Back on the Hustings

Back to disenchantment with the political press corps

Every four years, a new crop of political reporters arrives on the scene to fan out among the people of Iowa and New Hampshire—or more precisely, they fan out among the reporters fanning out among the candidates fanning out among the people of Iowa and New Hampshire—to cover the presidential election. Along the way, these smart young things are invariably amused, disgusted and slightly disheartened by the scrum of nodding reporters they embed themselves with and the horserace-obsessed groupthink that more often than not tends to come with the beat.

Over the weekend, two of these young reporters stepped away from the hustings long enough to blog a few of their impressions from their time in the press pack, and it ain’t pretty. But it also ain’t anything we haven’t hard before. The Nation’s Chris Hayes ruminated over the psychology behind how the press corps covers a political campaign. He said that when he first went out on the trail, he was frightened of missing something, or coming to the wrong conclusions, but that:

Veteran reporters are just as panicked about getting lost or missing something, just as confused about who to talk to. This [is] why reporters move in packs. It’s like the first week of freshman orientation, when you hopped around to parties in groups of three dozen, because no one wanted to miss something or knew where anything was.

True enough, but anyone who’s covered a press conference has seen this pack mentality in action, and has felt that pang of quiet humiliation at having to share a profession with the whining, squealing horde that is a roomful of working reporters. My first experience with this was in New Orleans a week or so after the levees broke, when vice president Cheney made an appearance at a location on Canal street and I witnessed reporters and cameramen jostle and scream at one another in order to get close enough to him to shove microphones in his face and shout a few questions. Questions that he dutifully ignored. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to witness these roving packs of reporters operate in various locals—and I have to say, the embarrassment as being counted among their number hasn’t dissipated with time.

But back to the election coverage. Jumping off from Hayes’ post, Ezra Klein has blogged his own experience with the pack mentality of the political press corps. After the Democratic debate in New Hampshire Saturday night he wrote that

Most of the folks I talked to happily admitted how unbelievably awful and surreal the spin room is, but everyone was in there. At one point, I asked an older reporter why everyone was assembled together for this debate, and he turned to me and said, “there’s no good reason. Reporters are creatures of habit, and all this is now habit.”

It’s like eavesdropping as the wisdom of the ages is passed on to a young Jedi, isn’t it? Hayes and Klein don’t present their observations as if they’re something new, or like they’ve just stumbled on to the silly, expense account-padded overkill that so much of campaign trail journalism is, but still, for anyone who remembers Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72” or Timothy Crouse’s ” The Boys on the Bus”—or better yet, the collected works of a little thing CJR rolled out in 2004 called “Campaign Desk”—this sort of criticism has all the inevitability of a garish Super Bowl halftime show. Welcome to the scrum, boys!

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.