It’s the second-to-last day of the 2012 Republican National Convention, and the How’s Your News? news team has Michele Bachmann on the run. The Minnesota congresswoman and the How’s Your News? reporters have crossed paths often this week, which has apparently convinced Bachmann that she is being set up for an ambush. “I guess she thinks we’re stalking her,” says Arthur Bradford. “I think she’s sort of media-wary. So she keeps running away from us. And we keep chasing her.”
They catch her, eventually, after reporter Jeremy Vest yells “What is your problem?” as she attempts to flee down a walkway. The brief, awkward interview that ensues gets off on the wrong foot and never rights itself. “I felt she was a little closed-minded about the whole thing,” says Bradford later. “She was giving interviews to all these bloggers and such, and when Jeremy just wanted to talk to her, she was like ‘I already gave you a hug. What more do you want?’”
Bradford is a filmmaker, fiction writer, and occasional camp counselor who for the past decade has directed How’s Your News?, a documentary film project in which disabled reporters travel the country interviewing strangers. How’s Your News? was born in the 1990s at a Vermont summer camp, and, through a series of improbable occurences, became an HBO film in 2003 and a short-lived MTV series in 2009. This summer, Bradford and the How’s Your News? team boarded a big silver bus with a question mark on the side and drove it to the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, where for two weeks they filmed themselves attempting to elicit honest reactions in the world’s least forthright environment.
The finished documentary, released in October on the How’s Your News? website, is hilarious and revealing, featuring surreal interactions with all your favorite political figures—New Mexico governor Jeff Bingaman, pondering whether “Mexico has any famous music groups”; Karl Rove dodging a reporter’s attentions twice before finally being cornered while waiting for an elevator. But it’s also a subtle commentary on the perfunctory, facile way that politics is practiced and covered in America. Too often on the campaign trail, the actions of both reporters and politicians seem predetermined. Both sides observe an implicit set of boundaries that keep discourse pleasant, respectful, and largely predictable.
But nobody is particularly sure how to react to the three How’s Your News? reporters—Vest, Bobby Bird, and Sue Harrington, all of whom have various mental and physical disabilities that range from minor to severe—and the fun comes in watching polished political actors get jolted off script. Some are loquacious. Others are struck dumb. (“Madeleine Albright was totally confused about what was going on,” remembers Bradford.) Some prove to be surprisingly good sports. Others flee.
As we bid farewell to a year in which so much political reporting was bland, predictable, and stale, it’s perhaps worth remembering a project that was anything but. “We don’t want it to be a charitable thing,” says Bradford. “We do it ‘cause it’s funny and good.”
The How’s Your News? reporters are hard to miss. They wear blue blazers and gym shoes. They walk slowly, talk loudly, sing often, and are plagued by small cuts and sores. They radiate a refreshingly homemade aesthetic, perhaps best embodied by the insignias on the reporters’ blazers—large, ungainly white circles containing the words “How’s Your News” surrounding a circumscribed question mark.
The question mark has been How’s Your News?’s logo since the beginning, and it’s an appropriate one, because outsiders are often unsure how to respond to the project. Some assume that How’s Your News? is strictly a charity project, some sort of uplifting Make-a-Wish field trip. “Thank you so much for what you do,” a female delegate from Texas tells Bradford and director of photography P.H. O’Brien one afternoon on the convention floor. “Believe me, I know what it’s like to be a minority and be treated in a different way.” Others assume that they’re there to report on handicapped issues. One flack at the RNC is insistent on finding disabled delegates for the How’s Your News? reporters to interview. (“That’s what we’re here for,” deadpans producer Jen Ollman, “the disabilities.”) Still others assume that it’s exploitative, a joke at the reporters’ expense, another example of the callow prank humor so popular on YouTube and programs like Tosh.0. This annoys Bradford. “When people assume a disabled person holding a microphone is a joke, that’s offensive on their part,” he says.