Give Jake Tapper credit: He wanted to follow Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign.
Not many reporters do these days. Eight long years after Buchanan first rattled George Bush and four years after stealing New Hampshire from Bob Dole, Buchanan’s current ambitions are far more modest: Grab the Reform Party nomination and maybe steal some votes from George W. Bush.
Last week, Tapper, a political correspondent at Salon.com, tried to attend two Buchanan fund-raising events, only to be informed by Buchanan fund-raiser John O’Kelly that he wasn’t welcome.
“We’ve had enough coverage from Salon.com,” Tapper says he was told by O’Kelly, who was listed on Buchanan’s GoPatGo2000 Web site as a contact. Tapper says O’Kelly told him, “I checked out the Web site, and I wasn’t impressed.”
The incident, which Tapper recounted in Salon under the headline “Salon Banned by Buchananite” on June 13, seemed to resurrect the problems that online publications have faced in establishing their journalistic credentials. And even though a cluster of stand-alone Internet publications—Slate, Voter.com, and Salon among them—are covering the political season, Tapper’s shutout harked back to the troubles Web publications have had getting a seat on the bus.
But does the Tapper incident suggest persistent bias against the online media, or could it be just another growing pain in the development of a new form of political reporting?
Web coverage is very different from what political campaigns are used to. It’s often caustic, unbridled, and intentionally nonconformist. Sure, there have always been feisty newspaper columnists, and the National Review and The Nation trade in polemics. But the unchecked new agenda—Dan Savage trying to infect Gary Bauer with a cold—has made gonzo part of the story.
That’s what Tapper figures scared off O’Kelly. “I don’t think it had anything to do with us being online,” he says. “I think it’s because we write tough stuff on Buchanan.”
Buchanan press spokesman Brian Doherty—whose former job was working at Fox News for Matt Drudge’s now-canceled show—agrees that he has no problem with Salon, per se. Although he says he is mystified as to why Salon “insists on writing coverage like that,” Doherty says he’s happy to take Tapper’s calls. Fund-raisers aside, Salon “has not been shut out,” he insists.
Indeed, as the Net news outfits try to define their role, the major campaigns are welcoming them. Both the Gore and Bush campaigns issue a daily barrage of e-mail messages to reporters and have no problem allotting seats on their planes for Web reporters.
As Slate’s Jeremy Derfner noted this week, this year’s national party conventions are embracing the Internet like never before. Much of this comes across as mere novelty; Internet Alley—where the online press will be sequestered on the floor at both the GOP and Democratic conventions—might house more Web journalists than ever before, but this smacks of a one-time indulgence.
Some outfits have already broken away from the pack. America Online, which boasts 14 million monthly visitors to its news channel, will have a skybox next to the major TV networks. So will Pseudo.com, which is otherwise known for founder Josh Harris’ high-art Viagra parties. Not that Harris has suckered the parties into bringing some performance art into their midst: Pseudo CEO David Bohrman has handled floor coverage for ABC at four conventions.
Those credentials—and the fact that PseudoPolitics had covered the primaries with the Hotline and Voter.com—helped Pseudo, but they didn’t guarantee anything. Bohrman still had to convince both parties that Pseudo could pull off real—if altogether different—coverage. Bohrman is still working on Pseudo’s lineup; he talks about letting viewers choose “what you see and what you hear and how you see it and how you hear it,” but says he won’t give specifics for competitive reasons. But he does offer this: “We are well equipped to help define the role of the Internet in politics. And if we do traditional TV coverage on the Internet, that’s a waste.”
That the major parties are letting the Internet media find their voice at the parties’ big show is pretty remarkable—especially because, by Bohrman’s own admission, “it’s probably six months or a year too early to do this. But the next convention,” he adds, “will be three years too late.”
Buchanan’s fund-raiser might be ignorant of that—but that’ll just hurt his candidate’s reputation, not the Internet’s.