Former Newsweek Campaign Reporter: 'Objectivity Is a Fallacy'

Michael Hastings, formerly of Newsweek, has written a sometimes too truthful but often funny account of his one year on the campaign trail with various presidential candidates during the primary season. Hastings' assignment was to write behind-the-scenes stories for Newsweek about the campaigns which he recounts in GQ magazine in a story titled, "Hack: Confessions of a Presidential Campaign Reporter." So just how truthful was Hasting's account? Well, he admits upfront that "objectivity is just a fallacy" for reporters. And just how unobjective was Hastings? Well, check out this fantasy he had while covering Rudy Guiliani on the campaign trail (emphasis mine):

I quickly realized Rudy was a maniac. I had a recurring fantasy in which I took him out during a press conference (it was nonlethal, just something that put him out of commission for a year or so), saving America from the horror of a President Giuliani. If that sounds like I had some trouble being “objective,” I did. Objectivity is a fallacy. In campaign reporting more than any other kind of press coverage, reporters aren’t just covering a story, they’re a part of it—influencing outcomes, setting expectations, framing candidates—and despite what they tell themselves, it’s impossible to both be a part of the action and report on it objectively.

Hastings' attitude might upset you but let us give him credit for admitting what most members of the MSM won't: Most reporters are not objective. In fact, Hastings is probably a bit too truthful as you can see from this recollection:

There was no small amount of hypocrisy when it came to journalists discussing the sex lives of the people they cover, since fidelity wasn’t exactly a prized virtue among reporters on the campaign trail. For my part, I watched a lot of porn. A colleague told me the first thing he did after checking in to a hotel was to check out their porn selection. I followed his example. I’d become an expert on the various hotel chains and what they offered. The best was clearly the Hyatt Regency; the Homewood Suites had the usual selection of XX features. On my last night in Manchester, after the primaries were over and the campaigns had moved on, I selected one called Nasty Older Sluts or something like that for $11.95. (Note to Newsweek accounting department: I never expensed the porn.) 

Too much information! Too much information! In fact the paragraph following this was so candid that your humble correspondent blushed red state red while reading it.  While I let my redness subside, allow me to warn all campaign aides about reporters who "generously" offer you distilled beverages:

Chip Saltsman, Huckabee’s campaign manager, slouched down next to a reporter from Time and began to get nicely buzzed off some small bottles of Maker’s Mark that had been smuggled onto the Baptist’s plane. I had newsmagazine envy thinking I should have thought of the booze and gotten Chip drunk so he’d give me all the great stuff I was sure that bastard from Time was getting. 

Hastings tried a different technique in the hopes of getting a scoop:

Through a series of flukes, I somehow ended up at the same hotel as Huckabee while most of the other reporters were scattered across town. Over the next few days, I took up my post in the lobby of the Homewood Suites, figuring I might get a glimpse of Huckabee in an “unguarded moment,” just in case he ended up being the nominee or vice president. Maybe I’d catch him swearing, or bringing in a hooker, or breaking out in spontaneous prayer.

Or sneaking in a porn DVD, Michael? 

After covering Huckabee's campaign, Hastings switched to following John McCain around on the campaign trail. Hastings' admits upfront his own lack of objectivity concerning McCain:

I didn’t jump at the chance to cover him. I’d met him and thought he was affable, and I imagine he was at one time as honorable as everyone says. But his views on war and foreign policy, the way he fetishized the idea of sacrifice, unnerved me a little. He seemed to have gone just a little crazy, Captain Ahab–style.

Hastings also covered Hillary Clinton during the primary campaign where he and his fellow journalists were treated like, well, crap:

It was March 3, a day before the Texas and Ohio primaries, and Hillary’s advance staff had set us up in a men’s bathroom. There were four urinals and one blue stall. A bunch of reporters struggled to find space for their laptops on long folding tables, and there was a kind of stunned amusement among the traveling press. A guy from the Chicago Tribune typed away in front of a urinal; a CNN cameraman captured video. The campaign sent out a press release: “For the record, these accommodations should in no way be taken as a commentary on the quality of our media coverage.” But it was well established among reporters that Hillary’s staffers were much bigger assholes than those of any other campaign—limiting access, screaming at reporters about the tone of their coverage, trying to shame us into submission. In my first interaction with the campaign, a staffer said, “Oh, you’re from Newsweek? Are you going to write bad stuff about us, too?” Their attitude was that no matter what they did, the press was going to screw them, so they’d better screw us right back.

Even though Hastings (and most of the MSM) sympathize with the ideology of the Democrats, he absolutely hated covering Hillary:

I thought it might be better jumping over to the Democrats; at least I wasn’t appalled by their basic ideas. But Hillary Clinton’s campaign was killing me. I could feel my soul die a little more with each cigarette break I took, each prepackaged meal I stuffed into my face. I couldn’t stop eating when I was with her, and there was always food available.

And here is his summary of the unhealthy relationship between the press and the campaigns they are covering:

Everyone traveling with the campaigns is completely dependent on them for food and transportation and shelter—not to mention any little interview crumb they toss our way, any remotely intriguing piece of information. Political reporting is founded on very dysfunctional relationships. You need them and they need you, but on some level they hate and distrust you (and on some level you, too, hate and distrust them), and in my experience a lot of that gets sublimated into food. Eat, hoard, scrounge, because you never know if they’ll give you anything more.

 ...It’s often physically exhausting and also mind-numbingly dull much of the time. More importantly, if you’re traveling with a campaign day in and day out, it’s difficult to get any critical distance on what you’re seeing, and the price you pay as a reporter for writing stuff that doesn’t echo the campaign’s message is excommunication from your sources, which doesn’t sit well with your editors back at the home office.

Which is why reporters never dared to ask John Edwards questions about his mistress while he was campaigning. If they did, they would have been excommunicated from his campaign.  Oh, and Michael, did you ever catch sight of the Hedgehog while staying at the Hyatt Regency?

2008 Presidential Newsweek
P.J. Gladnick's picture