The boys (and girls) on the bus, 2012-style

Curtis Wilkie

My friend and former Boston Phoenix colleague David Bernstein has written a terrific piece on the media horde that follows the presidential candidates from stop to stop. Bernstein discovers that the number of reporters on the campaign trail may be as great as it ever was, but that the composition and focus have changed considerably.

Unlike campaigns past, Bernstein writes, local newspapers are barely represented. The New York Times and the Washington Post are on the case, of course. But even the Boston Globe, which has made a significant effort to cover the 2012 race, can’t match what it did in 1988, when it actually established a bureau in Des Moines the year that Michael Dukakis won the Democratic nomination.

So who’s taken their place? Niche organizations devoted to covering politics such as the Huffington Post, Politico, Talking Points Memo, Slate, Salon, Real Clear Politics and the cable news operations. Bernstein argues that the result is coverage that is more insular and insidery than ever, as news aimed at a general audience has been replaced with news for political junkies.

I’m not sure I agree. Yes, the state of political journalism today can be dreadful at times, but it was pretty bad back in the day, too. Inside baseball has always been the stock in trade. Bernstein pays homage to Timothy Crouse’s classic treatment of the 1972 campaign-trail press corps, “The Boys on the Bus.” One of Crouse’s key observations was that few people on that bus dared go off the reservation and report stories no one else was reporting for fear that their editors squawk.

One of the most fun stories I reported during my own years at the Phoenix was the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary campaign, when George W. Bush annihilated John McCain. For two days I rode in the McCain caravan, and then spent two more days driving to Bush events. So I enjoyed Bernstein’s interview with the legendary political reporter Curtis Wilkie, a star of “The Boys on the Bus.” I got to talk with Wilkie on the trail 12 years ago, when he was still working for the Globe. Wilkie has since moved on to the University of Mississippi.

“For the broader audience in the middle of the country, the idea that your local paper does not have a presence there, it’s sad,” Wilkie tells Bernstein.

The problems of political coverage are the same as they ever were: an obsession with the horse race to the near-exclusion of ideas; a pack mentality that makes it difficult for anyone to report stories that are truly different; and an orientation toward inside stories about strategy rather than about how candidates might actually govern.

Bernstein has given us a close-up look at how the good, the bad and the ugly of political journalism has made the transition to the technological, post-newspaper age.

Photo © 2011 by the University of Mississippi.

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A Globe-Herald spat, 31 years down the line

Jimmy Carter in 1980

Former Boston Herald (and Boston Phoenix) political reporter Peter Lucas checks in with an account of his exclusive Herald interview with then-President Jimmy Carter during Carter’s 1980 re-election campaign against Ted Kennedy.

Lucas’ stroll down memory lane was prompted by a Jessica Heslam piece in the Friday Herald — part of the paper’s multi-day package on its White House snub — recounting past instances of journalists and presidents not getting along. Heslam wrote:

Veteran White House reporter Curtis Wilkie, who covered former President Jimmy Carter’s administration for the Boston Globe, said that Democratic commander in chief “so disliked” the Hub broadsheet that he gave the conservative Herald an interview rather than the Globe, because the administration felt the Globe had been unfair to Carter.

“He didn’t care for the Globe. It didn’t matter to me,” said Wilkie, who teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi. “Nothing wrong with being in an adversarial position with the White House. Better to be adversarial than too cozy.”

Wilkie’s recollections prompted an email from Lucas to Heslam. Lucas, now a columnist for the Lowell Sun and the Fitchburg Enterprise & Sentinel, sent along a copy to Media Nation and gave me permission to post it. I’ve broken it into a few paragraphs for readability:

Jessica: Curtis Wilkie doesn’t know what he’s talking about regarding the Herald’s interview with Jimmy Carter. I got that interview and by no means was it “given” to me. Wilkie is in need of a memory transplant when he says it did not matter to the Globe at the time. The Globe absolutely panicked and whined to the White Housse for weeks.

Not to bore you with an old war story but here it is. Ted Kennedy was challenging Carter for the presidency in 1980. The Globe was in the tank to Kennedy, (what else is new?) and Kennedy was not talking to the Herald. I told Jody Powell, Carter’s press secretary, that the Globe would kill him in the primaries but that the Herald would give him a fair shake.

All I wanted out of it was an exclusive interview with the president who at the time was in his Rose Garden strategy because of the Iranian hostage situtaion and not talking to any reporters. The primary coverage was important because you had the Iowa caucus coming up and this was to be followed by the caucus in Maine and then the really important New Hampshire primary.

Powell was skeptical and wary. He did not want to anger the Globe. I persisted. So Carter beats Kennedy in Iowa and the Globe gives the headline to Kennedy. The same happens the following week in Maine. I go to Jody Powell and say I told you so. I hound him (as only a Herald reporter can do) in the days before the New Hampshire primary and Carter finally relents. I get to interview Carter alone in the Oval Office and the story leads the paper Feb. 15, 1980. It is a huge deal and makes the national news. (I still have it hung up in my garage.)

Days later Carter beats Kennedy in his own backyard of New Hampshire and it is all over for Kennedy, although he staggers around through the convention. The story was a clean exclusive and it embarassed the Globe to no end, including my friend Wilkie. The Globe had a huge Washington Bureau at the time and we had nobody down there, and here comes a Herald reporter out of nowhere and beats the hell out of them, It was great. Joe Sciacca will remember.

Keep up the good work. Cheers, Peter Lucas.

Highly entertaining stuff. I would, of course, love to post a response from Wilkie. And just to keep the historical record straight, Lucas in 1980 was working for the Hearst-owned Herald American. The modern Herald came into existence two years later, when Rupert Murdoch saved it from being shut down.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.