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.