SUMTER, SOUTH CAROLINA
765 MILES FROM HOME
The same article is written once every four years. Sometimes more than once, but who’s really counting? Tim Crouse, Alexandra Pelosi, Matt Taibbi, Michael Hastings, David Foster Wallace; a lonely rogues gallery of thinking writers and reporters — often for Rolling Stone — welcome a new member to their disillusioned ranks every four years to tell the real story of what it’s like to follow a presidential campaign. They take to the road with the high-minded idea of informing the public and each of them comes to their own version of the soul-crushing conclusion that the job is not what they thought it would be.
Fifty years ago Rolling Stone’s political correspondent Tim Crouse asked why hordes of reporters ever bother to follow a presidential candidate just to do what a single camera crew could accomplish on its own. That is, to get the candidate’s message out. To serve as a human megaphone for the people who want to be president.
Trapped on the press bus, Crouse decided to write about the reporters he worked with instead of the candidates he was following. He voiced his frustration with what he called Pack Journalism or the tendency of the campaign press corps to ignore their intuition and write the exact same story as everyone else. It’s a malignant form of group-think which has survived to this day despite the freedom offered to reporters by the internet.
Fifty years later — after a virus that forced us all online where the president tweets his every impulse from six to three in the morning — it’s amazing that anyone still has to ask why we’re doing most of our reporting the same way we were doing it fifty years ago?
Knowing this, I still chose to follow the campaign this year and convinced a photographer to join me; perhaps — against my better judgement — for the same reason that moths fly so relentlessly into flames.
Three weeks into the traveling circus, our hosts welcomed us in Charleston, South Carolina. They were a well-travelled young couple who offered their home and hospitality through an app called Couchsurfing. They had used the app across forty countries in the past two years meeting strangers who opened up their homes to strangers just as they had done for us. It’s a pay-it-forward style of Airbnb that confused the hell out of the border guard when she asked exactly where I’d be staying in Charleston and how much I’ve paid for a room.
All of which is beside the point, except to say that after traveling to nearly every continent, our hosts returned to America with more open minds and a still-sour opinion of the hourly news cycle. “If it bleeds it leads,” they told us over dinner, describing the cynical mantra of every successful storyteller. The quote wasn’t theirs, but it was spot-on. Joe Biden’s campaign had been bleeding cash and supporters for three weeks straight and now a swarm of journalists had come to South Carolina to collect the headlines.
At some point before the rally Lance, the photographer, let out a sigh that bore the frustration of every reporter, over the past four years, who has quietly cried the words, “it’s impossible to keep up with this shit.”
He had just finished processing the photos from yesterday’s campaign event as we were getting ready for another. Lifting his head from his desk for a moment, he told me all about a DSLR camera that could connect directly to Instagram. Some of the finest photo journalists were using it to upload the most urgent images of Joe Biden’s face in real time.
“Don’t think of it as breaking news,” I said, trying to calm his nerves. “Think of it as recording history.” What I probably meant to say was, “listen man, you’re a nobody, I’m a nobody and nobody but the campaign staff needs this information to get out that quickly,” but that didn’t seem like the right kind of thing to say in the moment. So I went with the bit about history.
We were both feeling the same set of emotions. A fear that reels at the back of every reporters mind to a beat that sounds a lot like: ‘what if nothing interesting happens?’ Photographers hope to capture something more than the same thousand photos they’ve already taken of the candidate. Writers look for a stand out moment they can hammer out on their laptop in the back of the room. Few of these people are ever really given the time reflect on what they’ve seen.
If anything has truly changed since 1972, when Crouse filed his weekly reports, it’s that no one is ever afforded the time to think between stories. At some point in the last fifty years the national press decided that every waking breath is worth reporting. So the news is reported as it happens. If it’s not your byline, then it’s someone else’s. A press secretary will leak it. The president will tweet it.
A writer, staring into a white void against a deadline, will eventually come to the realization that the only reason they were there is to justify being there by coming up with some story about having been there.
It’s this need for a story that drives a mob of hungry reporters to descend on the candidate like black Friday shoppers scrambling for the last marked-down toaster oven in a Walmart. They eek out whatever they can from the presidential hopeful in a rapid-fire bout of questions that would terrify a regular human being. But this isn’t any regular human. This is the candidate and for all you know this may be the candidate. This may be the next President of the United States and it all depends on the people slowly filling out the doors while the press joins the scrum.
