Bubble-itis, Boredom, and Bathroom Buddies - the Life of a Campaign Reporter

Last night, Campaign Desk tuned in to the Discovery/Times Channel’s documentary, “Politics & The Media” — enticed as much by Howard Kurtz’s promise of a Jodi Wilgoren bathroom crisis as by Kurtz’s blurb that the program “provides a backstage look at life on the campaign plane, the scramble among photographers, CNN’s Super Tuesday coverage and the role of the web.”

Bodily functions, turns out, are a running theme in the program. Aside from the Wilgoren moment (where the New York Times reporter is escorted to the loo by a pony-tailed Kerry staffer), Ken Auletta, who deserves his own show, offers some colorful descriptions of life on the campaign plane. For example: “[Campaign handlers] don’t want you, the reporter, to hear the [candidate’s] burp, the curse, the snore.”

And although it may sound like another bodily function, “bubble-itis” is actually — as described by the show’s host, Andy Borowitz — a malady many campaign reporters come down with, a main symptom of which is “clouded judgment” from being inside the campaign “bubble” (bus/plane) too long. In an effort to wring sympathy from the viewer, we are told that in addition to possibly contracting “bubble-itis,” the campaign press must consume dreadful food, work 15- or 16-hour days, suffer through the same stump speech at every stop, and, for their pains, are granted very limited access to the candidates.

Most telling, in Campaign Desk’s opinion, are the scenes in which journalists — largely New York Times reporters, given that it is a Discovery/Times production — try to explain how and why they do what they do. Some highlights:

According to Elisabeth Bumiller, writer of the Times’ “White House Letter,” the Bush administration’s “spin can be quite exhausting.” She is able to “get beyond” the spin, she says, by calling people who are close to but not in Bush’s inner circle, and then talking to them on background (and then, Campaign Desk would add, quoting them anonymously.)

The Times’ Adam Nagourney discusses how campaign reporters must “wait and wait and wait” for some “small moments” and then “try to turn them into stories.” He also confesses that today’s campaign reporting is done in a “quicker” and “more competitive” atmosphere, so that stories are often “less reported, less thought-out, less carefully-checked.” (Yes, we know.)

Jodi Wilgoren, chasing Kerry for the Times, sees herself as “a representative of the average person on the street” who can then “take my information and be able to figure out what they want to do with their vote.” (Well, not always.)

And Candy Crowley, the veteran CNN political correspondent, declares that her job “is to watch stuff and tell about it, and find out about stuff and tell about it. I think it’s that simple.”

If it really were “that simple,” we’d all be out of a job.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.