An Obama “Embed” on Access, Inspiration, Oppo

And what not to ask her

Aswini Anburajan is a twenty-seven-year-old campaign reporter (a.k.a. “embed”) who has been traveling with Barack Obama’s campaign for NBC News/National Journal since September 2007. As such, Anburajan: writes for the National Journal and The Hotline’s On Call blog; reports for National Journal On Air, a weekly radio show on XM satellite radio; writes for and’s blog, First Read; and does live phone reports for MSNBC and live reports for MSNBC mobile.

She has been an associate producer at, a news associate at NBC, and a researcher for NBC’s
Today Show. Previously, Anburajan worked as an opposition researcher at the Democratic National Committee and, during the 2004 presidential campaign, as an organizer in New Hampshire for [Howard] Dean for America.

On one of two sick days off the campaign trail this week, Anburajan spoke to Campaign Desk’s Liz Cox Barrett about her experiences covering the Obama campaign.

Liz Cox Barrett: Can you describe what you do on a daily basis, typically?

Aswini Anburajan: I get up around 5, 6 a.m. Then I frantically look at my Blackberry to see what I might have missed….There’s usually a conference call I have to be on. Either NBC or National Journal will hold a conference call or the campaigns are starting the day really early with some back-and-forth calls.

Then, you grab your stuff, leave your hotel room, get on the bus. A lot of our day is spent sitting on buses and planes waiting for the candidate to show up. So we get on the bus and go to our first event of the day, usually a town hall or a roundtable. If it’s a roundtable it’s a total message event and it’s really for local media. The candidate sits down and listens to concerns of local people… with thirty cameras watching him… so it’s a little staged.

What I was doing in Iowa and what I’m doing now are radically different. Because now we fly everywhere, three states a day, sometimes. And along the way, as a national reporter, you’re hoping for a press conference. You see what else is going on while you’re covering these rallies. Because at these rallies, unless he suddenly decides to start attacking McCain, there’s very little news to be made. You note the crowd size, what people are saying, talk to people sometimes, sometimes you can get a great little nugget.

By the end of the day, you usually end it with a big rally and you’re back in your hotel in a different state by around, I’d say, 11 p.m. is a good time to get back. It can be later, which is painful, because you’re usually turning around and doing it all again the next day.

LCB: What is the extent of what you produce in a given day?

AA: Once upon a time, we were out there by ourselves. It was only the embeds who were covering these events. Sometimes there was even very little local press. And we’d be the only ones there with video, with our cameras and tripods taping them. This was pretty consistent through Thanksgiving. And this was in Iowa and in New Hampshire. And we would drive ourselves from event to event. We got smart and finally decided to carpool. So you get to the event, film it, shoot it, something interesting happens, something compelling happens. You call your desk, upload it. The most you could ever send is about four minutes of [video] at a time. You just did it on the road. You’re talking with your phone scrunched up against your shoulder so you can talk while you upload video. I’ve gotten a lot of speeding tickets.

We’d file a lot back then. You’d write after every event. By December, we started having crews with us all the time…I file no matter what happens after every event. That note maybe will or won’t be published but there’s always an editorial note: this is the crowd, this is the mood, this is the tone. Usually these days, when you write up an event and it’s the standard stuff, there’s no news value to it.

Now when I’m shooting video, the video is more focused on what’s going on on the plane, what’s the candidate doing, is he holding a press avail, is there fun stuff happening in the crowd that I can shoot. If we’re going to a retail stop we usually have to pool it because there are so many of us now. Sometimes you can get in the candidate’s face and ask a question, which you then share with all five networks because it’s a pool. And also rope lines, we still shoot rope lines.

LCB: How is your access to Obama? How is press access in general? In a recent Washington Post article, Howard Kurtz wrote that some journalists find Obama “aloof” to reporters and often unavailable. Is this your experience?

AA: I think that was accurate up until that article.

LCB: And then?

AA: It dramatically shifted after that article. There was a philosophy, I think, in the campaign that to win Iowa or New Hampshire the people they needed to make themselves available to was the local press. I wrote a story about it and there was a story in The New York Times about the effort they’d put in to court local press.

