A political documentary that defies convention

How's Your News? takes a skewed perspective on Campaign 2012

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.

In fact, disability advocates tend to like How’s Your News?, which was created with nothing but good intentions. Conceived at Camp Jabberwocky, a Vermont summer camp for people with disabilities, How’s Your News? began when Bradford, teaching video production to campers, thought it might be fun to have them conduct some interviews. The project eventually assumed a news-show format. The name came about one day when a camper named Sean Costello, conducting an interview at a pickup basketball game, sidled up to some players and, in a very soft voice, asked “How’s your sports?” “Arthur just changed it from ‘sports’ to ‘news,” says P.H. O’Brien.

The earliest How’s Your News? videos were simple, homemade productions featuring low-stakes interviews shot on low-quality equipment. “Back in the day, we’d be walking down alleys and talking to homeless people,” O’Brien recalls. “Which we still do.”

Now, they’re stalking bigger prey, much to the reporters’ delight. Though the conventions can be enervating, they’re also fun, and every reporter who’s there wants to be there. But every reporter also pretends that he or she is too cool for it. The How’s Your News? reporters are absolutely thrilled to be there, and they’re very vocal about it. Jeremy Vest is particularly concerned with sharing his excitement. “Are you having a good time?” he asks two women as he waits for Paul Ryan to appear. “Hey, Iris, isn’t this great?” he asks another reporter as they both sit in the balcony of the Time Warner Center one convention night. “Jeremy, I think she’s trying to work,” says Ollman.

The reporters tend to say whatever comes into their minds. They are as likely to insult their interviewees as to hug them. “When we shot the pilot, Sue seemed catatonic,” O’Brien remembers, referring to Harrington, a tiny, ebullient woman with “ocular-something dysgenesis” who likes to categorize her interviewees as various types of cookies. “Then we got [her medication] corrected, and she went the other way. She was on fire. She was swearing all the time. She said to a band: ‘You guys absolutely suck. You are the worst band I’ve ever seen in my life.’”

The unpredictability is what differentiates How’s Your News?, and what makes their interviews worth watching. “I’m an Obama Mama and I’m proud of it,” Harrington informs a female Romney supporter wearing light-up American flag sunglasses. “Yeah, I am not… I am not,” Flag Lady replies. The reporters are agents of chaos in a complacent system.

It’s the last day of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and the How’s Your News? news team has broken into song. As reporters and delegates file into the Time Warner Center, Sue Harrington leads her colleagues in an impromptu serenade. “Democrats! Democrats! Republicans! And Democrats!” sings Harrington, as Jeremy Vest leads a rousing chant of “Four more years! Four more years!“ They’re standing right outside the front gates, a short walk from the temporary MSNBC and CNN compounds, where some of the country’s top political pundits are, essentially, singing the same song.

The big secret of campaign reporting as typically practiced is that it’s not that hard, requiring little more than stamina, a high tolerance for vacuity, and somebody else’s credit card. For every excellent piece filed this campaign season, there were three others consisting of breathless prognostication and uninsightful quotes from bold-faced names. At the political conventions, especially, reporters seem occupied with collecting as many famous people as possible.

How’s Your News? does this as well as anyone. Bradford, Ollman, and O’Brien have become expert at maneuvering their reporters into politicians’ paths. (This can sometimes be dangerous; one afternoon in Tampa, Vest was nearly trampled by a distracted John McCain.) “Pretty much everybody we get in the same airspace as, we can get ‘em,” notes Bradford. “We have some interviews where we just jump em, so we only have time to ask one question.”

Bradford divides the material he films into interviews and interactions. The interviews are loopy, weird, and wonderful: Vest bonding with former Saturday Night Live bandleader G.E. Smith over drummers he has known (Vest: “Which drummers have you played with that are legendary?”) or earnestly asking Jon Voight to put him in touch with Angelina Jolie; Harrington interviewing Geraldo Rivera and comparing him to a chocolate chip cookie. “Geraldo said ‘Did you enjoy that cookie?’” Harrington recalls. “I said ‘Yes, Geraldo, I did.’ He laughed his brains off for three minutes.”

Vest, the most mobile and functional of the three How’s Your News? reporters, tends to land the most interviews. An immensely personable twenty-something from Maryland, Vest was born with Williams’ syndrome, or “cocktail party disorder,” a rare condition that makes you extremely outgoing. He is a human icebreaker. At the conventions, he is constantly introducing and reintroducing himself to strangers. “If you’re at a restaurant with him, by the end of the meal he knows everybody’s name,” says Ollman. In a 75-minute span on the convention floor one afternoon, he interviews, among other people, Karl Rove, John McCain, Kelly O’Donnell, reporter/rabbi David Nesenoff, and New York Times columnist David Brooks. “Did you meet anyone famous?” Vest asks a mildly puzzled Brooks, who responds that he saw Rudy Giuliani “over there” about 15 minutes ago. “We should go over there,” says Vest, immediately losing interest in the columnist.

