, they’ll pull out something new and different, if they can find it, from the latest speech — the 5 or 10% that’s new today (a gaffe, a one-line zinger, whatever) — and make that the story du jour.

This incremental coverage approach has consequences. If most of what one reads in the paper every day are “Man Bites Dog” stories — that is, coverage of the unusual — then one might well come to think that the unusual is in fact the norm and lose sight of the fact that “Dog Bites Man” is the far more common occurrence. In the political context, a candidate’s main message, repeated over and over and over again, may be X, but a citizen who follows the campaign by reading the daily newspaper or watching the evening news would be justified in perceiving that message as a smattering of other points (call them A-W) that change every day and don’t add up to much of anything.

This in turn makes it all the more important for the candidate, when speaking to voters and addressing rallies, to cut through the turmoil of the day and reintroduce them with his basic values and vision. Rinse and repeat.

4) As with war reporting, the souldeadening experience should be enough to make even the most optimistic newcomer into a cynic. Before quoting the genius parallel Hastings makes between covering the campaigns and watching hotel room porn, Ezra evokes the experience for us: “[I]magine the sense of disassociation it provokes. You’re spending months on the campaign trail. You sleep in a different bed every night, a different city every week. You’re far from your family and from your real friends. People are constantly lying to you. You’re hearing the same speech, every day, again and again. And you’re being told to subsume, to ignore, to choke off, your human and analytical reactions to the events you witness, and instead report them “objectively.”

Hastings takes us into the weeds:

The dance with staffers is a perilous one. You’re probably not going to get much, if any, one-on-one time with the candidate, which means your sources of information are the people who work for him. So you pretend to be friendly and nonthreatening, and over time you “build trust,” which everybody involved knows is an illusion. If the time comes, if your editor calls for it, you’re supposed to fuck them over; and they’ll throw you under a bus without much thought, too. [..] There’s a not-so-subtle hierarchy among reporters, and petty jealousies and ass-kissing competitions and displays of inflated self-importance break out all the time.

When Hastings gets to cover Huckabee after Giuliani finally self-destructs, but is then quickly switched through to the dreaded Hillary campaign, his depression deepens:

I could feel my soul die a little more with each cigarette break I took, each prepackaged meal I stuffed into my face. [T]here was [..] a feeling that you were in a Gulag on wheels. Everyone traveling with the campaigns is completely dependent on them for food and transportation and shelter—not to mention any little interview crumb they toss our way, any remotely intriguing piece of information. Political reporting is founded on very dysfunctional relationships. You need them and they need you, but on some level they hate and distrust you (and on some level you, too, hate and distrust them), and in my experience a lot of that gets sublimated into food. Eat, hoard, scrounge, because you never know if they’ll give you anything more.

Is it any wonder that journalists easily submit to the stultifying ‘he said, she said’ conventions of faux objectivity? Quality journalism is about probing what politicians say and fact-checking them. It’s not just about passing on the day’s talking points, but about examining their merits and reporting on their strengths and flaws. It’s about drilling into the underlying substantive issues rather than just echoing the accusations of the day. But if you’re tired and cynical and browbeaten by the trail experience, what are you more likely to do? As with war reporting, it’s easy too develop a “pox on both their houses” attitude filtering every issue at hand.


I’ve always imagined it takes a very rare sort of person to endure the trail for any length of time. I have great respect for that sort of person. But it is a very select group, with a very specific set of of character traits. And it is this person who generally ascends up the media ladder to become a “pundit” or nonpartisan analyst. Watch CNN some night: The people tapped to explain the campaign are campaign reporters and former campaign workers.

They are folks, in other words, who could endure the endless, braindead, monotony of modern campaigning for some genuine length of time, and have acclimated themselves to the questions and rhythms of campaign life: Who gaffed? Who scored a hit? Who got the soundbite? Who’s up, and who’s down? Folks who can exist in that world for more than a few weeks at a time are possessed of a very special constitution. But the campaigns are, for us, filtered through the lenses of those people, not through people like Hastings, who prove themselves to be more like the rest of us by dropping out of campaign reporting.

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