Get off the bus!

Why access-based campaign coverage is a dead end

CNN’s Peter Hamby has written a must-read retrospective on coverage of the 2012 Romney campaign. His report, “Did Twitter Kill the Boys on the Bus? Searching for a better way to cover a campaign”, which weighs in at a hefty 95 pages, documents recent changes in the business models and journalistic practices of media outlets and how those have affected campaign coverage. Hamby, who interviewed with more than 70 journalists and campaign staff, places a particular emphasis on the youth and inexperience of many reporters who followed Romney, the lack of access to the candidate or senior staff that they were provided by the Romney campaign, and the effects of Twitter on how reporters covered the race and the relationship between the Romney campaign and its traveling press corps.

Many of these themes echo points I made in real time when analyzing campaign coverage for CJR’s Swing States Project, including the negative dynamics of the press/Romney relationship, the triviality and groupthink that pervade journo-Twitter, and the substantive and electoral meaninglessness of the gaffes that often dominate campaign coverage.

These sorts of trends are often cited in wistful laments for the good old days of journalism when candidates and journalists traveled the road together, but we should avoid nostalgia for the era when a few insiders from elite publications dominated how campaigns were covered. Hamby states clearly in the introduction to his report that “the arrival of Twitter, along with the proliferation of media platforms that now deliver content to hungry, informed consumers, marks a vast improvement over an era when a small handful of sainted journalists interpreted political news for the masses.” The access-based relationships that these insiders cultivated didn’t necessarily lead to a better understanding of the “real” candidate—a notion whose existence we should question. Access-based personal relationships can also be counterproductive when they lead journalists to pull their punches—a dynamic we observed, for instance, during the “maverick” frenzy over John McCain during his 2000 GOP primary campaign against George W. Bush.

Even if he doesn’t want to go back to the Boys on the Bus era, though, Hamby laments the lack of access that is granted to reporters on the campaign trail in the contemporary era. “[A]ccess—especially in the context of a high-stakes general election—is almost non-existent in today’s campaign environment… [I]t’s having an acute impact on the American political process.” But it’s not clear what is really being lost as a result of that dynamic. It’s certainly easier for journalists to do their job when they have greater access to campaign staff and candidates, but how does the public benefit from that access? How much important news comes out of those interactions? Alexandra Pelosi’s Journeys With George documentary about life on the 2000 campaign trail suggests, for instance, that the Bush campaign had more frequent and positive interactions with the traveling press than, say, Romney’s did, but the jovial nature of the press/Bush dynamic may have been one of the reasons that reporters often failed to ask hard questions about the accuracy of the claims the Texas governor was making on the campaign trail.

While the value of campaign access may be questionable, it is worth noting the pathologies that a lack of access can produce. Unhappy campaign/press relationships can poison the way that a candidate is covered. During the 2000 campaign, a press pack that infamously loathed Al Gore wrote numerous misleading stories that portrayed the Vice President as a dissembling fraud, creating an unhappy dynamic of restricted access and gotcha coverage. The reporting on Romney during 2012 wasn’t quite as bad, but the Massachusetts governor was also portrayed as inauthentic and pandering by a press corps that was trapped in an ongoing cycle of gaffe-focused coverage and access restrictions intended to prevent new gaffes from emerging.

How can we improve campaign coverage going forward? The structural changes to the news business and the rise of Twitter are realities that are unlikely to change any time soon, but Hamby offers a series of creative suggestions for new specialized beats that could be covered in upcoming election cycles, including voter contact tactics, narrowcasted media strategies, and the money trail. Media outlets should embrace the trend toward specialized beats and branded approaches to political content rather than bemoaning the lack of material to include in old-school dispatches from the campaign trail. Wonkblog can cover the economic policy debate better than almost any national reporter; FiveThirtyEight and HuffPost Pollster are far more sophisticated in their coverage of polling, and likewise for Victory Lab on tactics and The Monkey Cage on political science-based analyses of the campaign. The reality is that these specialists are vastly more informative to readers than even old-school journalistic generalists in their analyses of who is winning or what they’re proposing. General election process stories rarely add value; we need new approaches, not nostalgia for an era whose merits are often overstated.

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at and tweets @BrendanNyhan. Tags: , , , ,