But the interactions are just as telling. “You can tell a lot about a person on how they talk to our reporters,” says Bradford. “It’s a window into their character.” This is especially evident during the interviews conducted by Bobby Bird, a 57-year-old man with Down’s syndrome and a hole in his heart. (“When we’re running around, I’m always afraid that he’s gonna… die,” says O’Brien.) Bird has been with How’s Your News? from the start. He speaks in his own gibberish language, foreign yet oddly familiar, as if familiar syllables and phonemes got shaken up and reattached in new, unparsable configurations. “Before Bobby’s mother died, she claimed that doctors were working on a computer that was gonna translate everything that came out of his mouth,” says O’Brien. It didn’t happen, but Bird doesn’t appear to mind. “They were going to teach him how to speak, but he didn’t want to,” says Ollman. “This works for him. Right, Bobby?” “Bourrah!” affirms a nodding Bird.

Being interviewed by him is a singularly disorienting experience; interviewees tend to blink, or blush, or assume they’re being pranked. “You were there when we talked to George Stephanopoulos, right?” Bradford says. On the second-to-last day of the RNC, Bird intercepted Stephanopoulos as he was heading out of the convention center and conducted a brief, exceedingly awkward interview in which the normally unflappable politico spent most of the time furrowing his brow and looking around, as if waiting for Ashton Kutcher to emerge from behind a planter. “Stephanopoulos gave me this look, sort of ‘What are you doing here?’” Bradford recalls.

The answer, of course, is that Bird is doing exactly the same thing the other reporters are doing. But at least Bird’s getting interesting reactions. Says Bradford: “The interviews that Bobby’s doing are as revealing as anyone else.”

It’s the last day of the Republican National Convention, and the floor of the Tampa Bay Times Forum is thick with reporters, volunteers, and delegates killing time while they wait for something to happen. In several hours, presidential nominee Mitt Romney will descend and tell the nation why he deserves their votes. “They built a whole new stage for Mitt Romney tonight,” says a reporter doing a stand-up for a local news station. He pauses and restarts. “They built a whole new stage for Mitt Romney tonight,” he says again.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, Mitt Romney appears on that whole new stage, to pose for pictures with some convention staffers, and the calm becomes hysteria. Running to put themselves in prime picture-taking and question-yelling distance, reporters cluster at Romney’s presumed exit route, jumping on chairs, almost breaking them. Sure enough, when Romney leaves the stage to chants of “Rom-ney! Rom-ney!,” he leaves via the route lined with reporters; and as the assembled journalists and cameramen snap flashes and shout questions, the candidate stops to talk to one man.“Bourrah, arra, ha-cha, bourrah,” says Bobby Bird.

Mitt Romney beams. “It’s a big night tonight! Thank you,” he says, shaking Bird’s hand before leaving the floor. As he departs, the room exhales, and soon reporters are complaining about the photos and sound bites they didn’t get. “He stopped. Right there. And talked to this guy,” grumbles one photographer, indicating Bird, who slaps him on the back.

“Bourrah!” says Bird.

“Jeremy is gonna be jealous. He and Bobby are in this sort of competition, and this is really gonna bum him out,” says Arthur Bradford on the bus ride back to the convention center. But if Vest is upset, he doesn’t show it, and he meets Bird at the door with cheers and adulation. “Woo! Yeah, Bobby! Bobby! We did it,” exclaims Vest. “You did Mitt Romney! Oh, yeah!”

“You just nailed it,” says Jen Ollman. “You saw your target, you aimed, fired, and you just nailed it.”

The cheering gets louder, and all of the frazzled reporters who didn’t just talk to Mitt Romney turn to look as the celebration morphs into an elaborate group hug. “You may have just interviewed the next president of the United States!” Vest exults. “Can you believe it? Good job, you old man!”

After MTV cancelled their series, Bradford took some time off from How’s Your News?, unsure whether there was a long-term future for the project. “It’s hard to keep it fresh,” says Bradford. “I ask myself that question. That’s why we haven’t done anything since the series in 2009.” The new documentary is available for direct download for five dollars at the How’s Your News? website; its success will perhaps determine whether How’s Your News? will continue. “It’s hard to keep it fresh,” he says. “I ask myself that all the time. I’m not sure we’ll do How’s Your News? again.”

If that’s true, it’s a shame. P.H. O’Brien, the project’s wry, laconic director of photography, is something of an informal How’s Your News? historian. “I’ve sort of got a museum dedicated to How’s Your News?,” he says, consisting of memorabilia from previous versions of the program—props, news desks—which he stores in two barns at his parents’ house in Massachusetts. When he’s not doing How’s Your News?, O’Brien produces news documentaries in the Boston area. “I remember working on this long-term documentary on Rwandan genocide, then I was working on this,” he says, musing on the incongruity of the two projects. “I think it balances my life out, for sure.”

We’re up on the 500 level of the Time Warner Center in Charlotte, several hours before Barack Obama is scheduled to speak. The reporters are dressed in Obama/Biden apparel, eating popcorn and waiting for the night to begin. “If I could do this all the time, and if I never did anything else again, I’d be thrilled,” says O’Brien. “This is just pure joy.”

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review. Tags: , , , ,