The Crowded Bus  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April 2003

The Crowded Bus   

Cable TV, the Internet, a massive media presence and a front-loaded primary schedule have dramatically changed the pace and tenor of presidential campaign coverage. There’s no such thing as “off-Broadway” anymore.

By Rachel Smolkin
     


In early 1968, Republican presidential candidate George Romney walked into a New Hampshire gun and sporting goods store and started arguing with the owner about the merits of a modest gun registration system. The Associated Press' Walter Mears and five other print reporters clustered unobtrusively by the counter, watching delightedly as politician and businessman sparred for half an hour.

Twenty-eight years later, Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander, clad in plaid, entered a New Hampshire fish and tackle store. Mears again shadowed the candidate, but this time observing the man's common touch was no easy task. So many reporters and television camera crews were trailing Alexander that the media mob couldn't squeeze into the store. A press pool was designated, and several minutes later someone appeared in the cold to deliver a solemn report about the brand of tackle Alexander had examined--a descent into absurdity that struck Mears as "hilarious."

"The way it's become now, the media crowd is such that it smothers the story," says Mears, who has retired from the campaign trail and sifted through 40 years of memories for his book "Deadlines Past," due out in October. "The story can't happen except as it involves candidates and the media."

As the 2004 presidential race gears up, the media will confront the challenges of gaining sustained access to candidates and distilling reams of information into meaningful stories while trying to avoid instigating those stories. Reporters will face those demands during an intense election cycle when early fundraising needs, a crowded Democratic field and an accelerated primary season have launched the presidential contest and the accompanying media coverage long before voters are paying attention.

Over the past three decades, the pack of reporters tracking presidential campaigns has ballooned beyond the clubby fraternity Timothy Crouse bared so wittily and wickedly in his classic book on the 1972 campaign, "The Boys on the Bus." Somewhere along the way, as the ranks of campaign reporters swelled with broadcast journalists and cable reporters, as Watergate whet a generation of reporters' appetites for scandal and Vietnam soured relations between politicians and the press, presidential candidates became more shrouded by image handlers and message makers.

Simultaneously, political information began to stream to the public from myriad new sources. No longer are the nation's newspapers and broadcast networks the sole purveyors of political insights. Modern political junkies can sift through campaign silt as eager prospectors panned for gold, evaluating candidates' strengths and weaknesses on C-SPAN, learning about campaign machinery through Internet sources such as Hotline or The Note and absorbing hours of campaign analysis by cable pundits. The information overload has heightened reporters' responsibility to remain discerning authenticators and synthesizers.

"The role of the journalist is more crucial than ever," says Ed Fouhy, whose television career as reporter, producer and Washington bureau chief spanned three networks and 26 years. "What we need is the journalist's skills to validate information, to sort it out, to point out to us what's important and what isn't."

The media's constant presence and all-news-all-the-time mentality have altered the nascent stages of presidential campaigns, increasing pressure on the candidates to appear prepared and polished from the very start.

"It certainly changes the nature of what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire because these are no longer off-Broadway places," says Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen, who has covered presidential politics since 1975. "It used to be candidates could come and meet some people, try out some themes and one-liners, and now the candidate has to have that ready as soon as he gets here. There's a camera and a microphone and a boom mike on the day the guy sets foot in Iowa." At some events, Yepsen says, the media-to-voter ratio is 1-to-1.

"You've got to the point that the press mob is so great in New Hampshire, for example, that we're covering a phenomenon that we create rather than the campaign itself. I find it just appalling," says Jack Germond, another of the legendary Boys on the Bus. Now semiretired, he's writing a sixth book about presidential campaigns, due out in 2004.

On January 18, the press converged in Linn County, Iowa, for a Democratic Party fundraising dinner at the Prairie Hill Pavilion. Three presidential candidates--Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean--turned up to speak and shake hands. C-SPAN carried the event live.

"It seemed like there were hundreds of reporters for three candidates--ridiculous," says a frustrated Adam Nagourney, the New York Times' national political reporter. He adds, "These events that are supposed to be organic and natural really are not." He used the dinner and other Iowa shindigs that weekend as a platform to examine whether Bush could be defeated.

USA Today's Susan Page used the Democrats' "turf & turf" dinner of chicken breast and pork loin to explore the significance of early wrangling in Iowa. "Though the election might seem a distant prospect elsewhere, in Iowa the Democratic campaign is moving so fast and so fiercely that it might be too late for a candidate to start from scratch. And the party's nomination is likely to be clinched within weeks after the state's opening caucuses Jan. 19, 2004," Page wrote in a front-page January 22 story that concluded, "by the time most Americans start paying attention to the Democratic contest, this race could be over."

