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On the Bus, But With No Reason to Go?

Candidates' speeches, like this one by Barack Obama last Wednesday, end up on YouTube, reducing the need for traveling reporters.
Candidates' speeches, like this one by Barack Obama last Wednesday, end up on YouTube, reducing the need for traveling reporters. (By Alex Brandon -- Associated Press)
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As recently as 2000, Broder recalls having dinner with McCain three nights in a row while working on a profile. Now, he says, "I notice that in our stories we routinely start out writing about Obama and McCain, but very quickly we're quoting some spokesman who's sent us an e-mail commenting on what Obama and McCain have said."

A reporter's observation can occasionally start a brush fire. In Dana Milbank's Post column last week, a couple of sentences about a crowd at a Sarah Palin event hurling obscenities -- and in one case a racial epithet -- at journalists led to days of stories, sometimes overblown, about anger and ugliness at GOP rallies.

Last Wednesday -- the day after the second presidential debate -- was typical for journalists traveling with the campaigns. As reporters flew with Obama from Nashville to Indianapolis, chief spokesman Robert Gibbs did not come back on the plane to spin reporters. The reason: He was napping, after an early-morning MSNBC debate with McCain adviser Nicolle Wallace.

Grabbed on the tarmac, Gibbs said the financial crisis would force the campaign to talk about the economy every day until the election. "This is one of the few times when a presidential campaign has been overtaken by events," he said. "It's even subsuming the debates at this point. You've just got to ride the wave."

The day's only event -- the only thing resembling "news" -- was the noontime rally in normally red-state Indiana. An Obama press aide said the senator from Illinois would sharpen his debate attack on McCain's plan to tax employer-provided health insurance, but the reporters didn't seem to care much.

A nine-paragraph post appeared on the New York Times blog two hours later, saying that Obama, who did not "break any new policy ground," had said "that he could endure four more weeks of Republican attacks 'but America can't take four more years of John McCain's Bush policies.' " A Post blog, updated later in the afternoon, said Obama had delivered "a confident and inspirational speech that asked Americans to 'believe in each other' as the country faces a historic challenge to fix the economy."

The press corps remained in the muddy tent for two hours, in part because Obama was sitting down for an interview with ABC's Charlie Gibson.

Dickerson, a former Time correspondent and one of the few who ventured outside the tent, says occasional travel is valuable. But, he says, "you have to spend a lot of time not on the road, or else you can never think four feet off the ground. It's ridiculous to be on the bus, as we all are, have events unfold in front of you and totally ignore them. You sit and watch a rally, and you're not paying any attention to it because you're writing a story about a swing state 600 miles away."

On the subsequent flight to Chicago, Obama spokeswoman Linda Douglass came into the press section and invited questions. She criticized McCain's new mortgage-bailout proposal, which had already been the subject of an e-blast from the Obama campaign. NBC's Lee Cowan asked about a slam hours earlier by McCain's wife, Cindy, who said "the day that Senator Obama decided to cast a vote to not fund my son when he was serving sent a cold chill through my body."

"John McCain has also voted for cutting funds for the troops," Douglass said, adding: "I understand she's got a son and she's worried." No one followed up.

While virtually every detail of the day could have been gleaned back home, several journalists -- such as John Heilemann of New York magazine -- noticed that Obama seemed to hit his stride in talking about the economy's impact on the middle class.

"One of the things I got out of the speech is how much more fluid he is talking about this stuff and how much the financial crisis has helped him," Heilemann says. "I've been critical of Obama for not ever developing an economic narrative, a story about what's going on in America. He obviously gets criticized for being too professorial. He's still not 100 percent there, but he's found a touch, a kind of soft populism."

It was the sort of observation that doesn't show up in the box score but can shape perceptions of the game.

Sympathetic Journalism

A Michelle Obama profile in the women's magazine More describes her as "casually elegant," "warm" and "focused." The headline: "Camelot 2.0."

The author, Geraldine Brooks, mentions that she first met the potential first lady at a Martha's Vineyard fundraiser, as a donor to her husband's campaign.

"I certainly pointed it out to the assigning editor and editor in chief and said it would have to be disclosed," Brooks says. "I was intrigued by her." Her sympathies, Brooks says, were "made pretty obvious by the fact that I was at a high-dollar fundraiser for him the year before."

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