Maeve Reston's unintentional exposure of campaign reporters

The Los Angeles Times reporter wistfully laments the loss of "intimacy" between McCain and his press corps, and blames herself for the loss.

Published October 29, 2008 11:37AM (EDT)

(updated below)

This sentimental, cringe-inducing retrospective from The Los Angeles Times' campaign reporter Maeve Reston, wistfully lamenting the loss of affection and friendship between John McCain and the reporters who cover his campaign -- what she  twice calls "intimacy" -- is an instant classic in illustrating how campaign reporters think and behave.  The numerous parts where she longingly recounts all the good times reporters shared with McCain and his aides are self-mocking and require little additional comment:

  • "McCain had artfully created a sense of intimacy with the reporters who traveled with him";
  • "He barbecued for us at his Arizona cabin, and opened up about matters as personal as his faith and his son's girlfriends";
  • "I spent so much time scrolling through campaign e-mails on my BlackBerry that my fiance joked to our friends about the other man in my life";
  • McCain "leavened policy discussions with funny stories from his school days when some knew him as 'McNasty' or reliving his daredevil exploits as a young naval aviator";
  • "He was unguarded and charming, occasionally solicitous about our lives";
  • "One winter afternoon when Cindy McCain joined him and he was stuck with three newly engaged reporters [including Reston], he gave us a 10-minute treatise on honeymoon spots" (Costa Rica, Montenegro, and Fiji);
  • there was joyous, fratboy towel-snapping from McCain directed at Lindsey Graham, and abundant regular guy charm from Tim Pawlenty;
  • there were countless fun-filled tales -- "always off the record" -- shared during late-night sessions in hotel bars between reporters and top McCain aides Steve Schmidt and Mark Salter;
  • there was that funny but rather touching moment when Schmidt and Salter brought Reston band-aids and gauze after she slipped while jogging;
  • McCain's "term of affection" for his reporters was "you little jerks."

In sum:  "McCain's energy and sense of fun were most on display when he was surrounded by the regular characters in his entourage."  As I said, all of that derides itself.

I want to focus on another aspect of Reston's confessional.  Reston sadly describes -- and I do mean "sadly" -- how everything has now changed between McCain and reporters, how "that intimacy -- real or imagined -- has evaporated."  Tragically, McCain "began calling more often on reporters he didn't know," and Reston complains that her good friend McCain recently snubbed her by ignoring her question at a campaign event:  "The man who once asked me about my wedding date returned my gaze with a stare, shook the hand of the strangers to the right and left of me and continued out the door."

Reston blames herself, at least in part, for the loss of friendship between McCain and his reporters.  Back in July, with a couple of other reporters, she approached him at the back of his "Straight Talk Express" bus, when "as always McCain warmly motioned for us to squeeze in beside him on the couch."  She then committed a terrible sin:  she asked The Maverick a question -- whether he "agreed with his advisor Carly Fiorina's recent statement that it was unfair for some health insurance companies to cover Viagra but not birth control" -- which, as a long-time opponent of health insurance mandates, he was visibly uncomfortable answering and to which he was unable to provide a coherent response, resulting in a video that was widely used by "liberals and late-night comedians" and which was "embarrassing" for McCain.

What was Reston's reaction once she realized that she was the cause of McCain's embarrassment?  This:  "my stomach churned and my cheeks grew hot."  By abusing the access granted to her to make John McCain look bad, she knew she had done wrong.  She breached the core agreement between McCain and his reporters -- access and friendship in exchange for positive coverage -- which is also, by the way, the flagship principle of the modern American journalist generally.

Further demonstrating the cozy agreement between reporters and McCain is this episode described by Reston:

On one of my first days covering McCain, another reporter protectively warned me that it was important to be judicious with the material I used from McCain's bus rides to keep the conversations in context.

Reston is an experienced political reporter.  Why would there be special rules and warnings needed for how to report on McCain's comments?  Because the regular reporters who were privileged enough to follow McCain -- follow him in all senses of the word -- understood the agreement on which their fun with McCain depended ("access and friendship in exchange for positive coverage") and they were petrified that new interlopers would ruin it for them.  So they would warn newcomers not to rock their boat of intimacy.

Back in March, one of the new reporters to travel with McCain -- The New York Times' Elizabeth Bumiller -- created a controversy when she rudely pressed McCain about inconsistencies in various statements he had made concerning whether he spoke with John Kerry in 2004 about being Kerry's running mate.  McCain responded very angrily and aggressively, creating a minor controversy over McCain's temperment.  That weekend, Time's Ana Marie Cox -- a regular McCain follower and Reston clone when it comes to McCain reverence -- went on CNN with Howie Kurtz and said that this episode occurred only because Bumiller was new to the McCain campaign, whereas veteran McCain followers would have kept this outburst to themselves:

COX:  It's worth pointing out that Bumiller is actually relatively new to the campaign. . . . It's true that he can -- especially -- it's almost always someone who has not -- who hasn't been with the campaign, you know, through it all that's going to make a call that makes him look bad.

I think what happens is that you -- if you've been covering him for a long time, there's a sense that, well, he does that all the time, it's not worth reporting, because he does -- he's a cranky old man. I mean, to be quite frank.  You know, like, and also, I've gotten much tougher terseness than Bumiller got just there. And . . . But the cameras weren't rolling. And also, we wrote it off to, like, you know, he hadn't had his fifth cup of Starbucks today.

That's what Reston had been warned about:  don't "make calls that make McCain look bad," or else they'll put an end to our fun and "intimacy."  Even Kurtz understood the rotted corruption which Cox had unintentionally described:  "that suggests that the people who have been traveling with him regularly become part of the bubble, part of the team." 

What's vital here is that none of this is unique to the McCain campaign.  McCain learned best how to exploit the craven need for approval and sense of belonging which characterizes most modern journalists, but that is the dynamic that drives most of our reporting.  That's what makes these episodes -- when all of this gets unmasked -- so valuable.   

Generally speaking, the modern journalist, and especially campaign reporters, want to be friends with and trusted colleagues to those in political power -- "part of the team," as Kurtz put it.  The price for that acceptance is refraining from making those in political power look bad (the rule which Reston unintentionally, and with great remorse, violated), and instead serving as amplifying tools to make them look good. And it's a price that most journalists are not just willing, but vigorously eager, to pay.  It defines the role the modern journalist now plays.


UPDATE:  Terry Welch adds some additional thoughts about the Reston article, including a comparative assessment of McCain and Obama on these matters.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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