AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2012

Total Campaign Immersion   

For NBC’s embed reporters, presidential coverage is a 24/7 affair for months at a time. Weds., February 22, 2012.

By Alexis Gutter
Editorial assistant Alexis Gutter (agutter@ajr.umd.edu) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.     

Imagine being in line for a flight after a slew of nights lacking any semblance of REM sleep and hearing breaking news that changes your destination. Imagine this being the norm.

Well, NBC's eight Election 2012 embed reporters might just consider this a relaxed day.

For the third consecutive presidential election, the network is deploying staffers with each campaign as close to 24/7 as possible.

The NBC embed program debuted in 2004. "We were coming out of the Iraq war, where we had used military embeds, and thought the idea of putting the concept toward elections would give unique insights about how the elections were going," says Mark Lukasiewicz, senior vice president of NBC News Specials.

Each embed is assigned to either a candidate or a geographic region with a mission to do, well, everything. Whether this means reporting on the air, writing, producing, tweeting — as often as 25 times per day―interviewing, shooting or lugging a camera crew's worth of equipment across the country, the embeds are "the eyes and ears of NBC," says Chuck Todd, political director and chief White House correspondent for NBC News and host of MSNBC's "The Daily Rundown".

Todd, Lukasiewicz, NBC News Senior Editor Rob Rivas and other NBC powerhouses were involved in selecting and training the 2012 embed reporters, all newish to journalism, ranging in age from 24 to the early 30s. And since the campaign trail can be punishing, it's an asset to be youthful.

Though embed reporters don't often have the luxury of healthy meals, they say weight gain has not been a problem. In fact, they get plenty of exercise. Carrie Dann, the embed who covered the ill-fated Rick Perry campaign and is now following the Obama campaign with a focus on First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, says "carrying 70-plus pounds of gear every day is its own P90X equivalent."

Among other things, the embeds carry around bulky backpacks, which Andrew Rafferty, the embed who covered the Tim Pawlenty and Herman Cain campaigns and is now on the Rick Santorum beat, facetiously calls "stylish." They contain live-view cameras, which give embeds the capability to go live to air.

Dragging around all of that technology is something Todd says he does not envy. He jokes that the embeds resemble Al Franken's "one man mobile news gathering unit" shtick from "Saturday Night Live," in which he had a personal satellite dish attached to his head.

"With all of this equipment, you have to have a high IQ with electronics," Todd says. "The training you got in journalism 15 years ago is obsolete to this. It's not just being a smart reporter, analyst and historian; you have to be smart with the technology. That's what makes this generation of reporters unique."

Rafferty, 24, says the nonstop, sleep-deprived, relationship-straining lifestyle of an embed is not for the fainthearted. He admits that maintaining friendships and keeping in touch with family is challenging. But, he adds, "It's a job with an expiration date. You know you'll move on in a relatively short time."

While demanding, the program is by no means tyrannical. At the outset, Dann, 28, alerted her friends that if they planned to get married anytime soon, she would show up at the wedding only if she were the maid of honor. But when she had a death in the family, she says, NBC understood. "The response was, 'Do what you need, calls us when you can come back,' " she says.

While both Rafferty and Dann are quick to affirm that the job is difficult and draining, they are just as quick to praise it. "For every person you don't get to see as much as you like, you meet someone new," Rafferty says. "It allows you to accomplish things you didn't know you could do."

While the number of working hours in a day remains the same throughout the election cycle (about 16), the nature of the work changes somewhat as the campaign plays out, says Rivas, who oversees the embed program.

"In the early days of the campaign, in the summer months..they are the face of NBC News to the majority of these campaigns," Rivas says. "They must do everything every day."

However, as Election Day nears, the network sends correspondents and producers to cover the elections as well, which slightly changes the role of embeds.

While they get less airtime as the race progresses, their duties do not diminish. They introduce NBC correspondents to political contacts forged on the campaign trail and funnel information back to writers and producers at headquarters at Rockefeller Center.

"They are the consummate team players," Rivas says.

In fact, Dann says her job often reminds her of being a contestant on "The Amazing Race."

"I have to be in Colorado on Tuesday, but South Carolina by Sunday night — how?" she says. Logistics and figuring out where tomorrow will be spent at times take precedence over the job's editorial duties.

Rafferty, now accustomed to the nomadic lifestyle, says he becomes restless if he spends more than a few days in the same place.

A memorable moment for him came in Green Bay, Wisconsin, when he got video footage of Cain answering the question "Do you think the Libya comments reinforce that you don't have a thorough understanding of foreign policy?" with "Nine, nine, nine."

"It exploded on Twitter, was played on MSNBC and 'The Daily Show,' " Rafferty says. "It was great, because you couldn't use the clip without my voice. I couldn't get my face in there, but I'll take the little victory."

A huge value of the position is being able to tell the story as she saw it rather than the way other mainstream sources did, says Dann, who was also an embed in the 2008 election. "You get to see the good, the bad and the ugly up close," she says. "You're there for all of it."

"All of it" includes the candid — like when a source told Dann that at a Wendy's restaurant on the road, Perry told an aide, "I think I'm going to drop out tomorrow." And then he did.

After Perry left the race, Dann caught up on sleep and reflected on the experience. "I sat down to write the story from beginning to end of the campaign [for msnbc.com]," she says. "There are probably only four or five people who know the story from my vantage point."

After a candidate drops out of the race, the embed who was covering that campaign might be reassigned to another candidate or to a state, or leave the trail to return to whatever he or she was doing being the campaign, Rivas says.

"Everything is evaluated by a case-by-case basis," he says. "This year, the overwhelming majority of our embeds were plucked from our staff ranks, which means when we do transition someone off the trail, their respective show or department gets back a producer with vastly improved skills that really only continue to benefit the whole of" NBC Universal.

NBC is not the only network employing the embed approach. CBS News has teamed up with National Journal to embed six reporters (three from each outlet) to provide editorial and digital content. ABC News' campaign digital reporters provide editorial and video content about campaigns, key states and issues for television, radio and digital platforms.

Every morning at 10:30, the NBC embeds have a conference call with Rivas in which they discuss what's coming up that day. Afterward, they communicate with the boss more than 20 times per day.

"Every day is vastly different, but the majority are 16 or 17 hours, including following sources, covering events and logistically planning," Rivas says. "I've seen e-mails from them at three in the morning about last thoughts of the day."

While Todd says he's jealous that the embeds get to cover the campaign up close and in person, he sees their biggest challenge as the constant traveling, which often does not allow for necessary rest. "Yes, you won't get seven hours of sleep a day, but you gotta find a day that you do," he says. "And don't forget to drink water."

Lukasiewicz says that because the embed model has proven a good way to cover stories, the network might explore using it beyond elections, possibly for economic and education pieces. However, he does not see the current format for campaign coverage changing vastly.

"You can always find room for improvement," Lukasiewicz says. "But it's hard to imagine a group of eight journalists doing better. They've proved their value over and over again."