Insights from Journalists Just Off the Campaign Trail

Mitt Romney joked at a presidential debate last month that being on stage with him was the most romantic way that President Obama could celebrate his anniversary. Channeling that sarcastic wit, NBC’s Peter Alexander said Thursday during a panel event in Washington that rehashing the campaign with other journalists and hundreds of people in the audience was the most romantic way his wife (in attendance) could envision celebrating his first hours off the presidential campaign trail.

Alexander joined the Sun Times’ Lynn Sweet, NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell and other sleep-deprived political reporters  at the National Press Club just hours after the 2012 presidential election to discuss their experiences covering the campaign. The event, hosted by the Northwestern Alumni Association and featuring an all-Medill panel, was at its most interesting when the panelists shared behind-the-scenes stories and insights.

Some of the most interesting comments:

On Romney:

  • His actions were informed less by his wealth than by his religion, formal upbringing and his father, once a presidential candidate himself.
  • He hated inconveniencing reporters — he once brought an elliptical machine into his room because going to the gym would put out people working out because secret service would be surrounding them.
  • He was most comfortable in his own skin when he wasn’t in formal campaign settings.
  • He held a football game with journalists and campaign staffers on the beach in Florida before the Boca debate.
  • Most importantly, it was revealed that he has a rather small waistline.

On Obama:

  • He has become more guarded with the news media in his four years in office and has become increasingly insular.
  • At the first presidential debate, he was likely taken off guard because he was on stage for the first time in awhile with someone of his intellectual equal.
  • He views himself as a singular figure in politics.
  • Obama campaign staffers didn’t have TVs turned on in their office. They didn’t want to be swayed by the press story of the moment.

On Journalism:

  • The 24-hour news cycle has become the 24-minute news cycle.
  • With social media, it’s much easier for anyone to correct mistakes journalists make nearly instantly.
  • It’s nearly impossible to tweet during a presidential debate and expect to catch nuances of what’s being said and get a sense of body language.
  • What the press corps wrote about often didn’t align with what people along the campaign trail were talking about.
  • The candidates didn’t seem to enjoy bantering with journalists or giving them much access…
  • Which might be related to the fact that journalists this cycle seemed more willing to challenge questionable assertions made by politicians.
  • During elections, journalists have a narrative bias — they root for close races because they make for interesting stories.
  • After the 2000 election, television stations promised to sequester the people making calls about state results in a room with no televisions so that they wouldn’t be swayed by what peer stations are doing

On Campaign Spending:

  • One measure of the effectiveness of political ads — voters asked by journalists why they supported one candidate over another often responded using the exact talking points (down to the wording) that the campaigns put out in commercials.
  • Last (and probably least), the Ohio NBC affiliate has really, really nice satellite truck equipment, in no small part because of the influx of money from campaign ads in the months leading up the election.
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Covering The Candidates Who Thirst For Attention

At this time of the campaign season, the major-party candidates are thoroughly sapped of energy from months (years, in Mitt Romney’s case) of campaigning, fundraising and recent weeks of debates across the country.

Not so much for third-party candidates, who still seemed energized and ready to pack in as many last-minute debates as possible before Election Day. I sat inside Busboys & Poets last night in Washington to hear four third-party candidates (there has to be a better term) debate each other — and I do mean each other, since direct questioning of candidates was encouraged.

The room was filled with journalists, camera crews and political staff. I spoke with Jill Stein of the Green Party, several aides of Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, and a host of journalists for the story, which is linked to here.

A few of my favorite quotes from the story:

“It’s fair to say that democracy is under lockdown. Media have been working very hard to suppress knowledge that there are alternative candidates out there… The state of our media is emblematic of the state of our democracy – it’s bought and paid for.” – Jill Stein, Green Party

“As far as the Gary Johnson press corps, you’re looking at it,” Quinn says. “It can be a lonely existence. There’s no one to bounce ideas off day to day. It’s just you.” — Garrett Quinn, Reason

“I’m sympathetic to [candidates’] concern that they can’t become major candidates without coverage, but it’s not our job to help them become major candidates” — Paul Singer, USA Today politics editor