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September 22, 2004

Philip Gourevitch: Campaign Reporting as Foreign Beat

Gourevitch, covering the presidential campaign for the New Yorker, came to NYU last week and shared his impressions. He's known for reporting on the aftermath of genocide. Now he's on the campaign trail with Kerry, Bush and a captive press. "There's a lot of fear in the press," he said to us.

Philip Gourevitch is best known for his 1998 book on the Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, a work of political reportage but a very different kind than he’s doing now. In 2001 he published A Cold Case about an unsolved murder in New York.

Gourevitch said his normal method as a nonfiction writer was to look for stories that weren’t being covered— that had fallen off the map. One example is his interest in the Vietnamese boat people long after the fall of Saigon. In the case of Rwanda, he said, “news coverage had just disappeared” after the reports of horrific killing there. Nobody had really explained those reports, and the violence didn’t make sense to him. He went to Rwanda in 1995 because the news media had abandoned the place, where the year before some 800,000 people were slaughtered.

Bosnia during the 1990s was horrific, and newsworthy, but there were always correspondents there. Gourevitch said he had no interest in going to Bosnia. “I like it when when it’s you and the thing, rather than you, the press, and the thing,” he said.

This made Philip Gourevitch a poor candidate to cover a presidential campaign. Hanging out with a pack of reporters, where everyone is chasing the same story (but there really is no story)— that’s alien to his experience, not the sort of thing he does at all. On the campaign trail it’s always you, and the press, and the thing: nonstop. And your arrival is always anticipated. You are never coming into a situation as first witness for the public, which had been a Gourevitch method.

On contract at the New Yorker, he needed a new assignment, something fresh to do. Maybe another foreign beat? he thought. Bingo. Approached that way, politics had possibilities. The presidential campaign as a foreign country visited for the first time by our correspondent.

The idea began to grow on him. It picked up a theme the writer Joan Didion developed when she took the same assignment Gourevitch did, hers for the New York Review of Books in 1988. Meeting up with the campaign, Didion was struck most by its “remoteness from the actual life of the country,” which she found true of the press, as well— and of the language they talk inside the game.

Gourevitch described this remoteness—and the isolation of the campaign press in 2004— precisely and vividly during his talk with us. I believe that was the thing he found most alive: a remoteness that was in motion. He described a campaign machinery you get caught up in. But also: you sign up for it. No one can say you are forced to come along.

“A presidential election is a like a gigantic moving television show,” he said. It is the extreme opposite of an overlooked event.

The show takes place inside a bubble, which is a security perimeter overseen by the Secret Service. The bubble is a physical thing: a threshold your body crosses. If you are part of the traveling press corps, sticking with the candidate through the swing states, then you have to be swept—screened for weapons and explosives—or you cannot be on the bus. If you go outside the bubble for any reason, you become a security risk until you are screened again by hand.

But just as real, and interacting with the security bubble, is another kind, more akin to a thought bubble above a cartoon character’s head.

“The press moving as a pack confirms its own take on things,” Gourevitch said. (That’s as well as I have heard anyone put it.) There are many names for this take. It’s called pack journalism. Conventional wisdom. The herd mentality. The script. The frame. Master narrative. It’s the story you agree to accept because it tells you and everybody else what you (and everybody else) are doing on the bus.

Cheesy package tour. That was Gourevitch’s first impression about traveling with the campaigns. You sign up. You get on the bus. It hits all the major sights. Crowds of people get off at each one. Then they get back on. The campaigns tell you what the schedule is. The campaigns tell you where the pick up will be. The campaigns feed you, get you to the airport, take you from the airport.

“Right there they have you,” Gourevitch told our crowd of about 50 journalism students and faculty. “Outside the bubble you cannot go because then you’re dirty again and have to be checked by the Secret Service.” Under these conditions, he said, “no spontaneous reporting is possible.”

You cannot jump into the crowd with an audio recorder and find out why those people were chanting what they were chanting before they were shown away by security guards. Accepting this limitation—a big one—becomes part of the bubble.

It must have struck Gourevitch at a certain point that he had seen these conditions before: in the captive press of other countries he had reported from. For if the people on it do not have freedom of movement, in what sense is the campaign bus the carrier of a free press? The reporters who travel with the candidates come close to being captives in a “campaign machine,” as Gourevitch several times called it.