It’s understood by most reporters that the people leaving the room at the end of a campaign event are the voters; the ones who get to choose the next president. Still, the press often find themselves asking the candidates how they think they might have made those people feel. After all, being made to feel some kind of way about the candidate is the only reason voters were invited to a church hall on a Friday afternoon.
Until that weekend, if you had asked anyone what they thought of Joe Biden they would have told you that he was losing, badly.
The rally was being held at Sumter’s Jehovah Missionary Baptist Church, where MSNBC’s Mike Memoli towered, as best he could, over a seated crowd placed two thirds of the way into the church hall. It was a strange way to arrange a room for a candidate who expected the state’s voters to turn out for him in massive numbers.
Rolling Stone’s Andy Kroll came to the same immediate realization that Lance and I had as we entered the hall. More than half the room was empty and devoted to the reporters who had come to cover Joe Biden, rather than the people who had some to support him. The limited seats had all been filled, leaving a cramped bit of standing room for the rest of the small crowd.
“This isn’t normal,” Kroll later wrote the words we were all thinking. Reporters aren’t usually given such wide and rolling pastures at these events. “They’d hide us under the bleachers if there was a way to do it and not piss off the fire marshal.”
Sumter, South Carolina was where Joe Biden came six months before to apologize to the black community for calling segregationists his close friends, but more importantly, it was the home district of Democrat Rep. Jim Clyburn, who had just endorsed Biden by saying something very down-home and memorable like “Joe Biden knows us and we know him.”
Biden was a completely different candidate in South Carolina. To watch him speak, you couldn’t help but notice that he felt a home court advantage. “He summers here,” one supporter explained and that vacation-home comfort came across in the stutter-free confidence of his speech that day.
It wasn’t a lie to say Biden’s stump speeches often devolved into rambling tangents and mixed memories. His words were delivered in a single breath as though he’d stuffed each sentence into his mouth like a pack of marshmallows and he just couldn’t wait to gag them out.
You’ll only find that assessment amusing if you sincerely hope for Biden’s demise. Which is unfortunate because it leaves any honest reporter having to consider that even their honesty will be read as bias. There’s simply no way to write a political article without someone perceiving it as biased. Part of that comes from the adversarial nature of politics. Part of it comes from being human. Most of it comes from the way the national press operates.
Every journalist working today is reporting to a target demographic in a way that seriously blurs the lines between informing the public and retail marketing. Even if your publication is based entirely on subscribers, your content is ultimately dictated by the audience. Whoever is most likely to view and share your content is who you’ll make the content for. Informative stories are often killed because the last story like it didn’t do so well on social. If the metrics aren’t consistent then the publishers are going to have a very awkward Zoom call with the investors who keep the website alive. It makes perfect sense for publications that cover narrow subjects like High Times. Weed magazines hire weed writers to make the weed content that might entertain the people who smoke weed.
To some extent, political journalists do the same. They aim to entertain, but because they are not writing about entertainment they end up writing to confirm biases. Articles about riots are written for Republicans. Articles about police brutality are written for Democrats. In the rare event that these two sides are forced to meet in the real world — let’s say, for a pandemic — they emerge with two completely different air-tight views of that same world; curated for the folks who’ll share a headline to prove their relatives wrong at Thanksgiving.
Many Americans don’t consider it a controversial statement to say that the media is biased. Fox News hosts will openly tear into their own ‘Fair and Balanced’ slogan. CNN hosts will break into a fit of on-air laughter at the president’s statements. Breitbart will dutifully inform you that they are not the media, that the Nazis were actually communists and that most of them are now actually Democrats.
In many ways, the internet has offered us a way out. It’s placed information at our finger tips and given us a chance to produce content that can truly tell voters the whole story. Yet nearly 70 percent of Americans say the flood of information available today makes it harder to be informed. So why do we keep covering campaigns the way we do?
The most cynical answer was given to Crouse in 1972. At a very base level, Crouse found that if you work for any paper with any real influence, your job boils down to being a professional snitch.