And it worked for them, I mean they got all these editorial endorsements. There was a short blog post I had in [MSNBC’s] First Read during the Vegas debate. [Obama] never had press avails. I mean never had press avails. From the time I went on the road in September [until New Hampshire], and I was with him every day, every single day, I had fewer than ten press avails.

They did start to implement [avails] maybe once a week or once every eight or nine days once we left New Hampshire. They needed to get their message out there. There was a little back and forth between me and Robert Gibbs, [Obama’s] communications director, during the Nevada debate. Someone asked, “What’s your strategy going forward?” And he said, “We’re going to have to rely on national press.” And I said, “Does that mean we actually get to ask the candidate questions?” It was still pretty sporadic. Then the Kurtz article came out and the next thing you know, there was lot more of an effort to get the candidate to know the press: Obama came back on the plane more, they held press avails on the plane or a formal press conference, they’re trying to do more of them. They seem to have taken note of that criticism.

There was a post on the Chicago Tribune’s Swamp blog that talks about a big debate about off-the-record access and on-the-record access to Obama on the press plane. We all appreciate that the candidate should just be able to come back and chat and just be a normal person. But when you had no avails, no access to the candidate, every time he came back he was swarmed by reporters and whether he wanted to chat on the record or off the record, we all wanted something newsworthy. It created a small rift between print reporters and TV reporters, and between classes of print reporters—some news organizations have a policy of being off the record all the time—about what should be the policy on the plane. But it was resolved. It’s a very collegial group.

LCB: So when Obama comes to the back of the plane now, is it on or off the record? How was it resolved?

AA: I would say, depends. If it’s the end of day, he’s just stopping by, saying hello, walking up and down the aisle, I think we all see it as off the record. It was such chaos when he came back to take questions, people would be throwing themselves onto seats. I’m a small person. One day, I balanced myself on two sides of an airplane seat with my legs dangling down and held myself there, my muscles were shaking, just to be able to hear and listen. What they did was, there hasn’t been any formal announcement. But the last press avail, the press advance people made us all sit in rows in a very civilized fashion. He’d stay seated during the press conference. The press people took all our little recorders and held them near [Obama] so everybody got sound, although the campaign usually provides a transcript. One cameraman got access to the front and then we all pooled it. It was the best way to organize chaos in a small 737. Sometimes it takes public criticism in a paper, but at least they’re responsive to the idea that they need to work with us.

LCB: So when was the last press avail that you had?

AA: It was in Seattle. There might have been one [this week] but I wasn’t on the plane so I don’t know. The last one I was in was Seattle and I was shocked, Obama called on me. I literally pointed to myself.

LCB: Also in that Post article, Kurtz wrote that the Obama campaign doesn’t really send aides out to the press corps to spin them or plant a message, like many campaigns regularly do. Is this your experience?

AA: I have not covered other campaigns so I have nothing to compare it to. I would say the first time they were available on an election night to try to spin us or really try to get us information was February 5. The night that Obama lost New Hampshire, his aides disappeared. There was no one to ask questions of. Does that mean we don’t talk to David Axelrod or [Obama’s] traveling press secretary? We talk all the time. When you ask them about stuff, they’ll spin you in an answer. But I don’t have the experience of someone standing up and saying: this is what our message of the day is and this is why it’s important.

LCB: Okay, last reference to the Kurtz article…

AA: One day Howard Kurtz was suddenly on the plane and on the bus [to write that article]. It was the day Heath Ledger died and the only thing the journalists cared about that day was that Heath Ledger died. Everyone was up in arms about it. And then we realized Howard Kurtz was on the bus and he’s probably taking notes about this whole thing.

LCB: Kurtz wrote: “… some journalists say they have to guard against getting swept away by the excitement” of covering Obama.” Have you found that you’ve had to “guard against excitement?

AA: No. Because inspiration gets old. It gets old. He was in Seattle and I wrote the snarkiest, most sarcastic note to my [news] desk. Basically, this woman fainted in the audience. Someone yelled out, “What a man!” [about Obama] and the whole audience applauded because Obama was trying to be concerned, was at the podium saying, “Get an EMT here,” and he was giving traffic cop signals. I just rolled my eyes.

