AJR  Features
From AJR,   December/January 2009

Off the Bus   

Far fewer news reporters hit the campaign trail with the presidential candidates for long stretches of time this year. Is that necessarily a bad thing?

By Paul Farhi
Senior contributing writer Paul Farhi (farhip@washpost.com) is a reporter for the Washington Post.     

It's four days before Election Day, and Jonathan Martin, a senior political writer at Politico, is plugging in for the stretch run. Propping a digital recorder next to his landline phone, Martin plans to tape a teleconference featuring Sen. John McCain's senior advisers. In the meantime, Martin scans the Web on his laptop, keeps an eye on the cable news networks, and juggles e-mails and phone calls on his BlackBerry. It figures to be another busy day: Martin has a blog to feed and news stories to chase as the presidential campaign comes down to the wire.

What's telling about this scene isn't how Martin is doing his job, but where. As the long campaign races to its climax, Martin isn't chasing the candidates as they appeal for a few more swing-state votes. No time for that, he says. Instead, he's ensconced in his cubicle in Politico's bustling offices in Rosslyn, Virginia, just across the Potomac from Washington. "It's much easier to do what I do here than out there," says Martin, who was Politico's lead reporter on the McCain campaign. "It can be very, very difficult to be out there when so much news is breaking."

A political reporter not covering politics from the campaign trail? Political journalism legends such as Theodore H. White, author of "The Making of the President" books, would surely raise an eyebrow. But during the 2008 campaign, "the trail" never seemed less important – or perhaps it was just less populated. Although a definitive headcount is hard to come by, the number of reporters traveling with the candidates during this election cycle appeared to be down considerably. Major regional newspapers, such as the Houston Chronicle and Cleveland's Plain Dealer, didn't bother to staff either campaign. USA Today, the largest-circulation paper in the nation, had only irregular representation, as did campaign stalwarts like Time and Newsweek. In fact, only five dailies – the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune – kept reporters on the road with Sens. McCain and Barack Obama in the campaign's closing months. The TV networks were still there, too, but most relied on young "embeds" rather than their frontline correspondents until the last few months.

The cost of riding the bus certainly is a key reason why there were fewer boys (and girls) on it. At a time of economic crisis at most traditional news organizations, staffing a nearly two-year-long campaign has become an expensive, and sometimes unaffordable, item. John Harris, Martin's boss at Politico, says it would have cost his news outlet about $10,000 a day to put reporters on the four major presidential and vice presidential campaigns during the general election – which is why Politico didn't keep anyone on Sarah Palin's and Joe Biden's planes for long. The outsize cost of the coverage was amusingly highlighted by blogger Ana Marie Cox , who staged a kind of PBS-style pledge drive for her travel expenses after her employer, Radar magazine, went out of business in the last week of the campaign. (Cox netted more than $8,000 in pledges after offering, among other things, to have dinner with contributors.)

The falloff in trail coverage may also be saying something significant about the influence of the mainstream media, which overwhelmingly dominated campaign reporting until very recently. This campaign may indeed have been a milestone, the last election cycle in which traditional news outlets were the foremost sources of campaign information. Mainstream news accounts from the road, a principal part of political reporting since long before Teddy White, now seem like just one small part of the vast torrent of political information that is available on the Internet via campaign Web sites, blogs, social networking pages, Twitter feeds and crowd-sourced reporting like HuffingtonPost's OffTheBus feature. It certainly didn't help the MSM's credibility when it offered a series of narratives (Hillary Clinton's supposed invincibility, McCain's purported demise long before the first Republican primary, etc.) that proved to be laughably wrong (see "Off Target," April/May ).

No political reporter worth his laptop would ever write off covering the trail entirely, and many regret the cutbacks. Reporting from the road provides invaluable color and detail that can't be gleaned from an office chair, such as the size and enthusiasm of the crowds, the campaign's organizing acumen, and the mood and daily message of the candidate.

"You'd never see the anger of the crowds [at McCain's rallies] if you just watched a tight shot on TV," says Michael Shear, the Washington Post's campaign road warrior. "You don't see the warm-up [speeches] 45 minutes before John McCain arrives, the way the crowd gets whipped up by the local talk-show host or the mayor.... You don't see people flipping off the people on the press bus. If you're only there sporadically, you wouldn't understand how things have changed and what's different from before."

