Journalists and former campaign officials told tales from the 2008 presidential election trail Monday night at the Elliott School, detailing the role of embedded reporters in one of the longest presidential campaigns in recent history.
The embedded reporters – who represented major media outlets during the campaign – chronicled the unique journalistic challenges involved in covering the historic presidential campaign in a 24-hour news cycle. They also discussed dealing with the unique experience of being completely immersed in a campaign.
Mike Memoli, a White House reporter for RealClearPolitics and an embed following Vice President Joe Biden for NBC News and the National Journal, said embedded reporters had to juggle multiple roles on the campaign trail. The reporters learned to use a video camera and tripod, as cost issues prevented networks from sending entire news crews.
“We were all those things in one traveling around the country,” Memoli said at the event, which was sponsored by the GW Graduate School of Political Management and Campus Progress, an organization that helps young people become active in politics.
Becoming immersed in a campaign also gave the reporters a different perspective than journalists who did not spend all their time on the campaign trail. Bret Hovell, an associate producer at ABC’s Good Morning America who was embedded in the campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said embeds served as “bellwethers” for the campaign, being able to identify things like whether the candidate’s speech had been altered, and deciding whether it was newsworthy.
Though being embedded with a candidate on the campaign had its benefits, reporters recounted the emotional strain the around-the-clock job put on their lives.
Adam Aigner-Treworgy, a researcher at the Colbert Report and McCain embed for NBC News and National Journal, said being embedded meant having a question ready at all times, just in case you encountered the candidate or campaign manager.
“It’s up to you to make the best of your situation, and you’re not going to be able to gather all the information you need unless you’re on your toes at all times,” Aigner-Treworgy said.
Staying objective and making sure to ask the tough questions was also a challenge, reporters said. Memoli said the experience of constantly being on the campaign could sometimes result in a Stockholm Syndrome-like phenomenon.
Aigner said another challenge associated with embedded reporting was not being able to control what eventually happened to the raw information a reporter gathered and sent back to their news organization.
Still, according to NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell, the raw information provided by embedded reporters was invaluable to other reporters covering the campaign.
“We all relied enormously on the embeds,” said O’Donnell, a Capitol Hill correspondent.
Even as they discussed the influence of the 24-hour cycle on Campaign 2008, some predicted the next election – the first with an emphasis on Twitter and wireless Internet on airplanes – could be even crazier.
Justin Germany, principal of Outlaw Media and a McCain campaign staffer, said the experience of being on a campaign is invaluable.
“It’s the Super Bowl of politics,” he said.