If you transported yourself back to Dartmouth in 1991 (when I was trying to decide what to do with my life) and you told me that soon I would be running around the country with various presidential candidates, writing and reporting basically whatever catches my fancy about both the candidates and their campaigns, typing out magazine-style articles with attitude and occasional literary flourish for Salon.com, I would have feared I’d taken one too many bong hits (a likely assessment at that stage in my history). And the fact that a publication like Salon could exist, through this wonderful new technology called the “Internet,” that would allow the magazine to appear on tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of people’s computer screens every morning (1.7 million readers a month)—that, too, would have seemed more science fiction than journalistic fact.
But it’s been one hell of a ride, and my experience has been one that only a handful of others—at Slate.com and Nationalreview.com, to name two competitors—have been able to experience. My job with Salon.com has permitted me entrée into this world of political coverage in a nearly unprecedented fashion, unprecedented because of what I can write and the immediacy with which I can write it. This is a medium that, by many accounts, has changed how campaigns are covered.
For example, there was George W. Bush’s ill-fated trip to Bob Jones University (where Catholicism is bashed and interracial dating was banned) which, at first, registered as a blip in the national media coverage of his post-New Hampshire excursion to South Carolina. The mainstream media has a fairly high tolerance for bigotry if it doesn’t come wrapped in a sheet, so that didn’t surprise me. But now I could try to do something about it.
So Salon.com ran into the story, face forward, ready to rumble, and produced “Jonesing for Votes” on February 3—a story widely circulated, linked among news portals, and cited in the all-important political “Hotline” newsletter. The obvious offensiveness of Bush’s trip was soon pushed to greater prominence. The edge provided by Internet publications—with their combination of magazine attitude and better than newspaper publication deadlines—has allowed edgier writing and edgier issues to slice politicians with more than paper cut-size stings. And we can do so as news develops, as a recent study by the Committee of Concerned Journalists assessed, hailing Salon for its productivity. As the Committee’s study noted, “One can only wonder how much caffeine Salon reporters ingest since all the stories were staff written, most were lengthy, and sometimes the same reporter posted multiple stories a day.” (The answer to the caffeine query is: a lot. My heart beats like a hummingbird’s.)
The ability to tell it like it really is—almost immediately—was the initial reason why the campaign of the political story of the year, John McCain, started giving me access. After McCain’s campaign kickoff, the senator’s chief of staff, who had been reluctant to even give me an initial interview with the candidate, suddenly was heralding my work. My story was the only one that really got what the McCain campaign was trying to say, in the subtext.
“While never mentioning his GOP rival by name,” I wrote on September 28, 1999, “McCain’s speech today implied that Bush was a glib, inexperienced lightweight…. The message, if effectively conveyed, will transmit the following: McCain deep, Bush shallow. McCain conservative, Bush squishy. McCain Vietnam War hero, Bush rich-boy National Guardsman. McCain bold, Bush lame. McCain open and honest about his sins, Bush obfuscatory. And in the end, McCain hopes voters will eventually conclude: McCain strong, Bush weak.”
Thus, my future access into the world according to McCain wasn’t because I was a better writer than my peers, but rather because Salon.com, as one of the leading magazines for an entirely new media, didn’t have any centuries-old rules to which we needed to adhere. Sometimes this got me and others at Salon into trouble. But other times it allowed us to provide our readers with a no-holds-barred account that few mainstream media outlets were able to duplicate.
Soon other reporters were griping (understandably) about the no-name Internet journalist given his own bunk on the Straight Talk Express and allowed into the hotel room where McCain watched election returns. It was an amazing front row seat. Our coverage was able to be second to none, at least in terms of immediacy and access.
Sometimes that didn’t work out so well for McCain, as when he continued to insist on the appropriateness of using the word “gook” to describe his North Vietnamese captors. Others reported the story, though again, most of them did so just as a sentence in a larger, duller piece. But even those who were on their game were beaten by Salon just because we were able to go up with the story only hours after the epithet crossed his lips. McCain made the remarks one morning, my story was up by that afternoon, and that night TV stations on the West Coast were reporting that “Jake Tapper from Salon was reporting” McCain’s continued use of the slur.
Truth is, I hadn’t even heard McCain use the word. A reporter from the San Jose Mercury News had been asking McCain about the word while I was flying south from D.C. I met up with the campaign somewhere in Charleston and asked a buddy, T. Christian Miller of the Los Angeles Times, what I had missed. He told me and let me hear his recording of that morning’s “gook” comments. But because of the ’Net, it became my scoop, San Jose Mercury News reporter be damned.
Learning how to make the best use of the Web was not easy at first. And, by extension, others learned how to make use of me. In the crunch days of the primaries, an ally of McCain gave me a scoop that made Bush look like a real mean SOB, and the Web was the best way to get the story out there, the best medium for the message. Bush was running an irresponsible radio ad in New York insinuating that McCain was indifferent to breast cancer research because he’d questioned the process through which some of the research programs were funded. But as a McCain family friend leaked to me, McCain’s older sister was a breast cancer survivor, so Bush’s ad wasn’t just scurrilous, it was kind of insensitive. From the perspective of this source, was there enough time to get this story out there before it was too late to affect the fast-approaching New York primary?
Sure there was, if you used the Internet. I got the story and it went up hours later, far too late for a newspaper or non-cable TV network to do anything with it that day. However, by the next morning, Bush was grilled about it and gave an indifferent response, thus further confirming to observers (and certainly to McCain and his wife) that he was completely ruthless. It was an adventure, and it was a footnote in an exciting political story, and it was a blast. (McCain’s older sister, it should be said, is doing quite well.)
There were times that I maybe didn’t seem ready for prime time. I can be rude and brash, and some media critics sniped at leads I’d written. For instance, I wrote that the Iowa caucuses were “stinky,” which they were, with Iowans in sweaters and coats in overheated rooms having overheated debates. In my rush to have an edge and be different from the pack, I also made literary missteps, no doubt, and I wince when I read stories I wrote a few months ago.
In our rush to push the envelope, Salon.com and I sometimes hurdled entirely outside the world of stationery altogether. It isn’t easy to make political news all fun and informative to read about. But at least we’re trying. God knows the staid worlds of politics and journalism could do with some shaking up.
Jake Tapper is Washington Correspondent for Salon.com.