(updated below - Update II)
Yesterday, The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut -- in an item oddly headlined "Clinton Joins the Girls on the Bus" -- described how Hillary Clinton boarded the press bus that follows her around, brought bagels and coffee for the reporters, and delivered some pleasant remarks about what a great experience Iowa has been. But Kornblut pointedly noted that this was Hillary's "first and only [time] on board the bus since she started campaigning almost exactly a year earlier," and Kornblut noted that the press corps sat "in silence" until Hillary left.
That report led to this exchange today with The Post's Lois Romano:
Washington: I just read on The Post's Trail page that Clinton dropped by the press bus to drop off coffee etc. and was met with cold silence. Wow. Even after 15 years, why is there so much press hostility towards the Clintons? If it turns out to be McCain vs. Clinton (my current guess) in the general, the difference in press coverage between these two is going to be as staggering as it is depressing.
Lois Romano: I was struck by that as well. I have covered Hillary Clinton off on and for 15 years and I've never seen anything that stark happen. While there is a tense relationship between HRC and the media, I'm not sure why the reporters on the bus wouldn't have tried to take advantage of her appearance and ask some good questions. All she could do is refuse to answer them. It's not for the press to be hostile to Clinton -- it's the media's responsibility to cover her.
For all the talk about the complex ideological, economic and other factors that shape our horrendous political press coverage, it is always important to remember that so much of it -- as Romano's accurate comments highlight -- is attributable to the adolescent, self-absorbed, herd-like behavior of the reporters who travel around with these candidates. Those whom they like personally -- the ones who flatter them or otherwise trigger their desire to be liked -- receive reverent coverage, while those to whom they're personally hostile receive the opposite.
Just contrast the frosty, petulant reception they gave Hillary when she entered their bus with the way White House press reporters at the President's news conferences, for years, cackle at his every attempt at humor and light up with glee when he deigns to engage them in his insulting frat-boy repartee. But in contrast to George the Popular Jock to whom they're grateful for any attention, Hillary is the overly competitive, know-it-all girl at the front of the class with all the answers, and so instead of acting like professionals and just treating like her like a candidate running for President, and taking the opportunity to ask questions when she entered the bus, they instead band together like they're in eighth grade and give the mean, unpopular girl the cold shoulder.
Is it any wonder that Hillary never boards the press bus? Personally, I'd rather be in Siberia than be in Iowa around all of that.
In an interview with CAP's Campus Progress, Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi, who has been travelling with the press corps for much of the year, described them this way:
CAP: You said somewhere that the perfect symbol for the press corps of the 2004 presidential campaign was Candy Crowley from CNN sitting on the bus with cookie crumbs spilling out of her mouth, talking about how ugly Dennis Kucinich was. Is there any reason to hope for a better media performance this cycle round?
TAIBBI: No, its all the same. . . . The group of people who end up being on the bus are a group of upper-class people who are all from the same general background, and they're familiar and comfortable with each other and they're comfortable with the candidates culturally. They're living the high life when they're on the trail, they're mostly staying in five-star hotels. They get these delicious catered meals served to them four or five times a day. You get chocolates on your pillow, you get the best musicians in the city coming out to play for you everywhere you go. It's like a big summer camp, like a big field trip. . . .
If you break with the pack on the campaign trail and you're shunned, it's a very powerful thing. Nobody wants to do it, because to be friendless in that environment is very, very hard. There's no way out, they're the only people you ever see -- you're literally roped off from the rest of the world. There's a real Stockholm syndrome that goes on. . . . But to them, it all makes perfect sense because you never ever are exposed to anything that shines a negative light on it. They never see any other thing.
Identically, Digby recently cited a Bob Somerby post from several years ago, wherein Somerby quoted Time's Margaret Carlson's fond recollection that Bush, during the 2000 race, "bond[ed] with the goof-off in all of us" on the campaign plane. Carlson added that, for reporters, "a campaign is as close as an adult can get to duplicating college life."
There are countless reasons to celebrate the imminent end of the primaries. The lack of real differences between the candidates means the political chatter focuses on even more trivial matters than usual. We've been subjected to what seems like three straight years of speculative yammering about who is Winning, none of which has meant anything and all of which has been based on nothing but the last five minutes of conventional wisdom or statistically insignificant poll movement. And the irrelevance of the differences between most of the candidates is matched only by the intensity of reverence the loyalists harbor for their chosen one and the bottomless animosity they harbor for all the others.
But all of those irritants are mild when compared to the tidal wave of uncritical group-think that pours forth from our political journalists. In every media crevice, there are hordes of them -- thousands -- all holding forth on the most substance-free of matters in precisely the same way. They spend all of their time chatting with one another and settling on their collective script and then going into the world and evangelizing it (Obama is surging, Edwards is too angry and jumped the shark, Hillary can recover from a loss, Romney can't, Huckabee is a loser, McCain is a great guy who is coming back).
As Margaret Carlson put it, as quoted by Somerby:
I miss George Bush. Sure, I see him every day up on a podium, breezing into a fund-raiser, or walking across the South Lawn to Marine One. True, I was only a few dinner plates away from him at Katherine Graham's house and within joking distance at the White House Christmas party, where he charmed my goddaughter.
But once a man is president, he changes, you change, and the situation changes. . . . Bush didn't like campaigning, so he treated the time on the press like recess, a chance to kick back between math and chemistry classes. He was seductive, playful, and most of all, himself. It's a failure of some in the press -- well, a failure for me -- that we are susceptible to a politician directing the high beams of his charm at us. That Al Gore couldn't catch a break had something to do with how he was when his hair was down. Only it never was.
Few factors drive their coverage more than the juvenile group affections they jointly develop for the candidates they personally like (McCain and Obama, at least for now) and the unpopularity of the ones they don't.
UPDATE: Greg Sargent yesterday noted that The Politico's Ben Smith was apparently present for this event as well. This is what Smith wrote about it:
Hillary stepped onto the parked press bus in Indianola for about 90 seconds to deliver bagels and coffee, and I'm not sure what this says about Clinton and the press — the chill, I think, comes from both sides — but it was a strange moment. . . .
. Nobody even shouted a question, whether because of the surprise, the assumption that she wouldn't actually answer, or the sheer desire to end the encounter.
One reporter compared the awkwardness to running unexpectedly into an ex-girlfriend.
"Maybe we should go outside and warm up," said another, as Clinton exited into the freezing air.
Hillary is the cold, frigid ex-girlfriend they all want to avoid. Do they ever think about anything without reference to some high school cliche? See also, this.
UPDATE II: To respond to multiple comments and emails, this post critiquing press attitudes towards Hillary doesn't mean I'm a Hillary supporter, just as my previous posts saying good things about Ron Paul didn't mean I was a Paul supporter; just like my posts criticizing Hillary didn't mean I was an Obama supporter; just like my posts criticizing the media's dislike of Edwards and Huckabee didn't mean I was supporting them; just like my posts praising Dodd didn't mean I was a Dodd supporter, etc.
Are the primaries over yet?