“You give the publisher information that his business associates or his friends at the country club don’t have; you’re performing a very valuable function for him and that, by God, is why you get paid.” Karl Fleming, a former political reporter and bureau chief for Newsweek, told Crouse.
Most of the time it’s not that the media is evil, but that they are human. The current model is one that works. It works well and it’s actually kind of fun chasing weird scandals across the country, but most importantly it pays the bills for everyone involved. People share stories that make them angry, they want to see the quadrennial soap opera and reporters want to give it to them because at some point in the day they have to eat.
There are now a variety of people who can call themselves journalists with few objections from the campaign volunteers at the credentials booth. Most of the time all you really need is a convincing looking camera and the confidence to walk through a couple of vinyl straps and into the press pit. This is usually the best course of action for freelancers who are rarely offered a spot in the pool because they have little to offer the candidates in return for access to the campaign.
Many new journalists are strange breed of content peddlers who try their best to capture your attention span as it scrolls through The Feed. Everything from Pod Save America to Info Wars and dingy little blogs like this one belong to this new form of information-made-interesting. It’s where fake news is best hidden, but it’s also where some of the best story-tellers for future elections will live after cable news dies.
Then there are the local reporters who belong in the room because they perform a useful function for the community. These reporters are most likely to cover the campaign from the perspective of local voters because they’re segments are followed by a local weather forecast and a view of the traffic on the I-26.
The third are a lonely set of individuals known as campaign embeds. They are exactly what their title sounds like. A petri dish for pack journalism, campaign embeds are the human carrier pigeons of the national press. Their highly coveted job requires them to sell everything they own and abandon their children so as not to weigh the network down when it surgically attaches them to a presidential candidate for a little over a year. The last and most tender human contact they experience as they leave their families behind are the comforting words of their producer: “Stand by and let us know if something happens.”
Embeds are creatures of mythical stamina, like Sopan Deb, a 28 year-old who’s been firmly welded to the Trump campaign by CBS News. Reflecting on his career choices he told Politico “You lose touch with people. And you sort of lose touch with yourself in a way,” noting that he sometimes chooses to charge his electronics on breaks rather than eat.
Campaign embeds are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to do real journalism. A chance to experience the pure objectivity of being the one to hit the record button from the dais. The Greatest Job You Never Want to Have Again, as the title of the Politico feature suggests, is one worth sacrificing for.
“Sometimes it’s even a gamble if you’ll have time to pee,” says CNN’s Daniella Diaz. “…it’s unreal. I love it. I’m so lucky.”
The fly on Mike Pence’s head had more agency than a campaign embed, but they aren’t to blame for their sorry luck. Embeds are often young and not afforded the time to ask: what tangible value can be gained by expecting an newbie journalist to become an automated producer of B-roll choreographed by a campaign’s press secretary.
While the cameras are trained on the candidate, campaign embeds sometimes gauge the crowd to see how those who are going to cast a ballot feel, but these conversations rarely make it to print or broadcast unless the reporter is local or has gone rogue.
No matter which category you fell into, you most likely found yourself following a schedule set by the campaign.
The rub with this style of reporting is that it gives near-total control of the message to the candidates. Reporters become little more than stenographers and PR reps who get the message out.
Most of the time reporters repeat what the campaign tells them and they repeat it to voters who repeat it back to reporters and onward the circular ritual goes.
In 2020, the theme the Democrats seemed to want to drive home was hopelessness or helplessness. I can’t remember which, but there was a definite feeling that nothing too ambitious could possibly be accomplished by whoever it was that succeeded Donald Trump.
As I stuck a phone in his face, one Biden supporter, Tony Bradley, told me he’s supporting Biden because Biden was the most realistic choice for foreign policy. The most realistic choice to handle Congress. The most realistic choice.
“Everyone would love to have free college. Everyone would love to have Medicare for all, but that’s not going to happen right now,” Bradley said. More than anything, his choice came down to the candidate he trusted. “He knows us and we know him,” Bradley told me.
There it was, the circular ritual. The words of Jim Clyburn passed down to the national press who passed them down to the people who passed it back to the press.
Was this really the best anyone could hope for? It was worth scanning the room to see what the other reporters were hearing.
“This split-the-vote foolishness is wasting votes,” Anthony Sampson told Rolling Stone’s Kroll. At the time there were still twenty or so candidates on the ballot. “I have a friend who’s voting for Pete. Why? It’s never going to happen.”
