Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A tale of two buses

There are two stories about covering the presidential election today in the Los Angeles Times. Taken together, they're very interesting.

Maeve Reston, who has followed John McCain, writes an embarrassing piece that seems more like the diary entry of a recently-jilted girlfriend. You should read the whole thing, but I wanted to highlight two excerpts. First, she writes about a moment in the campaign when (referencing a statement by McCain surrogate Carly Fiorina) she asked John McCain whether birth control should be covered by insurance companies, since many cover Viagra. McCain strained for an answer, which stressed Reston out. She writes:
Liberals and late-night comedians would later revel in McCain's on-camera discomfort -- the widening of his eyes, the awkward silence while he clutched his jaw and formulated an answer. But I had come to respect McCain's frankness and his willingness to admit he didn't always have an answer. Watching the question morph into an embarrassing "gotcha moment" for cable television, my stomach churned and my cheeks grew hot.
Now, unless she was invested in his campaign, his reaching for an answer shouldn't have bothered her, I would think. After all, it's not her fault that McCain couldn't think on his feet, right?

But, as she points out, Reston had been given her marching orders to go easy on McCain--because the American people might misunderstand his mavericky way of speaking--and had accidentally violated them. What's worse is that those orders came not from McCain, her editors or Republican flacks, but, she writes, from a fellow journalist.
On one of my first days covering McCain, another reporter protectively warned me that it was important to be judicious with the material I used from McCain's bus rides to keep the conversations in context.
On the other end of the spectrum, we get an essay from Peter Nicholas, who admits to his own screw-up following Obama:
One day in July, I was the pool reporter at an event in Zanesville, Ohio, meaning I was responsible for writing up for the rest of the press corps Obama's visit to a ministry that was tutoring young students. Again kept at a distance, I watched as Obama chatted with the kids. One boy approached him and held out his fist. Obama drew back. "If I start that . . ." he said. From where I stood, it looked like he was refusing a request for a fist bump -- a gesture that had gotten a lot of attention after Obama fist-bumped his wife at a campaign event the month before. A Fox News host had even suggested that it was a "terrorist fist jab." If Obama was rolling out a no-fist-bump policy, that seemed worth mentioning.

The pool report quickly got around.

Maureen Dowd of the New York Times cited the episode in her column. Obama complained to an aide that it hadn't happened that way. He was right. A videotape of the conversation would later show the boy was merely asking Obama to autograph his hand.
Unlike McCain's camp, though, which took Reston's question as an attack, when Nicholas admits his error to Obama himself, the candidate thanks him for taking responsibility for his mistake.

This would seem to tell you something about the two candidates. One pouts over a perfectly valid question. The other shrugs off a published falsehood.

It doesn't tell Nicholas enough, though. He whines that he doesn't really know Obama, that he wants him to "loosen up." But then he writes the following:
Of course, at Obama's level, there's no such thing as harmless chatter. There's a pattern to these moments. Obama comes to the back of the plane. Light banter ensues, usually about Obama's favorite baseball team, the White Sox. Then a reporter slowly pulls out a tape recorder and turns it on. Obama notices. Now he's more cautious. More tape recorders pop up, and pretty soon we're back to a recitation of his stump speech.
So, while McCain's reporters pick and choose what they let the masses know about the candidate they follow, allowing him room to chat and make friends, the reporters on Obama's bus are quick with the recorders whenever he starts in with the small talk.

I won't argue that the reporters should let Obama talk off-the-record at length. They are, after all, there to tell us about the man, not become his buddy. But, in story after story, I hear the press complaining that they miss the old McCain. Their buddy. The jokester. Well, that guy has turned into a person who delights in taking his opponent's most casual and innocuous statements out of context and use them as cudgels or, in some cases, just intentionally misconstrue the meaning of what Obama said.

Considering the current situation Obama faces--with reporters unwilling to simply talk to him and McCain's nutty need to lie about everything he says--I don't think I'd be all that willing to get chummy with the press either. It's not, after all, their job to mind-meld with the man, but to report the facts.

It's high time for reporters to realize candidates aren't supposed to be their friends and, I would argue, being buddies with the people you cover would seem to me at least unprofessional, if not explicitly unethical. Obama seems to know this and I'd be willing to bet McCain knows it, too. I'm certain he's not sitting around moaning about his lost friends in the press corps. I would even guess that it's likely John McCain only tolerated having them so close and kissing their asses because it garnered him "swooning" coverage for a decade.

For the record: Strippers don't really like you either.

Update: Glenn pulls Reston's article apart.

21 Comments:

Anonymous a.l. said...

Strippers don't really like you either.

Are you calling Candi a liar? How dare you.

10:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The exact same dynamic existed in 2000, except the Democrat whose every action was put in a bad light was Al Gore and the Republicans who were cut light-years' worth of slack were George W. Bush as well as John McCain.

11:14 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

The sad things about both these LAT stories is exactly how revealing they aren't. I remember thinking exactly the same thing about the Nicholas article: "let up"? Good grief, the man is in a room full of reporters, and his smallest misstep will be on the interwebs -- maybe YouTube -- in minutes. What a silly thing to say.

11:30 AM  
Blogger Glesslib said...

It would seem, from these articles, that reporters have fallen victim to the same malady as the voters who like Bush because he was the kind of guy you could have a beer with. The only difference is that they actually have had a beer with McCain and now miss the opportunity.

Personally, I know that I am not ever going to be invited to the White House for a drink with McCain or Obama. First, I don't drink. Second, they are going to have more to do than entertain us or the press. I'd just like the press to give me the information to let me decide if candidates are smart enough and talented enough to do the job they are applying for.

Members of the press should get over their political crushes and remember that they are there to get us real information that we can use.

