Iowa Caucus 2012: Political Reporters Caught In Their Own Media Crush
DES MOINES, Iowa -- Following days of saturation caucus coverage, Washington Post chief correspondent Dan Balz was reminded Monday of a fortune cookie he recently cracked open. "Analyze only when necessary," the cookie advised.
"I thought, if that isn't a counterpoint to the age we're in, in which it's analyze everything large, small and in-between," said Balz, who's never before witnessed such nonstop coverage of the horse race in his three decades trekking to Iowa. The result, he said, becomes "just a flow of conventional wisdom."
National Journal editorial director Ron Brownstein, another one of many high-profile political journalists just leaving Ron Paul's rally at the Des Moines Marriott (de facto headquarters of the national media), jumped in. "The paradox here is the last portion of voters, even in the primaries but certainly in the general, who ultimately tip the thing, are ultimately oblivious to all of it," he said. "They are not consuming any of this stuff."
It's unclear how much journalists in Iowa, while constantly churning out their own copy across platforms and commenting on cable news, are consuming it either. Reporters unplugging for just an hour while driving past cornfields will inevitably arrive at the next campaign stop to find a huge new backlog of unread articles, blog posts, round-up emails and -- in the most striking change since 2008 -- hundreds, if not thousands, of reporter tweets from events across the state. Four years ago, Twitter wasn't a major factor in Iowa caucus coverage. Now it's ubiquitous, with everyone from cub bloggers to seasoned veterans chiming in with stump speech quotes, camera-phone photos and knee-jerk analysis.
Of course, that past hour's coverage, from the quick, original take to another morsel of campaign trail minutia, will soon be buried under more punditry, profiles or pics of media big shots slicing a steak at caucus hotspot 801 Chop House. In numerous conversations over the past few days, both informal and on the record, reporters note how it has become increasingly difficult to cut through the clutter and stand out amid the seemingly endless churn of Iowa coverage.
"I think it's almost impossible for any single voice to break through in a significant way," Balz said. "People write interesting stuff and it gets attention, but it's overtaken so quickly by the volume of information that's moving so fast and the kind of instantaneousness of the analysis."
"It feels, with so much out there, it in essence is devaluing anything that's out there," Brownstein said. "I don't think there are any individual voices that have as much clout as some of the great voices of the past did. I just think the diffusion has changed that. None of us can write something that would have the impact that [the late] Johnny Apple or David Broder once had."
FROM THE PACK TO THE HIVE
These days, established outlets -- like Apple's New York Times or Broder's Washington Post -- battle for eyeballs with everyone else online, including brand-new competitors. BuzzFeed, now led by former Politico reporter Ben Smith, only launched a politics section on Sunday, and yet its reporters have already churned out numerous on-the-ground dispatches and hundreds of Iowa-related tweets from the same events as Times or Post reporters.
The result is a different kind of real-time pack journalism than in past cycles. In 1972, Rolling Stone reporter Timothy Crouse followed around Apple, Broder and the rest of the Boys on the Bus, writing how the pack "began to believe the same rumors, subscribe to the same theories, and write the same stories." In the evening, reporters would talk out the defining moment of that day, the key line, and file their stories often repeating that narrative for the next day's edition of the Chicago Tribune or Baltimore Sun. With the exception of a few national agenda-setting publications, like the Times and Post, reporters on the campaign trail primarily wrote for their local audiences.
Now political reporters are usually writing for the world, and the pack has evolved into a hive, constantly buzzing with the latest updates from the trail published via iPhones and BlackBerrys.
On Sunday afternoon, Iowa voters arrived early to get into Mitt Romney's event in Council Bluffs, with the line snaking around the corner. Some attendees even leaned over the railings to get a look at the candidate. "Oh my goodness," Romney said upon arriving. He was in a jovial mood, at one moment joking how they "vote early and often" in Massachusetts and even showing off his pop culture knowledge by comparing President Barack Obama to Kim Kardashian. Romney got serious, too, when he zeroed in on the president's job record. However, he surprised reporters at the end by not taking questions despite the town hall set-up. But he did stop to talk to lots of voters.