I am definitely impressed with Obama the candidate on the stump giving speeches. He can give an incredible, incredible speech. Those three days before New Hampshire, you couldn’t help but be wowed by the sizes of the crowds coming to see him. There was like a magic in the air. There was an event, and there were lines going around the block and people from NBC who have covered politics since before I was born were like, “I have never seen anything like this.” So there was a sense that all this was really going to lead to a victory.

And then you saw him lose. And when he lost I think it was really a slap in the face to all of us. There can be big crowds but you can never ever trust that these people are going to go out and vote. It just taught us a huge lesson. You just never know what you’re seeing. You’re not a bird’s eye view. You’re part of the crowd. The candidate is speaking to you as much as he’s speaking to everyone else because he wants you to carry that message out. I’m a big skeptic in general, everyone who knows me knows I’m really cynical.

New Hampshire was a lesson to everyone in the press corps. And it wasn’t about poll numbers. To me, it was that enthusiasm doesn’t always translate into votes. A hardened reporter told me in Iowa—there were 900 people packed into this tiny space—and I asked him, “Do you believe in crowds? Do you think this matters?” And he said, “I was there before the Iowa caucus in 2004 and Howard Dean had 4,000 people. Never expect me to trust a crowd again.” I think I’m going to say that to a reporter in four years, “I was there when Barack Obama spoke to a music hall in Manchester and the line was wrapped two miles down the road and I will never trust a crowd again.”

LCB: I gather then you’ve never experienced what your MSNBC colleague Chris Matthews talked about Tuesday night—the “thrill up his leg” that he gets when Obama speaks. Have you felt that?

AA: Chris Matthews doesn’t listen to Obama every day. That’s what I have to say to that. When Obama gives a really good speech, I know it’s really good but it doesn’t have that impact because I hear it all the time. It’s a joke I have with my friends: I’m over inspiration. I think sometimes my older and senior colleagues, they see him at his finest moments one after another and they don’t see the ups and downs in between. They don’t hear it every day so that it loses its impact. It’s my honest belief, there’s no fear of Stockholm Syndrome on that press plane. I guess that happened with some embeds in 2004 covering Dean. It’s not there. I think it’s because the campaigns are more guarded. It’s a different environment.

LCB: What are some frustrations or challenges that come with your job?

AA: Sometimes I wish I was taken more seriously.

LCB: By whom?

AA: By the campaign. Lots of time there’s a sense that because we’re embeds, they put young people in this role, and that we’re there to have fun, to enjoy the ride. The pressures on us are actually pretty incredible. Our roles are often overlooked. We’re just seen as people who record and transcribe. I don’t think we’re seen as people who can offer strong reporting. I don’t think campaigns realize when people at our networks are looking for something, we’re the record-keepers for our networks. I really resent the question these days, “Are you having fun?” From the candidate, from the campaign, from anybody and everybody. I mean, yeah, you want to enjoy this job. But this is really hard work. I feel I shoud carry equal weight in terms of getting out the news.

LCB: How has your background as an opposition researcher affected your work as a reporter, now that you’re on the receiving end, presumably, of that type of research?

AA: I can spot it when another reporter uses it, easily. I can always spot oppo. Because I came out of really good research shop, I value it in the sense that I know [some] try and do a good job on it. So much of oppo is about pulling strings out of the air and tying them together and trying to make an argument that just doesn’t happen. I’ve seen really bad oppo..

LCB: How have journalism employers regarded or treated that background? Do they see it as an asset? A liability?

AA: The news associate program at NBC, you go through rounds and rounds of interviews to be part of it. My first interview was with a man who had done oppo for Ralph Nader in 1970 or something. So he found it interesting. My final round, of interviews, they grilled me on it. They grilled me about the fact I used to work on campaigns. One of the producers asked me if I have an agenda.

The switch to journalism was very natural for me. NBC was cautious but it helped because I brought the body of [oppo] work I’d done [to the interviews]. Some was original investigations we’d done on mine safety that we actually used at NBC in our reporting on the Sago mine disaster in 2006. All the work I’d done as a DNC oppo researcher on all this mine stuff, I was actually able to take it and use it. There had been a serious lapse in safety over the course of six years and we were able to take that information and reconfirm it and use my old sources to actually turn it into real stories. So I think in those interviews they valued the type of work I was able to do to put together something like this. And none of us at those interviews would have ever imagined that NBC would make use of [my research] five, six months down the road.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.