Ryan Lizza Ponders the 15-Minute News Cycle, the Campaign Trail, Blogs and the Washington Post’s New Cicadas Beat

Ryan Lizza is the White House correspondent — and has been covering the 2004 presidential campaign — for The New Republic. He has been with the magazine since 1998, and writes their “Campaign Journal” blog. He previously worked at Harper’s and the Center for Investigative Reporting, where he helped produce an Emmy award-winning documentary for PBS’s “Frontline.” His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, New York Magazine, and The Washington Monthly.

Zachary Roth: How does writing for a weekly opinion magazine, and one that skews liberal, affect your coverage? And your access?

Ryan Lizza: Well not everyone would describe TNR as strictly a liberal magazine, because it’s ideologically diverse, we have plenty of different voices in the magazine, but generally the tradition of the magazine is a liberal one.

I don’t think it really affects my coverage too much because most of the stuff I write is not from an ideological perspective … But it definitely affects access to Republicans every once in a while, not just the Bush folks but other conservative political figures … Sometimes you can tell they might not be so excited to talk to someone that they consider not so friendly.

But the truth of the matter is that, especially with the Bush administration, I don’t think the access is great for any reporter. So, coming from a magazine that they perceive as too liberal to talk to, I don’t know that that’s different from reporters at say the Washington Post or the New York Times.

ZR: How does writing for a weekly magazine make your job different from a reporter at the New York Times or the Washington Post?

RL: The main thing is that the campaigns themselves are so geared towards catering to the daily newspapers, the wires, and the TV networks. So when you travel with the campaign, everything’s set up to accommodate those guys, the daily spin war, the daily oppo[sition] research, the conference calls. Everything is geared towards … the 15-minute news cycle. So sometimes when you’re covering it you can feel a little alien.

And you have to always think of your lead-time. We go to press Wednesday night, and a lot of people don’t read us until Thursday, Friday, sometimes even until Monday, so you have to try to think of stories that are going to hold for a lot longer. Angles on things that people are talking about that add some value to what you’re going to see in the daily newspaper stories and on TV that night. That’s probably the biggest challenge.

ZR: Tell us about hanging out on the trail, with other reporters and the candidates. What’s the vibe? Is it fun? Do you get tired? Do you wish you were back in DC?

RL: I haven’t been out in a while, to tell you the truth. I haven’t been doing much travel since the primaries, just because I’m trying to figure out where the campaign actually is these days.

And the primaries are so completely different from the general election. The primaries are just very, very dynamic — you have a lot of candidates, a lot of staff that are competing for attention, especially in the early part of the primary season. In 2003, you had a lot of access to the candidates. As late as December you could stand around, a couple feet from the candidates, and watch them interact with voters, and toss questions to them. So it’s totally different once the nominees are decided, once it turns into a tarmac campaign with very few press conferences, very little access to the candidates, and everything is sort of in a bubble.

And at this point I’m not so sure what the value is in going out on the trail. During the primaries you could learn a lot by spending a few days with the candidates on the campaign trail. Right now — going out to Seattle to see Kerry’s speech today versus watching it on C-Span — I’m not so sure you would learn a whole lot.

ZR: But aren’t there reporters that are still traveling with Kerry on his plane, where they’re getting more of an inside view?

RL: Yeah, every once in a while they’re getting some access. The one thing that you don’t get sitting at your desk, obviously — and it’s a big thing — is just talking to other reporters and getting the sort of general buzz about what everyone’s thinking about, what they’re talking about. That can sort of put you in the bubble and into the pack mentality, but it also just gives you a lot of insights into what people are thinking and what the sort of CW [conventional wisdom] is.

And the other thing is obviously just regular access to his staff, figuring out how they’re interacting and what they’re thinking about, and getting to know them a little better. So that’s always an advantage for me on the trail every day.

ZR: It seemed like, from reading the coverage from New Hampshire and Iowa, a lot of it was driven by “Oh I ran into this Kerry staffer in the bar.”

RL: Exactly. The famous example in Iowa was the Hotel Fort Des Moines, where you could just spend a few hours there, and talk to literally every campaign manager for every campaign. You’ve got Joe Trippi in the corner holding court, and another campaign operative in the other corner talking to reporters, and you could do some of your finest reporting over drinks in a couple hours. Good stuff that you wouldn’t have back in Washington.

But there’s a little bit less of that once the campaign moves. That was when everyone was in one state, one city, everyone congregated in one hotel. Once it moves to the general election, where everyone’s moving around all the time, and you only have one candidate, it’s a little different.

Its much more of a TV campaign, too. Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s much more person-to-person, going out and actually meeting voters, and as a reporter you can watch that process up close, you can get close to the candidate. But once it goes to the general election it’s all about TV ads and tarmac visits. The primaries are much, much more fun to cover.

ZR: How do you think the Internet and especially blogs have affected the campaign coverage?

RL: I think the one thing that they’ve done is they’ve given the campaigns a new method for sort of rallying surrogates. It used to be that your only surrogates were well-known politicians and administration appointees, and now the way that the campaigns use their blogs is to distribute talking points to a vast network of liberal or conservative bloggers. There’s this whole parallel online world that each campaign reaches, thru the Internet, thru the blogosphere.

And obviously the latest thing is not just to get their message out, but to use blogs to raise a lot of money, which is fascinating. Obviously Dean had a lot to do with all that. …

Maybe it’s because I come from an opinion magazine and I always read the opinion pages of the newspaper first, and I’m interested in opinion journalism. I don’t know if this is the same for every reporter, but I read a lot of these blogs on both the left and the right. And I think they’re great for sort of stimulating your thinking, and getting you thinking about the campaign in a new way. And … coming up with story ideas, and getting a sense of what the partisans on each side are thinking.

I think this is true of most reporters during the primaries: The Dean blogosphere became something that reporters paid attention to and used to figure out where the Dean campaign was going. And it was a story when the Dean blogosphere reacted negatively to something dean did, or positively. So it’s just a part of a campaign in a way it’s never been.

ZR: I saw Howie Kurtz [of the Washington Post] singled you out for praise in his column a couple weeks ago, along with some others. Who would you name as some of the other reporters, maybe young reporters, who are doing a great job and maybe haven’t been recognized?

RL: The one that I definitely would include in the list is one that he mentioned, Liz Marlantes [of the Christian Science Monitor]. She’s fantastic. Outside of that, Chris Suellentrop at Slate, who did some of the best coverage during the primaries, and also Garance Franke-Ruta at The American Prospect, who also had some of the best coverage, are both sort of youngish people that everyone should be reading.

ZR: And finally, which of the campaigns has been helped by DC’s cicada infestation and why?

RL: I’d have to say if anyone’s been helped maybe it’s George W. Bush, because of the Washington Post’s obsession with cicadas, which has bumped some of the negative news off the front-page.

ZR: Good one. You used it as a chance to get in a slap at the Washington Post.

RL: Pretty smart, huh?

Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.