Not only is this business of traveling with the candidate not very useful, with its huge ratio of time spent traveling to time spent doing stuff, but it’s also quite expensive for the news organization paying for your travel. And yet, it’s considered essential to do it. After all, that’s “reporting.” And reporting, as we all know, is the essence of “journalism.” Spend hours on planes and buses and so forth and vast sums of money and then you can report on what John McCain said at a rally. Sit at home and watch the rally on television or look up transcripts, and that’s not reporting at all.
Idiot. You wouldn’t be able to watch the rally on TV if it weren’t for the TV crews following the campaign. And while it could be argued that there is wasted manpower in the pack-journalism of a big presidential campaign trip, nevertheless, the blogger — or other news consumer — benefits from the opportunity to see events through multiple pairs of eyes. If the candidate gives a 2,000-word speech, which 25-word quote is the most important? Aren’t reporters who’ve been following the campaign for several days best qualified to notice what’s new in today’s speech?
As someone who does both blogging and reporting, I appreciate the value of reporting. One of my big beefs about journalism today is the perverse esteem given to pundits who’ve never done first-source reporting. There is a lamentable tendency to take for granted the people who do the basic 5Ws-and-an-H stuff, while idolizing the “big picture” guy telling us What It Means. (Hey, just give me the facts and let me worry about the meaning.)
There are competing tendencies in presidential campaign reporting. Local press tends to be straightforward about what the candidate said — to quote the speech as a meaningful expression of the candidate’s positions — and to supply lots of quotes from local supporters about how great it is to have the candidate in town. The traveling national press corps is more concerned with the topline narrative of what the candidate’s strategy is and how well (or how poorly) the strategy seems to be working. My own forays onto the campaign trail have been episodic, and I’ve tried to use each event — the quotes from candidates and supporters, the “color” details — to supply some particular insight into the campaign.
However reporting is done, or by whom, there is simply no substitute for direct observation. If you didn’t see and hear Republican crowds go wild when the “Straight Talk Express” bus rolled into an arena with “Eye of the Tiger” blasting from the speakers, if you didn’t talk with the folks who turned out for those rallies, you can’t claim to know who these people are, or what their moods and motivations are. Some things simply can’t be done by watching TV and reading transcripts.