Reporters on the Road Confront Their Mortality

Photo: Calla Kessler/The Washington Post via Getty Im

Campaign reporters are vectors: ricocheting between primary states on commercial airlines or in charters with other fellow super-travelers, shouldering through crowded rallies to canvas voters and huddling in aisles for a word with the candidate. Or they were. “I’m still going to stuff, but with each one there’s a little bit of August 1914,” said a political reporter for a major newspaper, referring to the onset of World War One. “Is this going to be the last one?”

Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden held their last big rallies on Monday, the next debate is now slated to go on sans audience and spin room (on Thursday, the DNC announced the debate would be held in Washington, D.C., instead of Arizona), and it has helped, exposure wise, that the primary had hit its peak days. But the beat certainly hasn’t stopped. “A lot of campaign work is not rallies,” the print reporter said on Wednesday. “It is one-on-one meetings, canvassing, things of that nature. Seeing that on the ground still has utility.”

Even pre-coronavirus, infection was considered an occupational hazard for the regular traveling campaign press; bugs, like the one Elizabeth Warren came down with before the Las Vegas debate, routinely get passed from the candidate to the staff to the reporters and back. “You’re not sleeping, you’re going to Iowa to New Hampshire to Nevada, all these climates are so different,” said one national reporter for a network. “It requires time and being cautious about your health and that’s not something any of us have time for.”

As the week wore on, the trickle of work-from-home and staggered-hours recommendations from employers took on new urgency — “may have been exposed” and “abundance of caution” gave way to messages about positive tests at adjacent companies elsewhere in an office complex, then announcements of diagnoses at places like CBS News (which confirmed three cases as of Thursday) and Condé Nast. Media corporate PR departments increasingly went silent, seemingly unwilling to be tagged as the ones who endangered their employees. Freelance television crews in the field worried they wouldn’t get paid if they had to quarantine. The Daily host Michael Barbaro tweeted that his podcast had been recorded “from home for a few days now.” TV producers at CNN and NBC News were told they could try to work from home where applicable, but that isn’t always possible in production work. And then there were the generational barriers: “The boomers have this ‘we don’t leave for fire drills’ mentality,” said one producer at CNN, a Gen-Xer. “They think it is Y2K. And the younger ones think, ‘I am watching the feed from Italy and I don’t want to see that happen here.’”

Midweek, most political reporters did not seem particularly worried. “I have a what will be, will be approach,” said the television reporter. The memos to cut down on nonessential travel made her laugh. “That would never apply to us,” she said. “It’s not going to happen during peak politics season,” when even taking a day off is actively discouraged. “Nor would you want to take off. Because this is the thing you’ve been covering for a year probably.” A day later, on Thursday, she texted about an abrupt shift: Suddenly, planes were half-empty. Things were starting to feel bleak, but the beat still demanded a certain amount of bravado. “I’m not worried at all, but it’s not for any sound reason,” said the print reporter, adding, “I worry about my story being bad, not about whether I’ll die.”

Reporters on the Road Confront Their Mortality