Becky Diamond on “Pulling Teeth” and Orange Bowling on the Kerry Campaign

Becky Diamond

Since September, 35-year-old Becky Diamond has been on the campaign trail (plane, bus, rental car) covering Sen. John Kerry for NBC News and MSNBC, contributing reporting and video footage to NBC, MSNBC and MSNBC’s “First Read.” Today, she discusses the “top secret[iveness]” of the Kerry camp, “tense” off-the-record moments, and the finer points of orange bowling. This interview is part of Campaign Desk’s ongoing series of interviews with reporters and commentators about how the press is covering the election.

Liz Cox Barrett: You’ve been on the road for six months now with many of the same reporters covering a single candidate. How has all this time in the same company affected your sense of competition with colleagues and sense of perspective and objectivity vis a vis the candidate?

Becky Diamond: The answer to both of these questions is to acknowledge and accept that you are human and have normal human emotions and reactions to people and events, but while you might feel a certain way about the candidate and about your colleagues the most important objective is to seek the truth and to report the story itself. These things are not mutually exclusive.

Covering a campaign is an incredibly intense experience — I spend eighteen hours a day, seven days a week with virtually the same group of fellow reporters covering the same story. While there is an obvious competition, there is also an intense camaraderie. We help each other when appropriate — with common knowledge, sharing sound bites or quotes made in public events and debating the meaning and implication of the candidate’s statements and actions. All of these things are incredibly helpful. The feeling of competition is there — but — while there might be some envy when others break news or report a great story — that also comes with respect for another person’s work as well as motivation to do an even better job yourself.

As for my perspective on John Kerry: Having followed Senator Kerry on the road for such a long time, I have a deeper sense of perspective on his candidacy in certain ways than others who have not “logged” those hours. However, I lack a perspective that others who don’t travel constantly with the candidate have as I live in a fish bowl and I must look out and gather information that isn’t readily available on the John Kerry campaign trail. It’s important to seek out opinions from Bush supporters, from other Democratic leaders and from the opposition in general.

LCB: Before you became, in September, one of what MSNBC once officially called its “campaign embeds” (MSNBC later changed the title to “campaign reporters”), you were embedded with US/Coalition naval forces in the Persian Gulf. How are the two gigs similar and how are they different? Is it more difficult to get information from the Pentagon/the military or the Kerry camp?

BD: Talk about top secret … the Kerry campaign is more protective of its information than any military unit I covered during the war! Getting information from the Kerry campaign can be like pulling teeth. The spokespeople for the Senator limit what they say and stay consistently “on message.”

Being embedded with the US military could not be more different than being “embedded” with John Kerry’s campaign, physically or professionally. First, in Operation Iraqi Freedom, I was fully embedded — living with the unit I covered and getting access to much information, some of which I could not report until a certain amount of hours passed, if at all. I have never been embedded like that with the Kerry campaign.

Campaigns are not organizations that will allow a journalist to be truly embedded and report on day of news. The newsgathering is also very different. In a war situation the reporting is based largely on information that you see with your eyes as well as information that you dig out. For example, a ship launches X number of Tomahawk missiles at X time of day heading towards X location. The sailors on board the ship said X about the launch. The ship has X number of Tomahawk missiles left to launch … In a campaign the reporting is not as obvious and immediate. News is not made every day and you must put the candidate’s statements and events into a frame from which people view it. For example, John Kerry made X statement today which is important because of X reason in the campaign. A lot of the news you report is information that you work to acquire and that takes time to research. In a war situation it’s a bit more of the moment (and exciting!). But at least I’m not worried about getting killed on the Kerry campaign …

LCB: The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz reported recently that there has been some disagreement within the Kerry press corps over whether Kerry’s off-the-record chats with reporters — which he liked to do to “unwind” — should continue now that “the traveling press has ballooned to 60.” You were one of the reporters Kurtz quoted as in favor of those chats. Why — what do you get out of them?

BD: Off-the-record moments offer a reporter so many valuable opportunities. The first is the building of a relationship, simply getting to know the candidate without the pressure of being “on the record” the entire time. It could be playing cards, singing songs, eating meals or playing sports — these shared experiences help you understand what makes a candidate tick. After all, candidates running for president are being judged on more than their policies. They are also being judged on their personalities, their image and their background. You also get information in off-the-record chats that can give you ideas for future stories. Off-the-record is something that is always negotiable as well. If the candidate says something that you really want to use, you can negotiate its use with staffers, perhaps you can attribute it to a source within the campaign or use it later (similar to being embedded with the military — there were “off-the-record” moments that you could report later).

The reason that the AP reporter in the Kurtz article was against off-the-record moments was not an ethical one, but rather it was about competition, that he feared he would go off-the-record but with 60 people, not all the journalists would follow the rules. You could get the short end of the stick when the competition prints something that was off-the-record but you didn’t use it. We still have tense moments concerning off-the-record on the campaign plane as there are times when Senator Kerry says off-the-record yet not all of the press corps hears, and off-the-record is something that has to be mutually agreed to. Heated discussions ensue about exactly what was off- or on-the-record. The challenge is also when the senator says something is “on background” and you have to figure out how to source him …

LCB: In another piece Kurtz credited you with “d[igging] out this gem, that Bush called Kerry on his cell phone [on Super Tuesday eve] and they talked about having a good debate in the coming months.” How did you get this tidbit and what other “gems” have you been able to dig out?

BD: I think “gems” are the little human moments that often go unreported.

Digging out gems is about relationships and trying to stay ahead of the news. So that “gem” was based on a call to a Democratic source whose name I can’t mention and asking this source about a phone call that John Kerry received from John Edwards. After getting information on that call and the words exchanged between the two, I got information on the call from the president from this source. What made the news a real gem was not simply that the president had called but I asked this source how the president reached the senator and I was told that the call came through on the senator’s cell phone. I asked if the senator was surprised or if this was a scheduled call and I was told that the senator was “very surprised” to hear the voice of President Bush on the other end of the phone line. I also asked what the senator said to the president. I think those little gems are about asking the right questions when getting information.

Other gems on the campaign trail come from conversations with Senator Kerry — an off-the-record moment turned on-the-record was during the primaries when I asked the senator who he would vote for if he weren’t running for the nomination. He paused and told me (and a group of reporters) that he would vote for Dick Gephardt. I thought this was a telling moment and it was something that the campaign allowed to be used on the record later — when Dick Gephardt endorsed John Kerry.

LCB: Does Kerry frequently bowl with oranges on the campaign airplane or was that just a one time photo op? Does the press corps let him win?

BD: Ha. First of all, everything the senator does in front of the cameras is most definitely a photo op. While some shots are organic — i.e. he’s skiing in Idaho — they are at the same time photo ops. John Kerry is a very calculating man and while he has a sense of humor and adventure, he and his campaign are typically not spontaneous and they are masters of imagery and photo opportunities.

John Kerry is extremely competitive and enjoys all sorts of “competition.” The orange bowl is a competition to see who can roll the orange the length of the plane as it’s ascending. The press plays the game nearly every time the plane takes off and some member of the senator’s campaign plays as well but the senator hasn’t played every time. Bowling the oranges isn’t something on which you can impose a victory but if there were a true competition John Kerry would have to battle for his win just as the rest of us!

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.