Just like Bradley, Samson told Kroll that he likes Bernie Sanders’ ideas, but “You’re going to have to deal with the establishment,” He said, referring to the party’s older and more powerful members. The great paternal gatekeepers who told loyal Democrats what was not possible. Healthcare for every American, it seemed, was at the top of that impossible list.
Most of the voters who came face-to-face with reporters in Sumter knew better than to ask for more than they could have. Their only hope was to get back to normal and Joe Biden was normal.
“I will be first in line to vote on Saturday, no question. I think people are sort of blinded by what Bernie is promising,” said Helen Horn, a South Carolina resident who made the two-hour drive from Myrtle Beach to tell The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Julia Terruso, “it’s just not feasible.”
True to form, the local reporter Shelbie Goulding, of The Sumter Item, was one of the only reporters to come out of that event with extensive interviews of the people who attended before they left the room.
“I think he’s the best middle-of-the-road candidate that we got,” voter Brad Gibbs told Goulding. “He’s somebody who could not only win the presidency, but he’s somebody who can take back the Senate and get a hold of the House.” Gibbs had come with his wife from Camden, forty minutes away.
“He has the experience to lead,” Sue Gibbs added. “He’s been in a leadership position before in the government. He knows how it works, and he can heal the nation.”
It’s an opportunity for some serious introspection on the part of the press when a voter repeats the talking points that only reached them after they’ve been well-polished by the press. It’s also why so few journalists ever bother to report on what ordinary Americans really think. We know the opinion pool has been tainted, because we’re the one’s who tainted it. We’re the ones who get that message out for the candidates. We follow the campaign’s lead. But every so often, someone breaks free of the talking points.
In Sumter, that moment came when Bertha Darden, of Atlanta, Georgia stood to ask a question. She was accompanied by Vincent Fort, a former Georgia Senator who ran against the current mayor of Atlanta, Kesha Lance Bottoms, in 2018.
Darden drove four hours to confront Biden about the 800 evictions per week she said were occurring in Atlanta. After a flood in the city’s Peoplestown neighborhood in 2012, Atlanta officials decided that the best way to keep the neighborhood from flooding again was to turn it into a park. Darden was one of four people who refused to leave her neighborhood, including her husband Robert and a 97-year-old woman named Mattie Jackson.
Why would Darden cross state lines and make the four hour drive from Peoplestown to Sumter? She figured she was following her mayor, who for the past year had been traveling around the country with Joe Biden as though she had been chosen a year in advance as his running mate — and for a brief moment, before Harris was chosen, Lance Bottoms made Biden’s VP short list.
Darden and Fort stood to offer the cameras plain sight of their sign just in case we couldn’t hear their demand: “JOE, TELL YOUR SURROGATE ATL MAYOR BOTTOMS TO STOP DISPLACING BLACK FAMILIES.”
Joe Biden’s only answer was that he didn’t know a thing about it.
Then there was USC Lancaster drama professor Marybeth Berry, who grabbed everyone’s attention with a simple nod of the head that forced Biden to take notice and hand over his microphone. Berry was undecided and shaking her head in disapproval of Biden’s ho-hum talking points.
“What drives you?” Berry demanded to know. “I know you talk about what you and Obama did, but what is your fire? ‘Cause you see Bernie. You see Elizabeth Warren. You see that fire.”
Biden stepped into the audience, reclaimed his microphone and stared Berry down. “The fact that I’m not screaming like Bernie and waving my arms like Elizabeth is not a lack of fire,” Biden told her, before launching into the story of a lesson he learned from his father about compassion. About treating everyone fairly no matter their station in life. That’s what drove Joe Biden; compassion.
The press swarmed Berry as the event came to a close.
“I want to see some spark,” I could hear Berry tell a reporter above the din of the crowd. “It would be more helpful if he was more concise at times. But what attracts me to Biden is that compassion, that empathy he has. He was willing to stand eye to eye with me and take my question.”
At that moment, all reporters in the room could breath a sigh of relief because something worth writing about had finally happened. I was obligated to walk over Berry and demand to have exactly what everyone else was having.