Adds Adam Nagourney, the New York Times' chief political reporter, "If you're covering what the candidates are telling the public, you have to be out there."

At the same time, however, journalists increasingly question the value of being on the road for long stretches at a time. Campaign trail reporters often go months without meaningful access to a candidate or his senior staff. Reporters speak about being "in the bubble" on a campaign, dimly aware of information and important decisions that are being made elsewhere. For those with daily deadlines, not to mention multiple daily deadlines, the constant whirl of travel makes timely and thoughtful coverage difficult.

"There's a serious argument to be made that it's a waste of time," acknowledges Shear, who covered hundreds of campaign events during 21 months on the trail. "It's extraordinarily limiting. You spend most of your time shuttling between airplanes and charter buses. You spend an inordinate amount of time being stuck somewhere where you can't do any real reporting because you have no access to people or to your phone or the Internet. If you're part of the national media, you can't linger at the rallies because the handlers are racing you out to the next rally. You're lucky if you get to spend a few minutes [talking to a candidate's supporters] before you have to hit the next airport."

There's nothing like being so close, yet so far, to make the whole exercise seem tedious, and at times pointless. Shear remembers pulling pool duty in Des Moines one night while John McCain attended a private fundraiser. For two hours, Shear sat in a van parked outside the fundraiser on a downtown street, waiting for some scrap of news to emerge. None did.

Reporters also learn an age-old fact about presidential campaigns: The candidates they're covering tend to regard them with increasing wariness, if not outright hostility, as the campaign drags on. Candidates and staff advisers who were candid and open in the months leading up to the Iowa primary often shut down as the stakes increase. By the time the general election begins, mutual loathing often sets in.

Maeve Reston, who covered McCain for the Los Angeles Times, recently described in her paper her frustration about watching her access to Mr. Straight Talk dwindle to the disappearing point by mid-summer. "On a recent Sunday during a brief stop at a Virginia phone bank, I got unusually close to McCain in the line of people waiting to shake his hand," she wrote, sounding a bit like a rejected lover. "Tape recorder out and within a foot of him, I asked if he could talk about his new economic plan, which he was to unveil that week. The man who once asked me about my wedding date returned my gaze with a stare, shook the hand of the strangers to the right and left of me and continued out the door."

The campaign trail in many ways is just the facade of the campaign, the face the candidate shows to the public. That's not something to ignore, but it can be limited, even superficial. There are other kinds of important political stories that don't require hotel reservations, such as issues, polls, advertising, fundraising, the candidates' biographies, the mood of voters and electoral strategy.

As it happens, few of the most significant news developments about Campaign '08 came from mainstream trail reporters. News of McCain's choice of Palin as his running mate, for example, was orchestrated by McCain's campaign to break at the end of the Democratic National Convention. Obama's huge fundraising advantage, his 50-state network of field offices and army of volunteers were slow-building stories that grew in importance over the course of the campaign. Revelations about Palin's record as governor of Alaska (and her expensive wardrobe) were a result of traditional digging by off-trail reporters. Politico's Martin broke the news that McCain would stop contesting Michigan in October through old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting; he picked up a tip from a campaign source and then worked the phones and e-mail until he got a second source to confirm the information.

Further, some of the most illuminating background pieces on the election had nothing to do with campaign-trail events. Among others, Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times got off the beaten path and explored how the race was playing among various demographic groups. Wallsten also plumbed the mood of voters in such places as Whitewood, Virginia; Wesley Chapel, Florida; and Uniontown, Pennsylvania.

Two of the biggest campaign trail scoops came not from a professional journalist, but from a blogger named Mayhill Fowler (see The Beat, October/November ). Using her own money to follow the campaign around the country, the 61-year-old Fowler recorded Obama's comments, made at a fundraiser in San Francisco, that "bitter" small-town voters "cling to guns and religion." (Fowler never identified herself as a blogger; she was admitted to the closed event because she was an Obama contributor.) In June she encountered Bill Clinton at a rally in South Dakota and (again, failing to identify herself) asked about an unflattering profile of him in Vanity Fair. When Clinton launched into a tirade about the article's author, former New York Times reporter Todd Purdum ("sleazy!" "a scumbag!"), Fowler recorded that, too, and posted it online. After a firestorm of criticism, Clinton apologized for his intemperate language.

