Neil Vigdor covers Connecticut politics for Greenwich Time and The (Stamford) Advocate, sister daily newspapers owned by Tribune Publishing Co. He has written more than 30 articles about the state’s Democratic Senate primary. Vigdor, 29, joined the two papers in 1999 as an editorial assistant and became a reporter in 2000. Previously, he attended Vanderbilt University, where he was editor of the student newspaper.
Liz Cox Barrett: How has reporting on the Lamont-Lieberman race been different from the sorts of things you typically cover? Any surprises?
Neil Vigdor: The Lamont-Lieberman race is like no other story I have covered or probably ever will. Ned Lamont is a guy who had one campaign poster and less than $40,000 in the bank when I first interviewed him in February about challenging Joe Lieberman. Now he’s the Democratic nominee for Senate and getting calls from Hillary Rodham Clinton and donations from Barbra Streisand. Lieberman is a fixture here in Connecticut who came within a few hanging chads of being vice president. It’s a scintillating political story. It’s also been a test of stamina, resources and not becoming part of the story.
Our sister papers had two reporters covering all the angles of the story, while some bigger competitors had as many as four scribes on the campaign trail splitting the reporting and writing duties. We followed the candidates to Waterbury, Hartford, Meriden and Bridgeport — just to name a few — and often filed under tight deadlines and difficult conditions. At the state party convention in May, I was forced to read my article over the telephone to an editor because my computer modem wasn’t working.
LCB: In a story from primary night, datelined the Meriden Sheraton, you wrote: “Lamont’s campaign dedicated an entire work room — separate from the ‘mainstream media’ (MSM) and complete with champagne — to its faithful following of bloggers.” Can you talk more about this? Was there no champagne for the mainstream press? Did the MSM and bloggers co-exist peacefully on the campaign trail?
NV: No bubbly for us. Just root beer, ginger ale and water. I thought it said a lot that Lamont’s campaign stocked the blogger room with a bottle of champagne on ice. Here you had all of these bloggers, some with digital cameras and video recorders, filling an entire room at the hotel. One blogger had blue hair. Another wore a fake nose and glasses. Many had “Lamont for Senate” stickers, T-shirts and pins.
Bloggers seem to be equally, if not more, touchy about being interrupted on deadline as us mainstream media folk. I had one tell me he was too busy uploading a post to his Web site to do an interview — three hours before the polls closed, mind you. There does seem to be competitiveness between the bloggers and the MSM. One needed permission to film the bloggers at work, yet some frequently taped footage of us for their Web sites.
LCB: What are your thoughts on bloggers’ influence on the race — something that many reporters seemed to have focused on. Has it been overstated?
NV: I was doing man-on-the-street the other day about the primary and came across these retirees in their 70s. To hear them talk about the blogs really says something. That said, I believe there was an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with a number of Sen. Lieberman’s positions in Connecticut that existed for a while. It eventually manifested itself in Web sites like DumpJoe.com, MyLeftNutmeg.com and the DailyKos.com. The bloggers are a very observant bunch, as well as opinionated. A few had postings taking umbrage with our newspaper’s coverage of the race. But then again, they’ve got a horse in the race.
I was particularly struck by one blog that posted photographs of the press corps interviewing the candidates after their first and only face-to-face debate in West Hartford. One photo showed a pack of reporters talking to Lamont. A second showed me talking to Lieberman’s campaign manager by myself “er single guy” and suggested that no one was interested in talking to the incumbent’s mouthpiece. I got what I needed from Lamont, so I moved on. End of story.
LCB: I noticed a paragraph you wrote in a recent story about Lamont that read: “… Lamont is hardly the seasoned politician. He conducts one-on-one interviews without handlers, although one aide recently interrupted him during a telephone interview just as he was going to answer a question about what his most bizarre campaign moment has been. His attention was pulled away to the aide, who could be heard in the background. ‘What? Don’t tell that story?’ Lamont said to the aide, repeating the advice he was being given. He didn’t tell the story.” How would you describe the access reporters had to the candidate? Did it change over the course of the campaign?
NV: Lamont’s entourage has grown as he has become more of a household name, as one would expect. He has remained relatively accessible throughout the campaign, however. A lot of people like to draw analogies to Lamont and Jimmy Stewart’s character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. One blogger even superimposed Lamont’s picture in footage from the movie. It’s clearly evident that Lamont’s supporters like his aw-shucks anti-establishment persona.
LCB: During the 2004 presidential campaign, reporters received countless opposition research-type emails each day from both candidates, the RNC, the DNC and others, along the lines of, “John Kerry drives an SUV!” Was this true of the Lamont-Lieberman contest as well? How would you characterize the tone of the race overall?
NV: Flooded inbox comes to mind. I spent an hour the other day moving campaign-related emails from my inbox to a special folder. You never know when you might need them. I received a number of emails and telephone calls, trying to plant stories about the opposition or wanting to know why we were not covering certain campaign events. I even got called on the golf course on a day off. If covering the primary race taught me anything, it was to treat these overtures cautiously.
LCB: What are some misperceptions the outside media has of Greenwich? How do you think the town is generally portrayed by outside media?
NV: Without fail, not a day would go by during the primary race that we’d get a chuckle about some of our competitors’ characterizations of Greenwich. The words leafy, toney and WASP come to mind. And then there was the newspaper that referred to Lamont as “liberal moneybags.” Those newspapers are writing for a different audience, however. We do community journalism, and every once in a while, which, luckily, is pretty often these days, the story goes national.
Greenwich is no doubt a wealthy town, but, at the same time, it’s got its share of people working multiple jobs to scrape by and seniors on fixed incomes. Many of its elderly residents are rich in property — they bought in before the real estate boom — but cash-poor.
LCB: Finally, is it possible to live in Greenwich on a reporter’s salary?
NV: Not exactly. Some apartments here rent for $2,500 a month. Someone once told me your monthly rent should not exceed your gross weekly pay. Throw that one out.
I am one of the fortunate few who have been able to find reasonable housing here. Living in the town you cover makes a big difference.