“I’m waiting to talk to Joe,” she told me, pointing over to the mob of reporters swarming a selfie-line that formed around Biden. She was waiting in line when a campaign aide walked over to tell her she would get a one-on-one backstage.
Berry had done something quite rare. Unlike Bertha Darden, she interrupted a presidential candidate mid-speech in a way that ultimately made him look good.
We spoke for a while as she waited for the mob to clear. She was considering Sanders and told me that her husband had voted for Donald Trump the first time around. “He is regretting that,” she said. “He really likes Biden, particularly because he had met Biden — he briefed him in Iraq.”
She was now, more or less, convinced. “His eye-to-eye contact, his connection to cancer and his story,” she said. “His story spoke to me.”
The interaction couldn’t have gone better if the campaign planned it. She was the wife of a Trump-voting veteran who had briefed Joe Biden on his visit to Iraq as vice president and now, in front of everyone, Joe had a chance to convince her to vote for him and he nailed it.
The moment featured in every story about that rally.
A campaign’s greatest hope is that reporters will witness a moment like that and if your job as a reporter hinges on that candidate’s success your incentive is to lead with someone like Marybeth Berry over Bertha Darden. That’s not a dig at Biden or his team, the same is true of all campaigns. We just happened to be following Biden that day.
“If I throw him a hardball, he’ll push me into the outfield. And it’s my job to maintain my network’s relationship with the candidate.” Alexandra Pelosi said in her 2002 documentary, Journeys With George, after asking George W. Bush an inconvenient question about the death penalty.
As a political journalist you feel as though the less material you have directly from the campaign the less valuable your work is. Tied to the campaign for both information and income, you learn to ask just enough questions to gather the information, but not so many that you’ll threaten your income.
As Michael Hastings wrote for GQ in 2008, “because your success is linked to the candidate’s, you want to be with a winner, because that’s the story that makes the paper or the magazine or gets you on TV.” There’s no career in being assigned to follow a loser and even less of a life in following a third party candidate because they rarely contend, let alone win. On the other hand, if your candidate wins, your story goes on. You continue to win so long as they do and there’s little interest in halting their success unless you can somehow be the one to bring them down and claim the spotlight for yourself.
It’s why talking points go unchallenged. Why throwaway lines and sly political speak are printed rather than called out for the filler they are. It’s an ass-backwards balance of power which leaves the best questions on the campaign trail to be asked by the audience rather than the reporters.
Some reporters have begun to push back, against Trump in particular, when it comes to this sort of thing, but for the most part the tightly sealed political messaging mill remains in tact.
Beyond the most basic instinct toward survival and a guarantee you’ll be able to pay your rent, it’s also a genuine rush to break a news story. To know something no one else does and be the one to tell the world. It’s fueled by a thirst for the look on another journalist’s face when you beat them to the time stamp just below your byline. Most people who stay in the breaking news business are there because it’s a subtle way to get off in public and be celebrated for it.
For the others — who end up writing bitter sounding articles like this one — the excitement of being credentialed cattle wares off once you understand what it really is you’ve signed up for. It becomes a case of drowning against all odds in exhausting cynicism.
Some reporters have tried to break free of it by ignoring the political process entirely. Some of the best political reporters have called it quits and they can’t be blamed for having a normal human response to high intensity bullshit. They leave behind the head rush that comes from knowing something before it’s news. They leave behind a trail of new recruits to come to their own conclusions after holding their piss so that people like Joe Biden and Donald Trump can get a few more words in.
Wracked with all the stress and excitement and skipped meals and lost sleep we forget that we don’t work for these people. It’s their job interview.
In presidential politics it’s damn near impossible to fix something that’s working for those who broke it. We report on presidential campaigns the way we do because it works for the candidates who are made presidents and the reporters who are made best selling authors. The networks and reporters get their content, the candidates get their message out and just enough people vote to consider it all a job well done.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the screen, we fetishize journalism as though it’s not just a bunch of lonely people, missing their families and ambling around the country frantically without enough time to eat between current events.
On some level, journalists have come to accept their fate like it’s gravity. There’s a common characterization that we will never escape; the notion that political journalists are grimy muckrakes or that at least half of America will see us that way no matter what we do. It’s a team effort. It works for everyone and it keeps on working. The same article is written every four years. This is not an exposé. This is the time-honored tradition of screaming into the void until we scream again.