When David Broder covered his first presidential campaign in 1960, he typed his story on a manual typewriter, then searched for the nearest Western Union office to send it. Nearly two decades later, Al Franken, when he was known merely as a comic instead of a best-selling pundit, did a “Saturday Night Live” skit in which he purported to be the first fully synergistic TV reporter as he wore a small satellite dish on his head while reporting live.
Today, we are much closer to Franken’s parody than to Broder’s reality.
Once again, technology is transforming the coverage of politics for reporters and not necessarily for the better. With the campaign’s remarkable velocity, too many of us are forced to react now and reflect later. News cycles now exist within news cycles. Often we spend too much time electronically chasing many rabbits within and among campaigns and too little time talking to voters who decide elections. Our reporting obsessions tend, too, to be about many of the wrong things: Think about how many words were devoted to Howard Dean’s new approach to raising lots of money and how few were written about his message. Had reporters done more of the latter, it might have helped us—and voters—to see earlier on that his campaign was in trouble.
Today, reporters who don’t have an Air Card, WiFi, a BlackBerry and a Web-enabled cell phone and think “Soapbox” is a rhetorical platform, not a wireless outlet, are decidedly behind the times. With wireless access, reporters can get rapidly to the rich resources of the Web and use those to be their own truth squad when a candidate makes a promise or launches an attack. With constant access to e-mail, instantaneous responses to what one candidate has said arrive from other campaigns in time to be part of the story. No longer do reporters have to wait for calls to be returned. All of this makes the job easier to do and churns news reporting at a faster pace, but something important is being lost in the process—human contact and interaction.
In my first presidential campaign, in 1988, some reporters were fortunate enough to have cell phones—the large clunky brick-like phones—and a few of the TV types rigged them so they could actually send text messages on their battery-powered laptops. By then, the manual typewriters of “The Boys on the Bus” had given way to large, clunky “portable” computers. The idea was to speed transmission, but it didn’t always work out that way. On some models, the delete button was right next to “print.” At least one reporter for a major metro newspaper hit the wrong one, right on deadline, during a presidential debate.
“I remember in past cycles writing about the nifty new toys that all reporters had to have: First there was the micro-cassette recorder, then the famous Radio Shack Trash 80,” said Roger Simon, political editor for U.S. News & World Report and author of three books about presidential campaigns. “But the technology has exploded in a single cycle …. It is sometimes difficult to keep in mind that we’re not getting any better, however, just faster.”
Speed certainly does not equal depth. And as reporters are called upon more and more frequently to write for their paper’s Web sites or to do interviews for television or radio broadcasts, they spend less time reporting the kind of stories that bring greater meaning to potential voters.
In some ways, technological change is serving us well, at least in how we manage to do our jobs. No longer do I have to rely on the kindness of convenience store operators, restaurants or other strangers to use their phone lines to send my story. Using my wireless modem, I file from anywhere I can get a connection. But having this technology means there is no “off” button. Cable TV has its 24-hour news cycle, but is staffed differently to handle this known schedule. Today, print reporters—without the same kind of built-in, back-up support—often respond to similar news demands as they constantly file updates for their newspaper’s Web site.
This technology is also changing the culture of campaign reporting. In the past, we tried to stay in the hotel with the best bar—like the Wayfarer in Manchester, New Hampshire or the Savery in Des Moines, Iowa, and there we would trade gossip and talk to po-liticos. Now we stay at hotels with the best Ethernet connections or, better yet, free wireless. It used to be that we’d enjoy having dinner and drinks after meeting our final deadline. Now, even as we sit down to eat, a buzz, a chirp, a song, or a vibration from one of the many devices clipped to our belts signals an end to that ambition. New ledes and inserts, new “spin” and new truths, are always an option, as news travels instantly via cable TV to editors back home. And with so many reporters carrying cameras these days, all of us need to be nearly as guarded about what we say as the candidates we are covering.
Most reporters embrace the changes brought by technology, even if there is such a thing as being too easy to reach. My colleague Ellen Warren, a senior correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, is a wonderful example of the new reporting and the new demands on reporters. She is covering the Democratic race for our Web site and for our television stations. A cameraperson, a soundperson, and a producer do not accompany her. Rather, with her on the campaign trail is videographer Brad Piper, who carries a small digital video camera capable of quickly transferring files to a laptop and onto the Web.
“I am absolutely Al Franken, and the only thing I am missing is the satellite dish strapped to my noggin,” Warren said. “Fortunately, that comes in the embodiment of Brad Piper. With the stuff he carries around in his backpack, he can take the pictures and the sound, edit it into a package and transmit it. All by using essentially a Mac.”
Warren covered her first campaign in 1976 with a pad and pen. “In 1976, there weren’t as many reporters and there was no technology,” Warren noted. “Back in those days, I was writing one news story for a specific deadline that was somewhere in the vicinity of 6:30 to 9:30 at night. In my current duties, I have the ability to go into what I am writing, the Internet stuff, as many minutes as there are in the day.” But the Web site filing is only one of her duties. Her video files also appear on Tribune television stations, and she is writing a blog to go with her other reports. She still also files to the ink-on-paper Chicago Tribune.
Many presidential campaign cycles have been the showcases for some kind of transformative technology. This is the first cycle to truly be the platform for convergence. There are few reporters today who only file for a newspaper. Some days, I start with a television interview, followed by a radio interview, followed by feeding Warren’s blog, and then, finally, writing a story for the paper.
Campaigns know how to exploit the technology and the ways we use it. If Howard Dean makes an allegation at the start of a speech, John Kerry’s campaign can send a rebuttal via BlackBerry to reporters covering Dean, even before Dean’s speech is finished. In 1988, Michael Dukakis’s campaign claimed to have invented the concept of rapid response, but in those days that meant a round of phone calls or perhaps a broadcast fax. The practice evolved dramatically in Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. That same year, President Bush’s campaign could be reliably expected to respond, in kind, with the acid pens of Mary Matalin and Victoria Clarke, who produced an afternoon screed against Clinton and faxed it to newsrooms around the country. But those faxes often signaled the end of the news cycle for that day.
Connectivity has also brought some benefits to reporters. During the 2000 campaign, most reporters called campaigns to get a candidate’s schedule. Now they click through their e-mail to find it. “The positives are obvious: efficiency and flexibility,” said Jon Margolis, who was my mentor as a political writer for the Chicago Tribune and now covers politics as an avocation rather than an occupation. “With computers, a reporter doesn’t have to spend time and effort finding a phone, sitting or standing at it for 15 or 20 minutes while a receptionist at the other end locates a transcriber, and then reading his or her story to said transcriber, who often gets a word or two wrong. I remember quoting Ham Jordan telling an associate ‘smoke one for me,’ after Carter won the 1976 Florida primary, only to see it appear in the paper as ‘smoke won for me.’”
But merely because information pours forth with dramatically greater speed and scope does not necessarily mean that the words reveal a deeper level of coverage. It is possible to be hijacked by the technology if we are not careful. Now when I hear reporters complain that their Air Cards aren’t getting a signal in the Waterloo, Iowa area, I want to say, “Ever heard of a phone?”
Michael Tackett, Chicago Tribune associate editor in its Washington, D.C. bureau, also serves as the Tribune’s political editor.