Fowler's work may have suggested the shape of things to come – or perhaps what's already arrived. Her revelations made her the star attraction on HuffingtonPost.com's OffTheBus feature. OTB was an innovative citizen journalism experiment in which more than 7,000 passionate amateurs (and a few pros) posted firsthand accounts from the campaign trail and contributed to collaborative reporting projects, such as filing reports on the hundreds of Democratic National Committee platform hearings held over the summer. OffTheBus was many things – often revelatory, journalistically uneven – but it did bring to bear resources that no mainstream media organization could begin to imagine. As its founder, Amanda Michel, wrote in her post-election note: "A unique breed of citizen journalists – at OffTheBus and elsewhere – opened up public access to information that conventional reporters cannot."

If Jonathan Martin's cubicle reporting demonstrates anything, it's that reporters don't have to be bound by the campaign trail's irregular rhythms and inefficient pace. Technological developments have given reporters a much broader canvas and made covering a campaign easier, faster and more efficient. "Every cycle has had some new innovation that changes the way the campaign is covered," says Politico Editor-in-Chief Harris. In 1984, the big development was the arrival of 24-hour cable news (CNN and C-SPAN). In 1988, it was laptop computers. By 1992, cellphones were standard gear; four years later, the Internet and e-mail had arrived. By 2004, it was blogs, BlackBerrys and Google. This cycle is the first to incorporate social networking sites including YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

With information moving so quickly, "going out" with the candidates (as reporters like to call hitting the trail) can seem like a quaint and cumbersome way to gather and disseminate campaign news. "There's no news cycle anymore," Martin says. "There's no deadline. When you have to pop stuff, you have to do it immediately. When every minute counts, you really can't afford to be off the grid. You can't wait around for the news the next day. It's around the clock."

What's more, thanks to technology, reporters are no longer dependent on campaigns to provide them with the infrastructure to do their jobs – the phone lines and filing centers that await the media at every official campaign stop.

"One of the big reasons to be on the bus was that it was simply easier to do it that way," says Matt Bai, who covers national politics for the New York Times Magazine. "The campaign had all the logistics. It was just easier to get on the bus and eat cookies and let the campaign take you to wherever the candidate was going next. Most of those things aren't really true anymore. Now everyone has an aircard. Everyone has a mobile office now."

Bai says he spent only two days inside the bubble during this campaign; the rest of the time, he crisscrossed states including Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Virginia on his own. "All I need is a rental car with GPS, and I'm on my way," he says. When he did show up at rallies, he often mingled with the crowd, avoiding the segregated press area where reporters tend to congregate.

Bai and Nagourney are campaign-trail veterans who believe it's counterproductive to spend a lot of time following a candidate around. Nagourney says that by hearing the same speech over and over, a reporter can become indifferent to important changes that take place over the long arc of the campaign. "You lose perspective" by being so close to it all the time, he says.

Adds Bai, "At the end of the day, reporting is about learning something. It's not writing down what someone said. You just don't learn much in the bubble. If I see the campaign twice a month at different moments, I can sense where it is. I don't need to see the stump speech five times a day, day after day. It's just not where the information is. I doubt readers are really hungry to read about how the candidate stopped in a plant in Michigan."

Even worse, he says, are the dynamics of pack journalism, a phrase coined by author Timothy Crouse in his seminal work on the campaign-trail press, "The Boys on the Bus." The book is perhaps best remembered for its depiction of the sleep-deprived, cynical and sometimes drunken press mob that covered the Nixon and McGovern campaigns in 1972. But Crouse's bigger theme was the corrosive nature of groupthink, how reporters tend to influence one another and create consensus and conventional wisdom. Bai says some of that self-reinforcing culture still exists among the mostly youthful journalists who cover campaigns; as a group, he says, they can be gossipy, cliqueish and competitive.

"I really couldn't take the crossfire on the campaign bus," says Bai, who met his wife, a Fox News producer, on the trail in 2000. "It gets pretty tiresome to hear reporters pontificating to each other about what the candidates are doing wrong. I just can't stand it. It's mostly people who haven't [covered] a campaign before saying, 'They're spending their money wrong, the speech is wrong, he's doing everything wrong.'... It's like watching cable all day. It's just noise."

