DAVENPORT, IOWA — The White House press corps got off the bus. At a fairground here, the group followed a young woman in waxy red lipstick who held a sign that said, “Drop Gear Here.” As law enforcement officers “swept” the “dirty” media types “clean” with mag wands, television reporters killed time by using the hindquarters of a giant plaster cow as the backdrop for their playful iPhone camera reports. A woman from the White House travel staff held a sign that said, “Follow Me,” while another yelled, “To the right! To the right! To the right!” The reporters trudged, cattlelike, to a media file center.
In the front of the room, a heavy blue curtain, along with a lectern flanked by an American flag and an Iowa state flag, provided a presidential backdrop for news conferences. The same tableau appeared in every state, with only the colors of the state flags changing from Florida to Ohio to Colorado. It never served as more than a media tent decoration.
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In many ways, little has changed for traveling reporters since the old days, most famously documented in Timothy Crouse’s 1973 classic book “The Boys on the Bus.” In both Mitt Romney’s and President Obama’s press corps, there are still all the indignities of pre-dawn wake-up calls and hours of travel to hear the same speeches in different locations. There is still the dependence on pool reports, the dangers of groupthink and the temptations of Stockholm clubbiness (Flag football with the Romney staffers on the beach, anyone? Mitt’s flipping the coin!). There is drinking (less now) and eating (more now), and tensions still surface among reporters (a shouting match over journalistic ethics broke out on the Obama plane). The boredom on the Romney trail has produced photo albums’ worth of gauzy, self-documenting Instagrams.
In fundamental ways, though, nothing is the same. And not just since 1973, but since the last presidential election. Despite the usual complaints of lack of access to candidates — practically speaking, there isn’t any — the power dynamics between the campaigns and the media have shifted significantly toward reporters. And the old journalistic hierarchy that once aggrandized major newspapers and national networks has flattened out, giving any boy, girl or baby on the bus with a Twitter feed the same opportunity to drive the race as the most established brand names.
In a political-media industrial complex built on conflict, this is a rare point upon which the opposing campaigns and reporters all agree.
“Once we got to the Internet/cable-news cycle, really in 2004, there was no capacity to control” the message, said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director. “I leave it to others to judge if the power has gone from us to the reporters. I don’t know that, and it probably depends on the day, but among the community of reporters, the difference between the A-Number One political reporter and the embed-off-camera producer, that distance has shrunk dramatically.”
That is just fine for the new wave of reporters and the zero-to-60 Web publications to which they belong. “It’s more competitive,” said McKay Coppins, a young reporter for BuzzFeed, an outlet that prides itself on knowing what people want to read and share on social media.