“There’s a lot of fear in the press,” he said. Fear of editors, of audiences, of losing access, feeling isolated, being out of step. “Part of the problem for the campaign press is, this is your social world”— which is a different kind of bubble. Journalists hang out with journalists and politicos. They marry each other, and many are also wedded to the game, to politics. These are just factors, he said. Atmospherics that favor outcomes but cause nothing to happen.

The Note calls them the Gang of 500. I say tribe. Gourevitch tended to say pack. The pack way is not a form of journalism, really. It’s a state of mind that competes with journalism. Sometimes what people in their occupation most want is not to look like a jerk in front of peers. Not to be the one who gets caught out. Bigger factor than you think, he said. Especially around George W. Bush, but not only then.

Gourevitch said the President was a master of school yard bullying disguised as amusing banter (to which no one can object without sounding like a prig.) “Which means we laugh at his cruelty,” he said. A lot of reporters, including many liberal journalists, “have a weird fatalism about the election— that Bush and the Republicans just know how to do all this.”

Here’s Gourevitch in the New Yorker Sep. 6:

Bush campaigns with the eager self-delight of a natural ham. Thereís an appealing physicality about him. When he says he wants your vote, he does not just mouth the words but follows them through with his entire body, rising to his toes, tilting toward you yearningly. When he works his way along the edge of the stage, waving, shaking hands, he has the concentration of an athlete in the thrall of his game. He seems to hold nothing back. He reaches for the hands around him, tipping so far forward that it appears, in the frozen fraction of a second captured in photographs, that he has lost his balance.

Political reporters become expert in the management of the campaign, the horse race (“which is interesting,” he said) because the big issues today are “genuinely confusing.” They feel the answers to most policy questions require a language and knowledge base “that are essentially the property of elites.” That is why there is limited interest in issues that connect to our troubles.

Gourevitch believes that nobody involved in the system wants included in presidential campaigning—at this stage—the kind of engaged and informed debate that would tax the viewer, cause the readers eyes to glaze over, repel the listener, push buttons in the wrong voters, screw up the schedule. The candidates, the staffs, and the press all have their reasons—stated and never stated—for maintaining a “pretend” discussion.

“It’s not a conspiracy but there is complicity in saying: this is really too complicated,” meaning: too much for a public paying fickle attention to politics. Spin absorbs what the audience’s circuits allegedly cannot. And while spontaneous reporting cannot thrive inside the bubble, spin can. It is portable, light weight, adaptable, ready in an instant.

The way John Kerry became the Democatic Party’s nominee, according to Gourevitch, is by suddenly distinguishing himself as “electable,” which is a kind of conventional wisdom. People start to say it: Kerry seems electable. Then the polls ask about it. Reporters repeat the poll results. Pundits repeat the reporters. Electability, a strangely circular category, became the argument for Kerry because in comparison to the rest of a weak field he was more electable. But that is no argument for his election.

Gourevitch took on the voice of a New York deli clerk dispensing advice over the slicer when he was asked what the GOP operatives thought of facing Kerry when they didn’t get Howard Dean, their first choice. “Kerry? Who is Kerry? Cloud of smoke. Does anyone know who he is? Do you know? Oh, you don’t? Well, there you go. That’s Kerry.” Next!

His advice to the press: People on the bus are afraid of lost access but access isn’t worth anything when candidates won’t answer questions. Freedom doesn’t lie in access. It means having an adversarial press, an independent press, a political press that can challenge power. “These guys want to control the story, we should contest that.”

Contest it? There is certainly opportunity for that. Right now, the campaign press is still putting up with No Access to Candidates and No Questions Allowed. (See this.) Right now, it is continuing to move with the campaigns, which means inside the bubble. Gourevitch was effective in reminding us that it was always possible to break away. The bubble is contractual.

During NPR’s On the Media this week, correspondent Paul Farhi of the Washington Post was interviewed on seething frustrations in the press over limited access. Which really means over the contract they signed. (See also his earlier report on it in the Post.)

BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s often been noted that Al Gore actually alienated his press corps, and suffered thereby. Is the lack of accessibility in the Kerry campaign breeding resentment?

