The Beasts on the Bus

Run for your life! Now the press is actually hitting people. Even saintly C-SPAN has turned violent.

Run for your life! Now the press is actually hitting people. Even saintly C-SPAN has turned violent.

By Roger Simon

(1477 words)

Joan Egland, age 68, came to a Bob Dole rally in Ames, Iowa, aware that politics is rough-and-tumble. But she was unaware that it had become a contact sport, until a videocamera smacked her in the head. “I’m sorry,” she said to the young cameraman who had whacked her with 40 pounds of cold steel, “but that was my head you hit!” The cameraman looked at her briefly, sneered, and then returned to his shot. Joan Egland was a prop. Politicians’ staffs assemble crowds to form the background for TV pictures. The props are expected to applaud; they are not expect to complain.

Joan’s husband, Stanley Egland, 72, went up to the young man and tapped him on the shoulder. Cameramen–officially they are known as “videographers” though some years ago they were nicknamed “Visigoths”–hate to be touched: It jiggles the camera. The young man whirled around, and that’s when Egland gave him a shove. In Iowa, when you smash somebody in the head with a large piece of metal, you are expected to apologize.

Bob Dole was oblivious to all this, of course. Surrounded by cameras, sound men, still photographers, and reporters, he could barely see the audience, let alone take notice of the casualties in it. The room at the Iowa State Memorial Union was a small one–campaigns try to get the smallest room possible to make the crowds look bigger, and so the press horde must muscle its way through tight spaces. The pencil press can sometimes hang around the edges, writing sardonic little comments in their notebooks, but the TV crews must get good pictures and good sound. That is why they exist.

So the major danger of the press is not, as James Fallows argues, that journalists threaten democracy by their shallow and relentless cynicism. And the major danger is not, as Kathleen Hall Jamieson argues, that political coverage is “strategy saturated,” “poll-driven,” and “manipulated by artful consultants.” The main danger of the press corps in America today is that they can knock your block off. The boys on the bus have become the beasts on the bus.

The number of crews chasing the candidates around grows larger every election cycle. At an event in Iowa this year, there were five crews from CBS alone, including a crew for 60 Minutes, one for a special the network was doing, one for Sunday Morning, another for the news that night, and one for the “pool”–the take-turns-and-share system sometimes imposed on the press in a futile attempt to cut down on this sort of insanity.

Multiply that by the other major networks plus CNN and C-SPAN, add the local affiliates and independents, and you begin to get the idea. Just a few presidential cycles ago, you would see a crew from, say Tallahassee, Fla., or Rockford, Ill., only if a local man was running.

Today, TV crews from smaller markets are in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other states as a matter of routine. And it’s not just because time on the “bird” (the communications satellite) has gotten cheap. Such coverage is good marketing: “Your Live at Five NewsTeam covers Election ‘96!” It also looks good at license-renewal time: Your station has helped fulfill its “public service” commitment. License-renewal applications don’t discuss, though, how many citizens you have conked in the head.

Also, as Tom Brokaw notes, these days “every local television station and tabloid show and news service and whatever is all organized for what I call Big Event television. … It’s cheaper than going out and doing hard work or breaking original stories or investing time in doing investigative stories. They get a truck and picture up and they look like a national news organization.”

At the Holiday Inn in West Des Moines in February, Steve Forbes showed up for a campaign brunch with 43 camera crews. “Please move away,” Kevin McLaughlin, the Forbes chairman for Polk County, pleaded with a press corps that insisted on standing between Forbes and the audience. The press did not move away. It couldn’t: There was no “away.” Cameramen, sound men, still photographers, and reporters clogged all available space, jostling people as they sat and ate. “I paid good money!” a man yelled at a camera crew planted directly between him and the candidate. The sound man turned around and mouthed an apology but did not move.

Four days later, at lunch time in Nashua, N.H., at Martha’s Exchange, a restaurant and brew pub, Forbes engaged in a staple of primary campaigning: a “meet and greet” (sometimes called a “grip and grin”) with diners. It is not easy under the best of circumstances–few diners actually want to be interrupted by politicians while chewing–but Forbes was still being followed by an enormous press contingent. As soon as he exited his bus, he was surrounded by camera crews and boom mikes arching overhead like brontosauri looking for lunch.

Forbes entered the restaurant and walked over to the candy counter where he purchased some homemade fudge for $3.42, handing over a $10 bill and two pennies. (Steve Forbes carries pennies? I wrote in my notebook.) He then put a piece of fudge in his mouth, chewed, and turned toward the cameras. Which is when they surged forward to catch whatever gems might usher forth from his lips and when a 50-ish woman waiting for a table got hit in the head by a camera.

“Could you please watch out?” she asked the cameraman.

“Shut up!” he screamed at her.

“What did you say?” she said to the cameraman.

“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” he screamed at her. What the prop didn’t understand was that she was ruining his sound. Without thinking about it, America’s TV audience has come to expect near-perfection when it comes to sound and video. The pictures must be in focus and steady–no bounces, no jiggles. And the sound must be interference-free. People are listening in stereo now.

“These crushes do get big, but it’s what we do,” says Susan Zirinsky, executive producer for Campaign ‘96 at CBS News (and model for the Holly Hunter character in Broadcast News). “Very infrequently do you miss a major shot if you’re a network crew. It doesn’t happen.” And they don’t miss the sound either. “Sound becomes so critical,” Zirinsky says. “If a whole news story is one comment, you don’t want to miss it.”

And so you don’t miss it. Forbes swallowed the fudge. “Good,” he said.

Then he strode through the press crush, knowing it would part for him. But the aisles couldn’t accommodate all the cameramen and photographers who wanted a good angle on Forbes. One cameraman leapt up on a table as astonished diners looked up at him. Then Forbes plunged into the kitchen. “Guys, guys, we have food here!” a waitress wailed as one camera crew dragged its cable over a tray of cheeseburger.

The camera and sound people blame producers who, when the competition comes up with a picture or soundbite you missed, don’t want to hear excuses about how you didn’t want to trample some old lady.

And not just old ladies. The next day Forbes went to Sunapee, N.H., where his campaign searched out the quaintest general store they could find to demonstrate how Forbes, unlike Lamar Alexander the day before, knew the price of milk. Quaint general stores have quaint narrow aisles, and the few people inside were quickly run over by a metal-packing press corps. Which is where I got slammed in the head by a cameraman. As I struggled to stay on my feet, I looked at the side of his camera and saw a C-SPAN decal. Getting whacked in the head by C-SPAN is like getting kneed in the groin by Mother Teresa. “Does Brian Lamb know you’re behaving this way?” I asked my assailant.

Neither the Federal Communications Commission nor the Federal Elections Commission keeps track of injuries to civilians by the press. All evidence is anecdotal. But any number of “anecdotes” showed up in the press this year. Jeff Greenfield, writing in Time on March 4, told of a Lamar Alexander rally in Des Moines where he saw a cameraman accidentally slam a tripod into the head of young woman, “knocking her into semi-consciousness.” The Associated Press reported that in Center Barnstead, a tiny New Hampshire village, Pat Buchanan was unable to talk to any civilians because of all the media around him, and that a staffer had to rescue Buchanan’s nephew from an onrushing camera crew by yelling, “Stop it! You’re squashing the kid!” The Nashua Telegraph reported on jostling within the press horde that led to a fight in which “one cameraman was left lying in the snow.”

If the cameramen are turning on each other, maybe there’s some hope the rest of us will be safe.