That's according to tweets from journalists with New York Times, Boston Globe, Atlantic, BuzzFeed, CBS News, Politico and The Huffington Post. And they weren't the only ones covering in real time, leading to a nonstop flurry of mini dispatches. Once the Boys on the Bus would huddle together in the evening, drink some scotch and discuss the key moments of that day. Now anyone following on Twitter knows exactly what will be a blog headline in minutes or cable news fodder over the next hour. At the Sunday event, it was Romney's Kardashian dis, which numerous reporters immediately tweeted and others quickly retweeted.
During a Politico-sponsored panel Monday night, "Meet the Press" host David Gregory remarked on "just how big the media crush is" right now in Des Moines. "We're getting close to caucus time," Gregory said. "So you're going to have all of us moving in and swarming because you're getting close to the end of the caucus."
Given the difficulty of breaking through the media crush, why trek to the middle of the country where, on several occasions across the state, the press significantly outnumbered actual voters?
"Zeitgeist," said Time columnist Joe Klein, explaining how the opportunity to get the feel of the room at a recent Romney event signaled to him the rising levels of confidence in Iowa.
Klein covered his first Iowa caucus for Rolling Stone in 1976, staying only in Sioux City for a few weeks. Thirty-six years later, that seems like a great luxury as reporters, including Klein, are filing more and more from the road. "Now I'm blogging every day, and so is everybody else or just about everybody else," Klein said. "It is hard to break through unless you have different insights and you take advantage of what you have. For me, I've been around. I have institutional memory."
Jill Abramson, executive editor of the New York Times, said there is still "no replacement for seeing the candidates and the crowds with your own eyes."
She recalled the late Bob Novak bringing her along to his interview with Romney four years ago in New Hampshire. "It was my first up close and personal with Romney, and it made an impression," she said. On Sunday, Abramson went out to see Romney again and was struck by her conversations with voters.
The Times has a large contingent in Iowa, with at least a half-dozen reporters on the trail, along with columnists like David Brooks and Maureen Dowd, editorial page editor Andy Rosenthal and television critic Alessandra Stanley. But the Times is not the only one pouring resources into Iowa (and the rest of the 2012 campaign). CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist said the network sent "a small army" to the Hawkeye State, its largest number ever covering a Republican caucus.
"A lot of news organizations have cut back in their field reporting teams, and they rely on secondhand reports or talk about the news rather than going out and gathering it or seeing it firsthand," Feist said. "I fundamentally disagree with that approach."
Feist, who spent some time in Iowa this past week before heading to Atlanta to oversee caucus night coverage, said that reporters need to be on the ground to get a "feel for what's happening."
THE NEXT CAUCUS
And caucus coverage itself feels different to one veteran media watcher.
"What has shocked me this time out here is the velocity," said Alex Castellanos, a CNN contributor and Republican media consultant who first came to Iowa in 1988 while working for the Bob Dole campaign.
"We first thought that maybe this perma-tweet culture would kill content," Castellanos added. "I think what it's doing is making analysis and thought valuable again. That's really the only way to distinguish yourself in this hurricane of information that's out here. You can't see the candidates through the tweets in this place."
Castellanos, extending the hurricane metaphor from the Marriott's media hangout, said "there's something about being really at the eye of the storm here because the velocity of the winds pick up the closer you get to the center."
Blogs first significantly affected campaign coverage in 2004, with the increase in the number of traditional outlets blogging and greater online output the change in 2008. Live-tweeting the campaign is the signature new development so far in 2012. So what may be the media development in 2016?
"Twitter's live, but TV isn't," Castellanos said. "And we have the satellite capacity, uplink capacity, Skype capacity -- you can do it live from anywhere now. At some point, we're going to stop doing the same spots over and over and just start live-streaming the campaign on broadcast and on cable."
"I think the next big hit will be run your campaign live," he predicted. "Kill your media consultant. Kill your TV spots. And just start setting them up in Iowa for real-time television. The contest has become such a reality show, why not do reality TV?"