Initial jousting in Iowa and New Hampshire may be crucial to the outcome. But there is another reason reporters descend so early on those states: access. With the first votes still many months away, the media throng tends to be smaller, the candidates more approachable.

"One of the reasons that the press goes out that early is this is the time when you can actually get to these guys," says Roger Simon, political editor and chief political correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. He calls diminished candidate access "the most dramatic change in politicking today."

Simon recalls George H.W. Bush's unsuccessful 1980 presidential run, when the press would congregate in the candidate's motel room at night with Bush and a bucket of beer. "Most of it, and I'm not proud of this, was off the record," Simon says. "This was really the Boys on the Bus."

Now, he says, the "handling of the press is a full-time preoccupation of every campaign." Arizona Sen. John McCain proved an exception during his failed 2000 bid for the Republican nomination when he dished with reporters aboard his Straight Talk Express bus. But mostly, Simon contends, "It's all very much candidate management, press management."

As a 20-year-old reporter for the Lowell Sun in Massachusetts, Chris Black rode in the back seat of a car with Democrat George McGovern during his 1972 presidential campaign. Twenty-eight years later, as a CNN political reporter, she had no such access to candidate Al Gore. "I could be with him for days--days--and never exchange a word," Black says. "This was on the same airplane. I was like, 'Why am I here?' "

Part of the problem, Black says, is that the unspoken rules from bygone days--the moments when reporters would simply leave candidates alone--have disintegrated. "At the end of the day, you wouldn't beat [the candidate] up with tough questions," says Black, now a spokeswoman for Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of the Democratic candidate. "Now there's no trust."

Black says she guards her words because she worries they will be misrepresented or misunderstood. "Gotcha journalism has gotten utterly out of control, and a lot of young reporters think they can make their name, their reputation, by writing an exposé," she says. "It creates a distorting effect because they don't go into the campaign with an open eye; they go in with an agenda."

That is not to say that candidates in the 1970s had no handlers, or that politicians and reporters once showered each other with affection. Fouhy says access always has depended on a candidate's personality. He traveled with Richard Nixon during the early stages of his 1968 candidacy and, like other reporters, was kept away from the future president except at staged events.

"There's a kind of romantic period that a lot of people recall," says Fouhy, now editor of Stateline.org, which covers public policy developments in the states. "It looks a lot better in the rearview mirror than it did at the time." Indeed, Hunter S. Thompson wrote about hovering handlers in "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail in '72." Thompson sputtered, "The assholes who run politics in this country have become so mesmerized by the Madison Avenue school of campaigning that they actually believe, now, that all it takes to become a Congressman or a Senator--or even a President--is a nice set of teeth, a big wad of money, and a half-dozen Media Specialists."

But even as consultants work assiduously to shape and safeguard the images of their candidate clients, technology has dramatically expanded access to insider political news, with such outlets as National Journal's Hotline (standard rate $5,800 annually at nationaljournal. com/pubs/hotline/) and ABC's The Note (free at http://abcnews.go.com/sections/politics/DailyNews/TheNote.html). Foreign TV stations, such as NHK-Japan Broadcasting Corp., bring viewers back home the U.S. candidates' positions on economics, national security, the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Straits. Local television stations in key primary states can send their own reporters to Iowa and New Hampshire and transmit live updates via satellite. C-SPAN televises candidates' speeches live and trails presidential hopefuls as they greet voters. And a bevy of cable pundits handicaps candidates' chances early and often.

Terry Michael, executive director of the Washington Center for Politics & Journalism, has altered his seminar for college journalists to reflect the rising power of talking heads in presidential campaigns. Michael still explains the "echo chamber" in which fundraisers, party officials, political operatives and press rely on one another for signals about the candidates. But now he focuses less on political columnists as dispensers of early signals and more on cable pundits, such as MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Fox News Channel's "Beltway Boys."

"The Internet and cable babble have in many ways displaced the traditional newspaper political columnist as a primary source of information exchange in the early stages, which really increases the velocity of the babble," says Michael, Democrat Paul Simon's presidential campaign spokesman in 1988. Internet "babble" also can influence reporters' questions, as a recent example from the Drudge Report shows.

On January 17, Matt Drudge posted a "Cloud over Kerry" item that "revealed" the Massachusetts senator's "hatred" of trips to Iowa. "On the eve of a fundraising trip to Dubuque, Iowa--quotes surface which detail Kerry's feelings about trips to Dubuque," Drudge declared. In the quote, resurrected from a 1996 Boston Globe interview, Kerry said: "I hate going to places like Austin and Dubuque to raise large sums of money. But I have to."

