In Defense of Expensing Hotels in New Hampshire

I’m a little late to this, but Dana Milbank’s exhausted final wheeze from New Hampshire isn’t quite fair. I wouldn’t say it’s “unfair,” because his thesis really nails an aspect of campaign journalism.

Forget door-knocking. In reality, it’s more trainspotting. Reporters hang out at candidate appearances — and restaurants — talking primarily among themselves and comparing notes on which canned events they attended. (Did you see Santorum in Salem? No, I went to Romney in Hudson so I could catch Newt in Nashua.) … As Jon Huntsman wound down his New Hampshire campaign with a stop Monday at Crosby Bakery in Nashua, he was trailed by about 150 journalists. Total number of New Hampshire voters: Perhaps a dozen. And some of them seemed more focused on taking pictures of “Meet the Press” moderator David Gregory than in seeing the candidate.

Milbank isn’t describing campaign reporting. He’s describing bad pack journalism. And yes, New Hampshire is the Mecca, the Dome of the Rock, and the Lourdes shrine of horrible pack journalism. It’s a small state; you can fly to Boston and drive in very quickly; it’s a circus, with endless “voters being wacky” stories available to harried foreign reporters. One thing that candidates and reporters agreed on, in these notorious journo-journo rap sessions, was that the presence of the foreign press was huge beyond any precedent or proportion. European networks weren’t dispatching reporters to get video of the man who could be the first black president or anything; they were collecting video of Ron and Carol Paul walking through diners.

Again: This is bad journalism. Showing up at a diner when a candidate shows up may get you a revealing trail anecdote, but it’s more likely to get you a great photo of a candidate being overwhelmed by cameras. Lots of these photos are out there already. The question that you, or any other reporter, is likely to shout, is some variation of “how do you feel out there/do you have the momentum/will you drop out if you come in third?” Why ask this? Why not draw straws and allow one excellent cameraman and one sideline reporter cover this? Milbank’s right about this: There’s no great answer.

But reporters don’t need to cover this stuff. The best reporting from Iowa and New Hampshire came when reporters parachuted into rooms of voters and… talked to them. Byron York’s read on Ron Paul’s success could have been blandly written, but he crafted it by spending a long time at Paul’s victory party and meeting the people Paul attracts. If you go back and read more coverage, you can suss out who’s lazily sitting around and chatting with reporters, and who’s trying to collect enough voter stories to build some theory of the election.