It was the perfect political scene to cap the weekend's campaign coverage less than 72 hours before the state's most raucous, riveting and, at times, repugnant gubernatorial primary in decades. Hartsville (population: 7,465) may be a small town in the Pee Dee region, but it is just 70 miles northeast of the state capital (and media center) in Columbia. But still there was one thing missing from the picturesque scene -- any South Carolina newspaper, wire service, TV or radio reporters.
What we are witnessing in this election cycle is the slow death of traditional statewide campaign journalism. I noticed the same pattern (and the same nearly reporter-free campaign trail) in Kentucky last month as I covered libertarian Rand Paul's decisive defeat of the state Republican establishment in the GOP Senate primary. Aside from an occasional AP reporter, virtually the only print journalists whom I encountered at campaign events were my national press-pack colleagues from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Politico and the Atlantic Monthly.
Newspapers like the Louisville Courier-Journal and The State, South Carolina's largest paper, have dramatically de-emphasized in-depth candidate coverage because they are too short-handed to spare the reporters. A survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) found that newsroom staffs across the country have declined by 25 percent since 2001.
A Kentucky Democratic strategist (who did not want his name used for fear of antagonizing the state's remaining political journalists) put it this way: "The newspapers are gutted – and everybody who is left is doing three other jobs. As a result, it feels like there is little accountability for candidates about what they say. It's cover at 2:30 and file at 4:30 without thought or research."
As a veteran of eight presidential campaigns, I know there is a virtue to being there in person rather than virtually. Reading the polls and watching TV ads may equip you to loudly opine on cable news shows, but it is no match for interviewing the candidate, listening to the stump speech, gauging the mood of the crowds, and quizzing voters in diners and BBQ joints. Traveling with candidates (particularly in states like South Carolina and Kentucky where personal campaigning matters) gives you a sense of nuance about who they are as people and politicians.
Woody Allen got it right: "Showing up is 80 percent of life." By going to Hartsville, I was able to interview Nikki Haley's husband, who had only been briefly quoted in the press since the initial allegations of infidelity were made by Republican-operative-turned-blogger Will Folks. Talking with the soft-spoken Michael Haley, I came away with a sense of his pride in his wife's political ascent and failed to detect even a glimmer of suppressed rage as a wronged spouse. None of this, of course, is conclusive. But it provides more of a real-world view than armchair speculation about what Michael Haley must be feeling.
The gradual abandonment of on-the-ground campaign coverage means that polls are fast becoming the only way to glimpse voter sentiment. Since most polls in statewide races (particularly primaries) are automated short-answer surveys, it becomes easy to jump to blunderbuss conclusions like "all incumbents are imperiled" or "the Tea Party movement is all-powerful."
After Republican Scott Brown sent conventional wisdom reeling by winning Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat in January, an analysis of the media coverage demonstrated why the press was so slow to realize an upset was in the making. The reason: Political reporters never left Boston, even though no place in Massachusetts is more than a three-hour drive away. The study by the Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism found that only 6 percent of major newspaper and AP stories covering the last two weeks of the general election campaign were based on non-Boston coverage.
Shocking revelation ahead: Not all old-time campaign journalism combined the big-picture sweep of a Theodore White with the gonzo irreverence of a Hunter Thompson. Political reporting, particularly in sleepy journalistic backwater states, could be lazy and stenographic.
Bill Clinton waged eight statewide campaigns in Arkansas without ever being challenged on his cleverly worded answers to the marijuana question like this one in 1990: "In the primary, as in years before, I have made it very clear that while I have never violated the drug laws of the state, I don't think 'have you ever' questions should be asked of candidates without any provocation." Only when Clinton was running for president in 1992 was he finally asked during a debate about whether he smoked marijuana in England while a Rhodes scholar. Clinton's answer added the phrase "I didn't inhale" to the political lexicon.
But a strong case can be made that even pedestrian newspaper campaign coverage is preferable to the rumor-mongering of blogs and the unchecked claims of TV spots. In South Carolina, Will Folks' eccentric blog FITSNews (which boasts that it is "Unfair. Imbalanced.") is regarded as a major source of political news largely because of the lack of competition. Of course, unlike Folks, mainstream newspaper editors do not claim in the middle of a gubernatorial campaign that they had an affair with a candidate.
At a time when Americans are obsessed with politics, it is both sad and strange that the great narratives of on-the-road campaign journalism have become as imperiled as midlist novelists and itinerant poets. Only a memorable political year like 2010 can produce one-of-a-kind statewide candidates like Nikki Haley, who is overwhelmingly favored to win the June 22 runoff, and Rand Paul. Too bad that they are not big enough stories to lift the leading South Carolina and Kentucky newspapers out of their economically determined decline toward irrelevance.
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