The glory days are always behind journalists. And when trying to explain why the present is eternally a degraded form of the past, the blame usually goes to the communications technology that the future will consider indispensable. The perpetual decline is perhaps best encapsulated in a tweet by Politico's Jake Sherman, in which he got all nostalgic for times gone by -- "imagine if reporters spoke this openly with a magazine correspondent today" -- with a link to a GQ story about reporters waxing nostalgic about the 1972 campaign. The GQ piece, written in 1988 by The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley and Maureen Dowd, lamented that the reporters on that year's presidential campaign bus had stopped getting wasted and sleeping with flight attendants every night like their predecessors (allegedly) did, and instead were perpetually plugged into machines. The complaints sound eerily familiar if you've read any of the essays by 2012 campaign reporters fretting about what Twitter has done to us.
Here's Stanley and Dowd writing 24 years ago about the way journalists worked 20 years prior:
In the bad old days on the bus, the only noise to be heard first thing in the morning was the raspy sound of grown men hacking. After an hour or so, as their hangovers ebbed to a dull ache, they might have flipped through a local newspaper. By mid-morning, they would rouse themselves and begin grilling the press secretary. Now it is a world of round-the-clock communication, where political information flows fast and furiously from satellites, national newspapers, cellular phones, cable TV, Federal Express packets, fax machines and political hot lines. "Now if I get on the bus in the morning, I will be assaulted with questions by 6 a.m.," Bush aide Pete Teeley complains. "Before, it seemed as if people didn't focus before ten o'clock—we were too whipped."
“At a paper, your only real stress point is in the evening when you’re actually sitting there on deadline, trying to file,” said Jim VandeHei, Politico’s executive editor...
“Now at any point in the day starting at 5 in the morning, there can be that same level of intensity and pressure to get something out.”
In 2004, political blogs nearly destroyed American society. In 2012, according to two campaign reporters working for exactly opposite publications -- BuzzFeed's Ben Smith and The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza -- blogs are so over. Instead, it's Twitter that's the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems. This election was supposed to be about "big ideas about the future," Politico's Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns wrote June 20, "So why does it feel so small?" The answer: Twitter and the dreaded news cycle, a unit of news measurement that has never been specifically quantified but is constantly "accelerating." Here's Haberman and Burns:
There have been small-ball presidential campaigns before, but veteran strategists and observers agree this race is reaching a record degree of triviality. Nothing previously can compare with a race being fought hour by hour in 140-character Twitter increments and blink-and-you-miss-it cable segments. Not to mention an endless flood of caustic television ads.
If you don't trust them, just give a listen to The New Republic's Alec MacGillis, sick of the Ann Romney Mommy Wars on Twitter, writing in April:
Deny or complain about the reality of the modern news cycle, and you’re a nostalgic prude. But I’m willing to suffer that label. This stuff is ridiculous, and I’ve been through enough of these campaigns to know that it’s getting worse.
Nothing previously! A record! This stuff is getting worse! Hmm. We may have heard this before. Hopping into the wayback machine to 1988:
Although political reporters today are regarded as more aggressive, their reporting has not necessarily surpassed that of their predecessors. "I'm not sure that the best of today is better than the best of twenty years ago," says the Washington Post's national editor, Dan Balz. It is simply that the scope of current reportage has broadened to include areas of character, humor, analysis and opinion that editors previously did not encourage.
Just as enduring is the sense someone else had all the fun, used it all up, and now it's gone. Here's Politico's Burns and Haberman in 2012:
Blame the campaign strategist, blame the operatives, blame the reporters. They know it’s a drag. And they know they’re responsible.They would argue: We’re powerless to stop it...
“For the first time in my memory, we have a presidential race in which neither one of these candidates really likes to campaign,” added Dan Rather...
But here's something that is new. Back in 1988, Dowd and Stanley were chronicling two things: the end of fun (if you're idea of fun is drinking before noon, cheating on your wife -- because you were a man -- and barfing during work hours) and working too hard. See by the end of the 1980s, reporters had become squares who work too hard and drink too little. They did not mention much about the joys of parsing serious policy or focusing on a substantive debates, or not enjoying some good campaign gossip. They had become the "Dweebs on the Bus."
"Reporters used to trade notes on which hotel had the best bars," says John Buckley, a CBS political consultant who was Congressman Jack Kemp's press secretary. "Now it's which hotel has the biggest Nautilus machines." ...
The new robo-reporters don't interview candidates over cocktails; they exercise with them and gasp out their questions. To talk with Michael Dukakis, who strolls with hand weights to stay in shape, they are even willing to take up speedwalking. "What fun can it be to strap pieces of metal to your arms? Is that not a little weird?" asks Washington Post veteran David S. Broder...
Flash back to the bold, brazen days of the Seventies... Hunter Thompson, denied an interview with Jimmy Carter in 1976, set fire to the hotel-room door of Carter's aide Hamilton Jordan.
One should always be suspicious when David Broder is held up as a standard for measuring cool. These passages indicate that the old campaign reporters were perhaps basking in a bit of reflected cool. Did Hunter Thompson remember his fellow 1972 alums loving all his intoxicated antics? No. From his 1974 interview with Playboy:
Playboy: How did the press corps take your behavior?
Thompson: Not too well. But it doesn't matter now. I won't be making any trips with the President for a while.
Let's remember folks: The political press corps has never been cool.