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Tales From the Trail

Alum Reporters Offer Glimpse of Life Covering Presidential Campaign

By Maryland Today Staff


You think you’re sick of this election season? Imagine being a reporter assigned to cover the presidential campaign for the past year, or more. Maryland journalism alums have been doing just that for some of the nation’s biggest news organizations. Bonny Ghosh M.Jour. ’06 of the Associated Press, Tom LoBianco ’04 and Sara Murray ’07 of CNN, Margaret Talev ’94 of Bloomberg and Alex Moe ’10 of NBC News emerged from the trenches (or planes, hotels or convention centers) just long enough to share with us their surprising, touching and sometimes-scary tales about a campaign season like no other:

TERP: What’s the worst scheduling requirement you’ve ever had to follow?

Ghosh: Media check-in times and Secret Service sweeps are the most frustrating scheduling requirements. I remember covering a Trump event in Florida at Mar-a-Lago. The media check in time was 5 a.m. for an 11 a.m. press event. The email informing us of the 5 a.m. check-in time was sent at midnight the night before. That type of last-minute scheduling requirement is pretty typical.

Murray: The day of the New Hampshire primary, my producer and I did television all afternoon and late into the evening to cover election results. Ohio Gov. John Kasich pulled out a surprise second-place finish, so we scrambled to snag seats on his overnight charter flight to South Carolina. We all boarded the flight, probably around midnight, and I wanted an interview. One of Kasich’s aides said the candidate wasn’t going to talk to the press. I told him I was either going to ask Kasich my questions as soon as we took off, or I’d ask them when we landed around 4 a.m., when we would all be in far worse shape. I got my questions as soon as we took off.

Talev: I’m going to say that day on the post-convention Clinton bus tour when there was no toilet access for five hours. On a bus full of women, that’s a really bad situation.


TERP: Have you ever been left behind, or almost?

LoBianco: Unlike the campaign embeds, I’m on the trail periodically based on the story, not full-time. I can say that I am amazed at how some of the embeds kept up with some campaigns, especially the ones that didn’t have full-time traveling press accommodations. I spent some time in New Hampshire covering Bernie Sanders just before the primary and had to alternate campaign stops just to keep up with him and find some time to file in between.

Moe: Luckily, no. There are definitely times when my correspondent and I are trying to tape an “as live” as the press wranglers are trying to have us leave the venue, and we have to literally run to the bus. When the candidate is ready to leave, the motorcade departs whether we make it there or not!

TERP: Best and worst meals?

Ghosh: Having a good meal is often how campaigns will burn time on the trail. While embedded with Clinton, if the traveling press sit down to have a meal, it is because there is no access to whatever event or activity Clinton is participating in, be it a fundraiser or meeting with a donor. So the campaign folks will block out time to take the media to a restaurant, while Clinton is engaging in a private closed-door event. In other words, a good meal often translates to no access. I’d rather the access over the meal every time.

Moe: I’ve found that there is one thing for certain on the campaign trail during the general election: You never go hungry. There is food at the events. There are snacks on the buses to and from the airport, and there is food on the plane. The key is to be selective in what you pick. It doesn’t happen often, but when we get to a town early enough to sit down for dinner, I very much enjoy finding a good local spot to better understand the area.

TERP: How do you try to stay healthy or get exercise or eat right—is that even possible?

LoBianco: Ha! Next question. I actually had it fairly easy this year compared to others; I try to bike to work when I can. But as far as health and fitness goes, I pretty much wrote off 2016. I’m sure some others ran into this, but there were a few times where, in the throes of the madness, I realized I hadn’t drunk or eaten anything for hours. In the middle of the Republican National Convention delegate battle on the first day in Cleveland, I suddenly realized I hadn’t had anything to drink in eight hours. The adrenaline rush in the madness can get you over just about anything, but we all need hydration.

Murray: Working out has been a huge part of trying to maintain my sanity in this out-of-control campaign year. The more exhausted I get the more I’ve been relying on fitness instructors in battleground states across the country to kick my butt. If we have a couple hours free in the morning, I try to find a nearby yoga studio, barre class or spin class. I’ve lost track of the number of these classes that have been thwarted by breaking news, though. It’s unavoidable.

TERP: How do you pass your down time, if you have any?


Ghosh: Sleeping. Catching up on the last year’s worth of sleep that my body has been lacking. I try to spend those small windows of down time to re-establish a sense of normalcy and maintain perspective. As important as this election seems at this moment, the politics that eat up our 24-hour news cycle will die down come Nov. 9. We all have lives to attend to post-election. I have a teenage daughter, so I spend any free minute that I have with her. This election has been quite engaging for her age demographic, more so I believe than the 2008 election.

If I am not on the campaign trail, I am constantly bombarded with questions about covering the campaign trail. “Wow, what is it like to cover Trump?” is a question I get often. I am still wrapping my head around how to answer that question in a neutral fashion as a female reporter of color.

Murray: What down time?

TERP: What are the most inspiring and depressing/disillusioning things you’ve encountered?

Ghosh: Inspiring moments: Listening to Michelle Obama’s speech at the DNC, standing amongst the confetti and balloons at both conventions and looking up at the sea of people and colors, listening to a voter in New Hampshire tell me about attending her 100th candidate roundtable event because she so loved living in a state where she can look a candidate in the eye and feel so much a part of the democratic process.