1:15 PM  
Blogger I am not Star Jones said...

The article Reston's editors should have requested is why she needed to feel like McCain's buddy in the first place.

Your points are excellent and thanks for the reminder about strippers...very key.

5:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would rather have a beer and talk with a guy who knew a lot about a lot of things then with a party boy who barely got through college.

Guess I'm not the SCLM type.

6:59 PM  
Anonymous Gary Mark Morris said...

That Reston piece is really appalling and proof positive of how low the journalistic standards have become. She should be ashamed of herself, as should her editor, who must have the same kind of blindness and ethical challenges that she does.

Thanks for your fine write-up on these two idiots; Glenn also did his usual great job.

9:59 PM  
Blogger Sanjay said...

This highlights why the MSM is loosing readership. What appears to objective reporting is really nothing more a a personal view that the reporter has. Much better to go with somebody who acknowledges their bias. I think it also reflects the desire of news reporters to be entertainers. So they protect John McCain because he gives them entertaining lines. Obama is too studious to provide that kind of drivel so there is no reason to protect him.

11:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reston's piece reads like that of a jilted, insecure girlfriend to the very end. After she's denied access to MacDaddy, how does she respond--by doubting herself:

Whether it was McCain's fault or ours, the curtain had been drawn tight.

12:09 PM  
Blogger The Green Miles said...

Admit they got played? No one wants to confess that. Least of all big-ego-having national political reporters. Much easier emotionally to pretend that old father figure is just in hibernation and will come back once this whole messy election is over to throw back beers with the boys and gaze lovingly into Maeve's eyes.

12:21 PM  
Anonymous kouji haiku said...

indeed. it was quite disappointing to read how that reporter self-censored, in order to protect the candidate, when it was precisely her job to probe and report to the american people.

12:22 PM  
Anonymous Harry Haller said...

While I agree with your assessment, this sort of thing has been going on for decades at least and was a sore point for Hunter S. Thompson in his coverage for Rolling Stone in 1972.

12:56 PM  
Blogger Nitpicker said...

Harry,

True.

1:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Members of the press should get over their political crushes and remember that they are there to get us real information that we can use."

We can't do that if people won't talk to us.

People won't talk to us if they don't trust us not to dick them over.

I am a hack --- though not a political reporter. I don't expect sympathy, here. I'm just saying, it's a fact --- when there is no trust between a reporter and his subject, the subject clams up. They say only what they're supposed to say, and nothing that could make them look bad, certainly not, pace Kinsley, the truth. You are right, that when there is too much closeness between a reporter and his subject, it distorts the reporting. And presidential candidates are big boys and girls who can and ought to be thick-skinned. But I don't think you can scrub from reporters, or reporting, the guilt that you feel as a human being when you've asked a question that you know is going to fuck somebody over, and you think they're a decent person. Does that mean you shouldn't ask? No. Does it mean you shouldn't report the answer? Very, very definitely no. But at the end of the day, when you've forced someone to admit something that might end their career, or at least severely damage it? You can't help but feel bad. I don't think you ought to help it.

1:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gee, I hate to mention it, but isn't the basis of McCain's rapport with the press the articles Dave Ifshin wrote in TNR?

So Dave Ifshin goes to North Vietnam with Jane Fonda, makes a speech calling American pilots "war criminals" which is played for imprisoned pilots, and when McCain comes back, him and Ifshin get to be big buddies. McCain supplied a euology for Ifshin's funeral. But McCain is willing to condemn Obama for a casual aquaintance with Bill Ayers?

3:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The help in the news media need to remember that at one time access was on their side. The punishment for not talking to the news media was no coverage at all. They could make a politician disappear from the media and therefore the minds of the public.

Some leaders have fairly outsized egos and if no one mentions their accomplishments and good deeds one of the few pleasures of leadership is taken away, maybe one of the most important - recognition.

In Hollywood celebrities feel that bad press is better than no press, so the reporter's tool of recognition has not gone away, but reporters have stopped using it. Why?

4:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh man, that's funny. Peter Nicholas decides that his job is not to inform the American people of the candidate's prescriptions for the various issues facing them, but to elicit some personality so that we might actually know the candidate -- through the eyes of whatever the reporter judges, of course. Nice work if you can get it -- as a psychologist. As reporting, this is just more of the degeneration of political journalism that has helped give the craft a bad name, and that tarnishes the work of people who actually report substantive news, which Nicholas seems incapable of.
This piece, when you read it, is as revealing as Reston's, and as objectionable -- if not more so. We have Nicholas deciding that a quick walk between a car and a building can actually raise the question, is Obama ready for the biggest job in the world? Where does he get off foisting that personal moment of fantasy into his reporting? Where is any *reporting* there? What we have is purely Nicholas deciding he can make that leap.
And this sentence is even better: "Ironically, those of us who were sent out to take his measure in person can't offer much help in answering who he is, or if he is ready." Peter Nicholas is so important, so insightful about the real things that Americans need to know, that he's above mere reporting on what Obama does and what his policies would be and, you know, things like facts that would help people decide about him. No, he's been SENT OUT TO TAKE HIS MEASURE. Spare me this hackwork, please; we had enough of this ludicrous excuse for news reporting in the past two elections.

8:31 PM  
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3:41 AM  
Anonymous iPhone Application Developer said...

This piece, when you read it, is as revealing as Reston's, and as objectionable -- if not more so. We have Nicholas deciding that a quick walk between a car and a building can actually raise the question, is Obama ready for the biggest job in the world?

9:04 PM  
Anonymous iPhone Developer said...

We have Nicholas deciding that a quick walk between a car and a building can actually raise the question, is Obama ready for the biggest job in the world?

4:10 AM  

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