Editor’s note: Campaign Desk’s Zachary Roth joined the campaign reporters accompanying Vice President Cheney on a bus tour of northeast Pennsylvania this past Wednesday. For one who spends his days criticizing these folks’ finished work, the trip was an eye-opener into the self-enclosed and self-referential bubble within which campaign reporters are forced both by the conventions of politics and the conventions of journalism to ply their trade. Along the way, the constraints and frustrations of the traveling press corps as it tags along with a lesser candidate on a lesser trip through a lesser territory became evident. Here is his report.
By Zachary Roth
I was at Scranton-Wilkes-Barre Airport, in northeast Pennsylvania, at 8:30 Wednesday morning. After a police dog had sniffed our bags — and one cameraman wiped doggie saliva off his camera lens — we took our places on or behind a truck riser, while we waited for the vice president’s flight to land. A network cameraman was finishing his breakfast of Cheetos and Sprite. A candy bar poked from the top of his shirt pocket.
The press corps was a mix of local and national reporters: the Scranton Times had a reporter and photographer (though after covering the airport landing, they left), as did the Harrisburg Patriot-News, the major paper from the state capitol. Reuters also sent a reporter, and AP dispatched a Harrisburg-based staffer. All the networks sent camera crews, and CNN had two reporters along as well. The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, and USA Today all sent reporters, though the New York Times did not.
In quick order, the plane landed, Cheney got off, the cameras snapped, Cheney got on his bus, and we got on ours, part of a convoy of cars, SUVs, and buses that snaked its way through the Pennsylvania hills. At the first event, at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, billed as a “town hall meeting,” Cheney, after being introduced by his daughter Liz, (who appeared with her own three daughters) sat with his wife Lynn on stools and answered questions from the crowd, which was seated on all four sides.
The reporters were assigned to a roped-off area, where they sat with laptops and notepads, and typed or wrote almost continuously throughout the event. Most of their notes were quick scribbling of verbatim quotes. Some turned on tape recorders.
Afterwards, the reporters were disappointed. “No news”, said one. “Not even a smidgen,” agreed Karen Travers of ABC. “And after yesterday’s excitement …” she said, referring to the vice president’s declaration on Tuesday that he personally opposed President Bush’s proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
Back on the bus, David Morgan of Reuters immediately used his cell phone to call a professor and ask for his take on Cheney’s gay marriage comments. Meanwhile Marc Levy of the AP was talking to his editor, summarizing the gist of Cheney’s comments: that we need a new national security strategy to confront the challenges of a new era, and to replace the cold war strategy of containment.
Levy read quotes from Cheney down the phone to his editor, including the following: “John Kerry said as much in his convention speech, that he wanted to go back to the way things used to be, and that America would resort to military force only when attacked.” In reality, Cheney was being disingenuous: Kerry has not said this, and his foreign policy advisers have specifically kept the door open for the use of pre-emptive attacks. But in talking to his editor, Levy didn’t offer any hint that Cheney had it wrong, and his editor didn’t raise that issue either. (Indeed, not once all day did I hear a reporter attempt to assess the accuracy of anything Cheney said. They were concerned only with accurately transcribing his words and actions, and with assessing the strategic purpose of the trip. Fact-checking the vice president’s assertions didn’t appear to be on the agenda.) The quote about military force appears in Levy’s write-up of Cheney’s day, which ran in papers Thursday.
An atmosphere of collegiality prevailed amongst the reporters on the bus. When Levy, still on the phone with his editor, didn’t know the name of the former Lieutenant-Governor who had introduced Cheney in Wilkes-Barre, Pete DeCoursey of the Harrisburg Patriot-News — eager to burnish his credentials as the Pennsylvania political expert — told him it was Bill Scranton. A short while later, when Morgan, of Reuters, mentioned that he needed to speak to Terry Madonna, an oft-quoted political science professor at Pennyslvania’s Franklin and Marshall College, DeCoursey recited Madonna’s work and cell numbers off the top of his head. “There’s a very big race between me and Terry Madonna for biggest media whore in Pennsylvania,” DeCoursey explained.