Play the Juggernaut Match Game!

Kurtz reports on the tragicomedy that is covering Clinton

For all you reporters cursed with the thankless task of covering Hillary Clinton’s campaign-turned-juggernaut, we feel your pain. Iowa’s a rough place—and Clinton’s a tough lady. She keeps you at arm’s length; she often doesn’t allow follow-up questions after press conferences; she doesn’t cart you around in her bus. We know. Well, we know now that we’ve read The Washington Post’s piece illustrating your many troubles, “The Candidate’s ‘Catch Me If You Can.’”

So, to alleviate the pain, here’s a game for your Monday amusement: “Match Me If You Can.” It’s simple; just find the appropriate Solution for each Challenge the Clinton Juggernaut poses to you.

Challenges:

1. The Juggernaut doesn’t allow you to ride on the campaign bus.
2. As a result, you have to—gasp!—drive rental cars to and from events.
3. The Juggernaut doesn’t provide you with directions to the events you’ll be covering.
4. As a result of numbers 1-3, you’re late to an event. You have to park seven blocks away from the event. But—oops!—you’re wearing high-heeled boots.
5. The Juggernaut seems to give preference to—ick—local reporters.
6. You “didn’t even get to take the tour when Clinton visited a Las Vegas sheet-metal factory.”
7. Iowa is full of “unmarked back roads” and “moose crossings and flocks of geese.”

Solutions:

1. Please.
2. Quit whining.
3. Suck it up.
4. Do some reporting.
5. Maybe do some more reporting.
6. Seriously?
7. Come on.

The game’s answers, you might have guessed, are pretty much jumbled—as is, unfortunately, the article they refer to. In it, Howard Kurtz sings of the sad plight of the reporters assigned to cover the Clinton campaign. Kurtz has framed the story as tragedy; any comedy in the piece—and there’s a lot of it—seems strictly unintentional.

At issue is not just reporters’ general lack of access to the candidate—which is a valid complaint, if not the insurmountable roadblock Kurtz seems to think it is—but also the various other indignities they’re made to suffer in a “life spent trailing the Clinton juggernaut, where reporters can generally get close enough to watch but no further, as if separated from the candidate by an invisible sheet of glass.”

Kurtz’s overall accusation? The Clinton campaign doesn’t spoon-feed quotes or information to the reporters who cover it. It assumes reporters will do their own reporting. Jerks.

One has to wonder whether Kurtz is being ironic with all this.

The piece’s premise is simple (and valid): “journalists sometimes question whether it is worth the time and energy to trail politicians who rarely engage them.” The problem is, the anecdotes Kurtz presents to justify such questioning when it comes to Clinton sound, ultimately, petulant:

Earlier this month, [ABC correspondent Kate] Snow ignored the speed limit as she chased Clinton from a Manchester diner to a Concord state office where the candidate was filing to run in the primary. “I parked seven blocks away,” Snow says. “I ran up the street in my high-heel boots. I got there out of breath, and the Secret Service stopped me and said, ‘You can’t come in.’ ”

Snow and other late-arriving reporters talked their way in through the back door, but the room was so packed with supporters that her crew couldn’t get near the former first lady, whose news conference was almost over. “We’re constantly playing catch-up,” Snow says.

It’s unclear why Snow had to speed in the first place—the vehicle she was racing, after all, was a giant bus. Regardless, passages like these don’t translate well. They compound into a picture of campaign reporters who are petty, lazy, and entitled (and whose notion of “shoe leather reporting” seems, inexplicably, to be “high-heel boot reporting”). Who aren’t industrious enough to find ways—as their counterparts have ever since the buddy-buddy days of the Kennedy campaign—to report on candidates despite those candidates’ reticence toward the press. Kurtz’s rendering of the sufferings Clinton’s pressers endure is a slight to all the campaign reporters who, every day, chase down stories—both figuratively and literally—without complaining about having to do it. Since doing it is, after all, their job.

But that’s the piece’s other suggestion—the one that makes the article, overall, such a baffling contradiction of itself: that job, Kurtz suggests, is one reporters aren’t doing too well:

Clinton blames an overtaxed schedule for the arm’s-length approach, but something more fundamental is at work here. She, like her rivals, wants to deliver a daily message, usually framed around some policy prescription, while reporters want to ask her about the latest polls, tactics or blast from Barack Obama or John Edwards.

In other words, reporters only want to cover the horse race. They are shunning the very policy discussions they claim to want to write about. Which is a story—a big one, if not a new one—and one that Kurtz embeds in reporters’ complaints about their mistreatment at the hands of the Juggernaut. And then he wraps his rhetoric in excuses: If Clinton would only talk to reporters, they’d cover her policy stances. (Really? Would they?) Kurtz describes a Goffstown, Iowa, event—attendance at which required reporters to travel “along unmarked back roads, past moose crossings and flocks of geese”—in which Clinton talked about, among other issues, health care and special education and a “post-Kyoto agreement” on global warming. But then—“although the meeting was staged for the assembled journalists, there was no chance for follow-up, and the event received virtually no coverage.”

To be fair, it’s not just Clinton who’s reticent when it comes to the press; as Kurtz notes, “Clinton differs [from most of the other candidates] only in her degree of discipline.” Still, to make his point about the challenges of the campaign trail—or perhaps to disguise its weakness—Kurtz adopts the melodramatic tone of a trial lawyer. (One of the best lines in the piece? “As Clinton made her way to the door, she observed: ‘All this good food—can we feed the press?’ But the press was feeling undernourished.” ZING.)

Perhaps Kurtz is inflamed because he himself was late to an Iowa campaign event—because the Clinton campaign, those jerks, hadn’t provided accurate directions to it:

Her last major event was a potluck dinner at a cavernous union hall in the town of Brentwood. But only a handful of reporters attended and I arrived late, driving down unlighted streets in a heavy rain as confused Clinton aides kept giving me the wrong directions.

It’s strange, though, that Kurtz would be relying on campaign flacks for directions—since, as he observes:

Much of the chatter among the reporters is about MapQuest and GPS devices and Hertz’s NeverLost technology as they trade tips on how to track their constantly moving quarry.

Hmm. Maybe Kurtz got lost and was late to the campaign event because he wasn’t in on such mapping-device gossip? He never explains. So, like a campaign reporter chasing a candidate’s bus through those dark, windy, goose-and-moose-laden roads of Iowa—I’m lost.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.