WASHINGTON — A group of five fresh-faced reporters from National Journal
and CBS News clicked away on their MacBooks one recent afternoon,
dutifully taking notes as seasoned journalists from the campaign trail
shared their rules of the road.
The journalists were mostly in their 20s, learning the basics: never get
too close to a source; master the art of eating while driving; never
rely on a hotel wake-up call.
For decades, campaign buses were populated by hotshots, some of whom
covered politics for decades, from Walter Mears to David S. Broder to
Jules Witcover. It was a glamorous club, captured and skewered in
Timothy Crouse’s best-selling “The Boys on the Bus,” about the 1972
Now, more and more, because of budget cutbacks, those once coveted jobs
are being filled by brand new journalists at a fraction of the salary.
It is not so glamorous anymore.
For these reporters the 2012 campaign is both the assignment of a
lifetime and the kind of experience that is tying their stomachs in
knots. Three of them are just out of college. One just got engaged. And
none of them seem quite sure what to expect from more than a year on the
“We hear all this stuff, all this advice,” said Rebecca Kaplan, 23, who
is giving up her apartment in Washington’s Chinatown for the duration of
the campaign. “But I don’t think we’ll fully realize what’s going on
until we get out there.”
Ms. Kaplan and her new colleagues, part of a joint CBS-National Journal
reporting team, said they had been thinking long and hard about the fact
that what they say and do carries the imprimatur of their employer.
“I thought I’m going to have to develop a personality,” said Lindsey Boerma, 23, whose biggest assignment before writing for National Journal
was as editor of the Pepperdine University student paper. “But we’re
not providing commentary, we’re providing coverage. And you’ve got to
find that line. I haven’t quite figured it out yet.”
Preparing journalists to cover the presidential campaign these days is
also an exercise in indiscretion management. In the new dynamic of
campaigns, reporters themselves are targets both of political
strategists as well as other journalists and bloggers.
“People are watching you,” Fernando Suarez, a CBS News
reporter who covered Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign,
admonished the young reporters. He recounted once innocently checking
his e-mail and Facebook page during a Clinton rally in Oregon. A local
blogger looked over his shoulder, snapped a picture of him and then
wrote an item criticizing the media for being disengaged.
“Just be smart,” Mr. Suarez added. “Now that everybody has a Flip cam,
they’re looking to get you.” The young reporters nodded earnestly.
Embarrassment now comes with the swift tapping of thumbs on a BlackBerry
or an off-the-cuff quip uploaded to YouTube. Helen Thomas, the
trailblazing White House correspondent, saw her career come to an
ignominious end last year after she made hostile comments about Israel
to a rabbi who filmed the encounter and posted it on his personal Web
site. CNN fired Octavia
Nasr, its senior editor for Middle East affairs, after she composed a
19-word Twitter message expressing sadness after the death of a
In the hands of a political partisan looking to discredit a news
organization, these slip-ups can become powerful and fatal ammunition.
“Everything you say can and will be used against you,” said Ron
Fournier, the editor-in-chief of National Journal.
Some reporters have even found their personal e-mails leaked and used against them. David Weigel, now a columnist for Slate, was pressured into leaving his job at The Washington Post last year after he attacked conservatives in private messages that found their way to a right-leaning Web site, The Daily Caller.
The willingness by some campaigns and activist groups to not just push
back against the news media but to discredit and disparage is something
relatively new, born of an erosion of the media’s all-powerful
reputation and new technology that allows anyone with an Internet
connection to be a messenger.
“The press was just a law unto itself, and there really was no way to
come back against it, especially the very tightly knit cabal of
political reporters,” said Richard Ben Cramer, who wrote the book “What
It Takes: The Way to the White House,” an account of the 1988 election.
“Even if you had the wherewithal to embarrass a reporter, there was no
mechanism to do it,” Mr. Cramer added. “And in most cases, you might as
well save your breath because the reporter had no shame anyway.”
In light of this new, more perilous media climate, news organizations
are counseling impulse control. At National Journal and CBS News,
reporters must attach the suffix “CBSNJ” to their Twitter account names
and have been directed to talk to their editors before they send out a
“If Jon Huntsman drops out of the race, we want to know back at the news
desk,” Caroline Horn, senior producer for politics at CBS Evening News,
told them. “We don’t want to find out about it on Twitter.”
As part of NBC’s training, campaign reporters were reminded of the time
last year when two White House aides, Tommy Vietor, a spokesman at the
time, and Jon Favreau, the chief speechwriter, were photographed playing
beer pong at a Georgetown bar, shirts off, in an unguarded moment that
“This was unfair. This was illegitimate,” Chuck Todd, NBC News’s
chief White House correspondent, recalled telling the new group of
campaign reporters. “But this is the world we live in.”
Reporters have far more to worry about these days than missteps of their
own making. A new generation of political activists like James O’Keefe,
the conservative sabotage artist behind the hidden recordings that
helped ignite outrage against Planned Parenthood, Acorn and National Public Radio, are setting traps with the goal of discrediting the media.
Mr. O’Keefe tried last year to lure a CNN correspondent aboard a boat,
where he planned to make romantic advances while a hidden camera
recorded the encounter. Fortunately for CNN, the correspondent got wise
to the scheme and avoided what would have probably been an embarrassing
Jake Tapper, the senior White House correspondent for ABC News,
recently composed a tip sheet he called “13 Pieces of Campaign Advice
for Young Reporters.” No. 11 on the list: Someone somewhere thinks
things you say and do are interesting and reportable.
“This is an increasingly sophisticated and hazardous media world,” said
Mr. Tapper, who as a rising media star often found his career and even
his personal life the subject of interest by blogs and media critics.
“Undermining a 27-year-old reporter — if it is in the interest of a
campaign or a party that wants to discredit a news organization — it’s
impossible for me to believe that’s not going to happen.”