Drudge's story attracted scant attention from the print press, but CNN's senior political correspondent Candy Crowley questioned Kerry about his past comments. "On his first trip as a declared candidate, John Kerry is dogged by something he said in '96 about hating to go to places like Dubuque to raise money, which explains why Kerry is so relentlessly thrilled to be here," Crowley said on "Inside Politics" on January 20.

Crowley says her assignment desk told her about the quote, which amused her. "It's not like I wrote a giant story about it," she says. "Obviously, the Dubuque station was all over it."

C-SPAN's ubiquitous presence on the campaign trail gives viewers greater access to unfiltered political information and allows them to formulate their own conclusions.

"We're able to do more with less," C-SPAN Political Editor Steve Scully says of technological advances. "We have smaller cameras, lighter cameras, and we can travel with one person to follow the candidates when it used to take two or three."

Scully says technology will allow C-SPAN to produce more video vérité pieces during this election cycle, placing wireless microphones on the candidates and following them for a day or two as they interact with voters at homes and diners. C-SPAN then edits the material into segments of 30 minutes to an hour for its Sunday night "Road to the White House" program. "Over the course of time, the camera doesn't lie," Scully says. "We have the ability to put on long-form programming, and you see who these folks are."

Easy access to political information through C-SPAN and the Internet helps reporters as well as consumers. Biographical tidbits and prior speeches are just a Google search away. Hotline divulges campaign tactics and staff shifts. But seasoned journalists caution that technology is no substitute for old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting.

"Hotline has leveled the field," says Carl Leubsdorf, Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. "Now everyone can be an expert. Read Hotline, and you know exactly what's going on in Iowa and New Hampshire. In a way, it makes life easier for everyone because you no longer have to report. But when you go out and report, you meet people and get a sense of what's going on there."

With the first presidential primary votes still nine months away, news organizations weigh the benefits of giving reporters an early start on the campaign trail against readers' limited interest in a far-off election.

"It's sort of a balance because there are great advantages to being out early. There's much better access to candidates and staff, and what happens early does have an impact," Leubsdorf says. But he chose not to send a reporter to Iowa for the January dinner and opted for wire stories when candidates formed their exploratory committees. Instead, Leubsdorf is marshaling his resources for later this year, when the conflict in Iraq may be resolved and his readers are paying more attention to presidential politics.

Even at the Washington Post, where readers place a premium on politics, editors and reporters have wondered how early to introduce candidates. "For most of our readers, this is still a very distant event that's sitting out there," says national political reporter Dan Balz. "You try not to get too far ahead of your readers but still stay ahead of the competition."

This year, for the first time, the Post played on page one announcements that hopefuls were forming committees to explore the possibility of running for president. That was not the paper's initial intent. On December 2, the day after Kerry unveiled his long-expected exploratory committee on NBC's "Meet the Press," the Post placed the story on A2 with a front-page tease. Then North Carolina Sen. John Edwards staged a major rollout January 2, and the Post ran its story on page one. After that, Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. decided to place all the presidential announcements on the front page.

"We're basically treating these now as their entry into the race," says Maralee Schwartz, the Post's national political editor. "It was what I would call a very natural evolution of trying to adapt to these changing circumstances of how candidates were using their exploratory committees."

The New York Times began profiling prospective Democratic candidates in December 2002, offering readers an early introduction. The paper placed those stories and coverage of exploratory committee announcements inside the paper.

"Our judgment was not to let the candidates themselves decide our coverage," says Richard L. Berke, the Times' Washington editor. "It's not our job to keep devoting space in the newspaper every time the candidate restates the obvious." Berke says the initial profile stories all appeared with a picture on page one and the story inside because "we're trying to be as consistent and fair as we can."

USA Today was less consistent. The paper put Edwards' entry into the race on page one, but as of mid-February, he was the only Democratic presidential hopeful to receive front-page treatment. Stories about other candidates' exploratory committee announcements ran inside: Kerry on page 4A, Gephardt on 6A, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman on 10A and New York civil rights activist Al Sharpton on 2A.

"We strive for consistency and fairness, but bearing in mind that news judgment is a daily, if not moment-by-moment thing," says Gwen Flanders, USA Today's politics and White House editor. She says Edwards' announcement, timed to coincide with the end of the holidays, warranted page-one placement "within the context of that day's available news stories." Flanders adds that her paper published stories of similar length and included a biographical box for all candidates. All except Gephardt, who announced on a Saturday--off USA Today's weekday publication cycle--received a page-one tease.