Disillusioning moments: The frustratingly limited access to Clinton, which makes me question what the accessibility to a Hillary Clinton administration will look like, watching fistfights break out at a Trump event between a white veteran and a black protester (then watching the protester get hauled out by security by his arms and legs), having water bottles thrown at me and other reporters at more than one Trump rally, being kicked off a public sidewalk (where voters were already standing), being told by Secret Service and Clinton’s campaign staff that no one is permitted to cover Clinton walking in or out of an event, watching various colleagues being barred or kicked out of Trump events, watching colleagues be called “scum” or “sleaze bags” for asking questions about Trump’s finances or his comments on women.

LoBianco: Disillusioning: The way Donald Trump rode straight into the center of all election coverage, based in large part (I believe) on the obliteration of traditional print news revenue models and the threats to traditional TV news revenue models. Digital news is a voracious beast, which requires readership/viewership on a level that is magnitudes above what used to work. So, Trump saying anything outrageous fit perfectly into that dynamic. Jeb Bush’s discussions of Common Core education policy or heroin overdoses, for instance, were largely lost. I think this has really cost the public, particularly in the lack of analysis or reporting on Hillary Clinton’s policies—especially now that she appears headed to the White House.

Inspiring, hopeful: I do hope that after the thrum of the election has died down, we, as a profession, use the Trump experience to try and look for some new rules and guidelines in the age of digital news. Journalism has embraced the technology of digital video and social media itself, but has yet to develop any higher-level framework of how best to use it. I suspect that Trump’s use of Twitter to drive news cycles will accelerate that discussion, but not until after Nov. 8.


Murray: At one particularly tense Trump event in New Orleans, protests were continuously breaking out. Some of the protesters were young; some, minorities. I watched the crowd of Trump supporters turn on them—adults in the crowd, screaming at the younger protesters, tearing at their clothes, kicking them.

It happens on the other side, too. At a Trump event in San Jose, I witnessed a group of anti-Trump protesters chase after a teenage Trump supporter, like wild animals hunting their prey. The kid escaped only after sprinting to the safety of police officers wearing riot gear.

Over and over this year, I have watched Americans fail to pass the basic test of humanity. I have seen people from all political persuasions fail to treat one another as human beings. Those are the days when I go back to the hotel and sprint on the treadmill to the point of exhaustion or tell the hotel bartender, “Yes, sir, I will have that second glass of wine.”

I was struggling to come up with the most inspiring thing I’ve witnessed this year when I landed at the Cincinnati airport earlier this week. As passengers were deplaning, we noticed the honor guard lining up outside where workers unload luggage from the plane.

After we got off the plane a number of the passengers, one after another, crowded near the window overlooking the tarmac. We watched the honor guard prepare to remove a casket from the plane. We watched the fallen soldier’s family gather on the tarmac, embracing.

Separated by yards of inky darkness and the glass windows of the airplane terminal, we could still sense their grief. The other passengers and I stood there, some of us weeping quietly, some saluting, as the casket was pulled off the plane.

We didn’t know the fallen soldier coming home, or his family members grieving in the night. But it struck me, gathered there with other passengers, that this is the kind of nation we are—one where we respect and honor others for their sacrifice. One where we empathize with those who are struggling, who are in pain.

We’ve seen too little of that kind of empathy in this divisive political season.

TERP: Can you describe any moments of seeing the unscripted and unvarnished side of the candidates?


LoBianco: One of my absolute favorite things was watching the candidates do retail politicking—one-on-one talks with voters. I think it’s a great measure of their ability to handle the unexpected—which is a true measure of executive leadership. New Hampshire voters are absolutely tops for that. For me, it was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s interactions in New Hampshire campaign stops, which showed he had not really brushed up on the issues the way he should have. (Of course, in the context of Trump’s understanding of issues, that seems almost quaint now.)

Moe: What’s neat about flying on the same plane as candidates is you get to see interactions with their staff. I’ll never forget how happy Clinton looked after the presidential debate in St. Louis. Once we boarded the plane, she was laughing, chatting and clapping with the staff. She genuinely looked happy after that heated debate with Donald Trump.

Murray: Donald Trump isn’t known for having much of a filter, so there have been plenty of moments over the course of the past roughly year and a half that have been fascinating, insane, and, at moments, frightening.

It became evident early on with Trump that he wasn’t just going to war with the press—he was going to war with individual journalists. At one rally in South Carolina, Trump called me out from the stage. He did an impression of me and mocked me as a terrible and inexperienced journalist. He encouraged his crowd of thousands to turn around and jeer at me—and they did.

Trump quickly pivoted from that tirade into another imitation, jerking his arms around as he mocked a New York Times reporter with a disability that limits his joint function.

TERP: Do you recall any experiences in the Merrill College that helped shape your career?

LoBianco: At the end of 2002, I was working weekends covering cops and general assignment at The Frederick News-Post and getting ready to cover the Maryland State House for CNS. My old editor in Frederick asked (then-CNS bureau chief) Adrianne Flynn if he could keep me one day out of the week in Annapolis, and she curtly and correctly replied that if he did, they’d be wiping me and my grade off the floor at the end of the semester.

That may sound harsh to anyone who hasn’t worked with her before, but to those of us who know and love her, it’s quintessential Adrianne: blunt, dead-on and focused on the best for the student.


Murray: I’m grateful for every professor who forced me out of the classroom and into the real world, whether it was to cover a crime story, a court proceeding or a feature. There is no substitute for real-life experience. When your professors tell you to go out and get an internship, listen to them. Those real-world skills and relationships are invaluable when it’s time to launch your job hunt.

Talev: My Capital News Service experience in Annapolis was the start of my life as a politics reporter, and my mentors from College Park are still my heroes and mentors today.

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