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.”