It wasn't always this way.

A generation ago, life on the trail seemed to be slower, simpler and, perhaps, more satisfying for reporters. In his 1960 cinema veritι documentary, "Primary," Robert Drew captured scenes that seem unimaginable now, such as a moment when the small group of reporters following John F. Kennedy's primary campaign schmoozed with the candidate and even offered him advice. A similar sort of coziness comes through in Jules Witcover's 1969 book, "85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert F. Kennedy." At one point, Witcover watched as Kennedy and his aides engaged in an after-hours strategy debate, with Kennedy attired in nothing more than his underwear. The king of campaign access, however, may have been Teddy White; in 1968, he spent time with Robert Kennedy the night before his assassination, with Hubert Humphrey the night before rioting broke out at the Democratic convention in Chicago, and with Richard Nixon on the eve of Election Day.

While all campaigns since then have tried to manage and control the press – Nixon's 1972 reelection campaign was one of the best at it, according to Crouse's account in "The Boys on the Bus" – it took George W. Bush to create the truly locked-down, locked-out, no-access campaign, says Julie Mason, a veteran political reporter formerly with the Houston Chronicle. As a candidate in 2000, Bush was famous for bantering with reporters on his campaign plane (see "Journeys with George," Alexandra Pelosi's documentary about candidate Bush), but usually ended the encounters if the questioning got too serious.

Bush "changed the game" by shutting out the campaign press, Mason says. (Democratic candidate Al Gore wasn't much better; during the 2000 campaign, Gore went more than two months without direct contact with the press.) In contrast to Bill Clinton's campaigns and presidency, which were beset by constant leaks, "Bush set a new low on access and information," during his campaigns and while in office, says Mason, who now covers the White House for the Washington Examiner. Bush's 2004 reelection campaign perfected a number of techniques for controlling his image, such as stacking rallies with hand-picked supporters and permitting only pre-approved questions from supporters at "town hall" meetings.

During the 2004 general election, "the Bush model," as Matt Bai refers to it, became standard operating procedure for both Bush and his challenger, Democrat John Kerry. "The Bush White House gave the middle finger to the press," Bai says. "Their feeling was, 'We don't need [the media], we can talk around 'em, they can only hurt us.' They completely ignored them and refused to cooperate with them in any way. Now, that's almost the norm. It's gotten worse and worse."

Despite the drawbacks and difficulties, campaign-trail reporters do benefit from the experience by becoming knowledgeable about, and familiar to, the winning candidate and his staff, Mason says. That's a "net positive" when the candidate and the reporter move on to the White House, she says. Reporters who didn't cover Obama during his historic campaign are at a disadvantage, she adds. "We don't know who this guy is," she says. "We don't know what his motivations are, how he approaches things. You pick those things up on the trail, even if you don't have a lot of contact with him. You've got his whole operation wired."

Mason and others aren't optimistic that the trends in campaign coverage will get better the next time around. "What really was driven home this year was the business end of the news business," says Mason, who was laid off by the Chronicle in October. "All the cuts and layoffs remind us that we're not the Church of Truth, we're not high-minded priests, that this is a business, that's all. And it's becoming harder to justify doing fancy political stories.

"I worry about the papers that no longer can afford it," she says, "and I envy the papers that have the resources to cover it full-time. Let's face it, there aren't great stories coming off there, but you can't reject it out of hand. You have to have some presence."

Michael Shear, who will cover the Obama White House for the Washington Post, calls the general drift of the political press "pernicious": "What we in daily journalism may be evolving to is covering [the candidates] purely by watching TV and listening to the pundits."

Maybe, says Matt Bai, there's a way to cover the campaign trail for less. Maybe, there could be pool coverage, he suggests, with a rotating crew of reporters. Maybe, he says, "you don't have to be there all the time."

And maybe, the politicians and the media "could rebuild a little bit of trust and cooperation. The way it is now doesn't serve the public, the campaigns or the media. They're at the front of the plane, the media's in the back. The two never meet. I'm not sure how that serves democracy."

Paul Farhi (farhip@washpost.com), a Washington Post reporter, wrote frequently about coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign for AJR.