The Boys on the Bus

It is discouraging that despite being a fixture in political and journalism syllabi, not much seems to have been learned in the 44 years since Timothy Crouse’s seminal The Boys on the the Bus took place.  Crouse’s book-length study of the press covering the 1972 presidential election highlights issues with campaign and White House journalism which has largely remained the same (and perhaps gotten worse) since.  While the technological innovations have made things different, and the proliferation of the 24-hour news has made the demands of journalists for content greater – what Crouse discovers has not dated in any meaningful way.  It paints a grim picture of the press, but a sympathetic one.  What has devolved was inevitable.

Crouse at the time worked for Rolling Stone in its fledgling political department.  The big hitter in the politics department was Hunter S. Thompson (who wrote a notable book on the election himself), but for lots of reasons (all quite obvious if you know anything about Thompson) he was not writing factually heavy, meaty “reporting”.  That was Crouse’s bag (along with presumably cleaning up Thompson’s vomit).  While covering the campaign, Crouse decided to turn the eyes towards the press covering the events, to uncover the tendencies and challenges for these (largely) men who had a very very thankless job.

The 1972 Presidential election happened to be a very good election to look at if you were going to study this sort of thing – as Richard Nixon was running for re-election against South Dakota Senator George McGovern.  Nixon, who was elected in 1968 after a remarkable political comeback – was deeply suspicious of the press whom he accused (not without merit) of favoring John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election.  In his 1968 incarnation, Nixon’s strategy – was to rely on statements and news releases and photo ops to announce policy while more or less eliminating access to the press.  He held one of the lowest number of press conferences in history throughout his tenure as president.  Indeed, he apparently never actually campaigned as a candidate and bristled at the notion that he was – there were no debates.  On the other hand, George McGovern’s campaign had it all – McGovern’s aides were former journalists and broke bread with them, he was an upstart candidate who stunned the establishment to get the primary nod, and then fell apart with a Vice Presidential Nominee scandal.

Against this backdrop, Crouse shows a press corps in its tiers and cliques – the national writers, the large papers who do the dailies – the wire services who set the tone for the coverage (more below), the magazine writers and the television reporters.  With the sort of concentrated coverage a candidate – let alone the President – receives, each campaign becomes a very insular bubble.  When combined with the competitive pressures of day to day journalism and actually fairly well intentioned notions of journalistic integrity – what results is a press corps which – in 1972 totally neglected Watergate while covering McGovern much more harshly than they ever covered Nixon.  Crouse explores a lot of themes here which still resonate today:

  • Copying off of the popular kids – in 1972, while most people got their news from newspapers, most towns got their news from the wire.  As such, the Associated Press and UPI reporters had inordinate editorial influence.  Editors were deeply suspicious of ledes that did not align with the AP (and indeed, the AP stories were usually the most immediate ones).
  •  Faux objectivity – From Crouse’s research, most of the reporters actually did like McGovern more.  However, to reconcile this with their sense of objectivity, many reporters were much harder on McGovern.  Additionally, McGovern gave so much more access – there was just more to say.  By comparison, reporters covering Nixon were almost admiring of the professionalism with which Ziegler browbeat them.
  • Pack journalism – You’re not going to get much good information from the folks following a campaign – but the editorial pressure to not be left behind almost forces the reporters to follow and write down the same stuff.  So we get coverage about what the candidates ate – and photo ops.  It is easier to cover the personalities than the issues – and the editors did not want that anyway.  Indeed it seems like the editors were happy to have inside dish, but not for public consumption.
  • The White House Correspondent Capture – The White House Correspondents Association existed in 1972 – according to Crouse almost exclusively to put on the Nerd Prom.  Crouse’s coverage here is particular harsh as he talks of a White House corps which saw themselves as part of the White House itself.  Of course, this describes DC reporting perfectly.  All of these reporters live in town and are so intertwined with the folks they cover – you are left with conventional wisdom because that is all anyone hears.

These themes are infuriating – and Crouse’s coverage of folks readers know (like RW Apple, David Broder) reveal a sort of collective abdication of real reporting in such a way that he vapidity of stuff Chuck Todd says almost seems natural.  They don’t discuss issues because they can’t (even Watergate was broken by folks on the city desk – before Woodward and Bernstein were assimilated by the DC press borg).  At the same time, the book is a pleasure to read throughout – and going behind the scenes about how all this stuff works is consistently engaging, even if it is a bit disspiriting.

 

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