PAUL FARHI: Yes, I was in Cincinnati with him last week, and we were all fired up, because they passed the word that he was going to come out and make a statement, which suggested to us that he was also going to take questions. We were all arranged on the tarmac at the airport. He read a statement for about 26 seconds or so, and he turned his back and walked away, and— it’s moments like that that make you feel like a campaign stenographer rather than a campaign reporter — we are being fed what the campaign wants us to have and not, obviously, what we’d like to know about. And— you could hear, literally, people fuming about - and [LAUGHTER] see people fuming about the way we were treated at that moment.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think this media strategy is working or working against him?

PAUL FARHI: In their own narrow way, it is working. (Hat tip Romenesko.)

And you have to wonder: can a candidate lose his traveling press corps by stiffing them too often, too well, too openly? Or will any degree of stiffing remain possible within the bubble as it floats around?

Last week, Gourevitch’s questions were these. Why not set more of the agenda? Why not say, “Sir, you haven’t answered the question?” Why don’t they gang up? Stick with one question until they get a reply. Rebel against the bubble’s rules. This was something about the natives Gourevitch hadn’t fully figured out. The best answer he had was a “kind of overload.”

Too many issues to raise, too many scandalous facts to present, too much history to absorb and ask about, too many questions that really do need to be faced, and aren’t going to be faced. The press is overwhelmed every minute of its day. But how can it say that?

Gourevitch noted that Americans have not always had or desired a “neutral omniscent press that takes no stance and has no partisanship.” But one of the consequences of that kind of journalism “is to support the notion that the truth is just a matter of opinion.”

I will leave you with two stories he told us.

Gourevitch joins the bus, and trudges through the morning’s events. Nothing but photo ops and words heard a hundred times that week. There’s a break and he pulls out his notebook. Then he realizes not a single thing happened that is worth writing down. But the other reporters have opened their laptops and they are springing into action. They found nothing to write down either. They’re checking emails, pagers, and the Net because they “receive” the campaign that way. The bubble is made of data too.

A trail of meaninglessly scripted events is taken for granted, the emptiness at each stop is tolerated, in part because things crackle and hop so much in the information sphere. And with today’s gear you are always reachable by information.

The minders are hitting them with messages round the clock. The spin from the campaigns not only never stops, it never stops looking for more crevices through which it can fit.

Second story. I didn’t catch all the details but the gist is in the title: the Last Man in Vietnam. This was the reporter who decided to stay after all the correspondents in Saigon were pulling out because the Americans had pulled out and the Communists were going to win. His notion was to wait out the revolution—he was tough and knew the city, knew his odds—and when the smoke cleared he would be the only Western correspondent in a position to tell the story of the new Vietnam. A monopoly provider! He would get to name his price.

Everything happened according to plan. The Western reporters left. The Communists came. The new era of a unified Vietnam began. The Last Man made some calls offering his services. But no one would employ him. There couldn’t be a story anymore in Vietnam because the press had left.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links:

New PressThink: Does CBS News Have a Political Future in This State?
“The affiliates are hearing it. There’s a campaign to get Bob Schieffer dumped from the debates. William Safire is asking about criminal charges. And some of the worst ever numbers for media trust were just released. From the CBS truth commission we need something… dramatic.”

Philip Gourevitch, Bushspeak: The Presidentís vernacular style. The New Yorker (Posted Sep. 6, 2004)

Philip Gourevitch, Damage Control: Voters need to believe that John Kerry can put the country back on track. The New Yorker (Posted July 19, 2004)

“Reporting the Story of a Genocide.” Interview with Philip Gourevitch, 2000, Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley.

Brian Montopoli, A Day in The Bubble, Campaign Desk (Sep. 21): Montopoli says he

asked the Los Angeles Times’ Matea Gold if she worries that all the chatter among political reporters thrown together in small spaces all day long ultimately impacts their coverage.

“I personally try to limit my discussion with other reporters just for that reason,” she said. “I can’t say it shapes reporters’ thinking, but it’s definitely a risk. We’re held captive in this little bubble for so long. We so rarely have time to go into a crowd and actually talk to people.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 22, 2004 12:55 PM