On the campaign trail, reporters settle into a certain groove — riding the candidate’s bus, reporting on speeches, tweeting. In time, they develop a relationship with the press aides and even the candidates. The reporters on the campaign trail receive information ahead of time and get some access to the candidate, and the candidates get their every campaign stop reported and transmitted to the general public.
It’s a mutually beneficial relationship — but is it true? Are we getting the full story of the campaign trail? Or are we just seeing what the candidates want us to see?
Joan Didion, in her piece “Insider Baseball,” takes a cynical view of reporting on the campaign trail. She describes the obviously staged scene where the candidate throws a baseball with his aide, and reporters film and observe the entire thing — “some forty adults standing on a tarmac watching a diminutive figure in shirtsleeves and a red tie toss a ball to his press secretary.”
The reporters knew it was staged, but yet they wrote articles using the incident as a colorful anecdote.
“They are willing, in exchange for “access,” to transmit the images their sources wish transmitted. They are even willing, in exchange for certain colorful details around which a “reconstruction” can be built (the “kitchen table” at which the Dukakis campaign conferred on the night Lloyd Bentsen was added to the Democratic ticket, the “slips of paper” on which key members of the Bush campaign, aboard Air Force Two on their way to New Orleans, wrote down their own guesses for vice-president), to present these images not as a story the campaign wants told but as fact.”
And is the relationship between candidates and reporters even more tangled now, 25 years after Didion’s piece was published?
A 2012 New York Times article reveals how candidates’ spokespeople have become so tight-lipped with their quotes that they require that reporters send them their quotes for approval before printing them, and they often insist on not being attributed by name.
The reporters — which the article describes as “desperate to pick the brains of the president’s top strategists” — agree to these terms, and thus, articles from the campaign trail (and beyond) are littered with “said a source close to the Romney campaign” or “said a top Obama strategist.”
It doesn’t seem as if reporters have changed much in the 25 years since Didion’s article was published. They are unwilling to risk their limited access to the candidates and to the top strategists by demanding more transparency.
And their access has indeed become more limited — reports have shown that both the Obama and the Romney campaigns are guarded towards the media. They put out tightly controlled sound bites or bland images of the candidates tossing a ball, but they don’t trust the media to give them unfettered access to the candidates.
And the feeling runs both ways. In an article titled, “Reporters: We loathe 2012 campaign,” Dylan Byers of POLITICO wrote in September 2012 that reporters lost energy and joy with the 2012 campaign:
“Reporters feel like both campaigns have decided to run out the clock with limited press avails, distractions, and negative attacks, rather than run confident campaigns with bold policy platforms or lofty notions of hope and change — leaving the media with little to do but grind along covering the latest shallow, sensational item of the day.”
The reporters admit that they’re mostly covering what the candidates want, but they don’t see another way.
“The fact is, we are under-covering the economy, we are under-covering — but you cover the campaign that is in front of you,” said NBC News senior White House correspondent Chuck Todd.
This clip from the HBO show “The Newsroom” is the perfect example. In the clip (which has some strong language), the main character Jim asks Romney’s spokeswoman a series of tough questions, rather than focusing on the talking points of Romney’s job speech.
“Why not just point the camera at the talking points email and play music in the background?” he asks.
Jim goes on a rant about how this isn’t reporting, as the other journalists stay silent in their seats. He argues that the campaign needs the reporters more than the reporters needs the access to the campaign.
Jim: “We know the questions, why aren’t we insisting on answers?”
Spokeswoman: “Because they want to stay on the bus.”
Didion, Joan. “Insider Baseball.” The New York Review of Books. Oct. 27, 1988.
Peters, Jeremy W. “Latest Word on the Trail? I Take It Back.” The New York Times. July 15, 2012.
Byers, Dylan. “Reporters: We Loathe 2012 Campaign.” POLITICO. Sept. 3, 2012.