Much of the early campaign coverage has explored the chase for money. "First Democratic Race Is for Cash; Money Dominates Presidential Nomination Fight," said a front-page Washington Post headline on January 1. Reporter Thomas B. Edsall noted that the "accelerated schedule of primaries and caucuses in early 2004 has heightened the importance of the 2003 competition for dollars." Edsall also wrote, "In every election from 1980 to 2000, the candidate who raised the most money by the start of the election year went on to win the nomination."

One week later, a New York Times editorial asserted, "The ever-accelerating schedule of primary and caucus contests means that raising money, the tiger's milk of political success, must begin earlier too, even at the risk of the public's becoming more jaded than ever."

Michael, of the politics and journalism center, contends reporters focus too much on the money and consequently miss the "real story," about which candidates are engaging voters. He recommends that reporters talk to voters to gauge whether a candidate's message is resonating rather than "sit in Washington and read FEC [Federal Election Commission] reports."

But many reporters defend the focus on fundraising as crucial to measuring a candidate's viability. The Washington Post's David Broder says money is properly getting more attention, "particularly when you've got a big field like the Democrats do now, and it's going to be a challenge for all of them to raise the kind of money that they need."

As the amorphous field of Democratic hopefuls comes into sharper focus, conventional story lines already are clinging closely to candidates.

In early media scripts--at least those preceding his surgery for prostate cancer--Kerry was often portrayed as an experienced legislator and decorated Vietnam War veteran but possibly too aristocratic and aloof to entice voters. Can he shake his label as a Massachusetts liberal? Will his outspoken wife jeopardize his candidacy?

Edwards is a fresh face, but does he possess the experience and gravitas--a word adored by the press--to lead the nation during a period of international instability?

Lieberman is a real mensch, a decent and respected man. But is he too moderate to appeal to the liberal Democratic base? Are voters ready to embrace a Jew?

Gephardt is a seasoned Washington leader popular with Big Labor. But has he been tainted by four consecutive failures to recapture the House for Democrats?

Dean is a plainspoken Vermont doctor poised to become the McCain or Bruce Babbitt of this year's cycle, the candidate who the media figure has no shot at victory but love anyway because he tells it like he sees it. Will handlers tame his message and blunt his appeal?

Al Sharpton is the candidate who's never won elected office. Will Democrats, particularly black voters, take his candidacy seriously? Will former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun divide the "black vote"?

And if Gary Hart opts for another presidential bid, will the public ever read a story that neglects to mention Monkey Business, the yacht where he was photographed with Donna Rice on his knee?

But Beltway bedlam and media stereotypes don't always reflect voters' perceptions. As McCain demonstrated in late 1999 and early 2000, candidates can defy pundits and inspire the public. "I constantly think about not letting the chatter be the dominant force in coverage," Balz says. "Sometimes I think there's more desire to analyze and less desire to report, and the reporting has to come first."

Mark Halperin, political director of ABC News, vows to try to avoid covering each candidate through the prism of conventional wisdom, which can magnify weaknesses and character flaws. In 2000, conventional thinking assumed that Bush would misspeak and Gore would exaggerate. Media coverage tended to reflect and exacerbate those images.

"It's not fair to those candidates when we hold them to different standards based on those stereotypes," Halperin says. "Al Gore would regularly flub a word, and Bush would say things that were not factually true and of no greater or smaller import than Gore saying James Lee Witt had been with him." (In his first debate with Bush, Gore mistakenly said he had toured fire and flood disaster areas in Texas in 1998 with Witt, then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.)

"If it's part of a pattern and revealing of the person's ability to do the job, it's important to cover it," Halperin says. "But it shouldn't be one candidate held 100 percent accountable for a certain behavior and another candidate not at all accountable."

As Election 2004 intensifies, the best journalists will pierce media stereotypes and puncture conventional wisdom. They will penetrate candidates' polished facades to reveal character, ideas and leadership style. They will expose the undercurrents that motivate voters in the next election--maybe national security, maybe health care, maybe something else entirely--and the candidates' ability to seize those issues and shape their campaigns accordingly.

Penetrating the handlers and the media crush won't be easy. But it's the reality. A new era of Boys and Girls on Planes, Web surfing, C-SPAN viewing and pundit shouting has eclipsed the Boys on the Bus. The days of gentlemen's rules and late-night carousing with the candidates are long gone.

"The only worse thing than having too many [reporters] is having somebody decide how many was too much," Mears says. "The best of them break through the barriers and keep doing stories that really tell you what's going on."

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