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MAKING THE INNER CIRCLE: Anxiety about access has underpinned campaign coverage this cycle, be it John McCain’s recently less cozy relationship with the press, the rollout of Sarah Palin, or Barack Obama’s reputed “indifference” to the press and his campaign’s reliance on its own digital media operation. Last weekend, GQ correspondent Robert Draper broke through the campaign news din with a New York Times Magazine story on the McCain campaign’s shifting narratives. Like his book on the presidency of George Bush, “Dead Certain,” for which he had rare access to the president, Draper’s story benefited from on- and off-the-record conversations with McCain’s inner circle, if not the candidate himself. Draper is blogging the election this week on GQ’s Web site.
WWD: Some people wondered why the McCain campaign didn’t require that you wait to publish the Times piece until after the election.
R.D.: When I began this story in early August, the McCain campaign felt pretty sanguine about their prospects.…Though the outcome of the story is not as they would have scripted it, it’s understood by them and others that I didn’t sucker punch them. It helped that I had contacts in the McCain campaign from the previous GQ stories I had done and I had a lot of contacts in Bush world. A lot of those people had gone to work for John McCain. That led to their belief that they’d get fair-handed treatment from me. And we’re talking about The New York Times, with whom they have an adversarial relationship.…I think their calculation was, if they’re ever going to get a fair shake from The New York Times, it’s going to be with Draper.
WWD: Did it help that you had only one story to write, as opposed to filing every 30 seconds?
R.D.: Unlike some of the journalists for not only the daily papers but for networks, who have to constantly blog as well as file stories, I could be a little more leisurely, and beyond that, maintain a big-picture perspective. And frankly, the McCain campaign was much more responsive to that approach. They’ve come to be rather disdainful of the hyper-blogging that takes place on the press bus, and they think it has increased this mind-set of “gotcha” journalism, where every time John McCain would say something, instead of asking a follow-up question, people would go scurry off to their laptops and post to their blogs. And the McCain campaign believes that’s not what journalism ought to be. I’m not positing myself as some kind of superior journalist, it’s just that the format of long-form journalism allows me to be a little more leisurely, allows me to look at the longer view of things, and allows me two-and-a-half months on a single story.
WWD: It’s been said that because of access to so much unmediated campaign information — you can watch the speech on YouTube and so on — you no longer even have to be on the bus. How important was it to actually be there?
R.D.: In being there, you can develop relationships with people on the campaign. You can’t do that by sitting on your butt at home watching YouTube. If you’re out there watching them do their thing, then go out in the evening and have a beer with them and talk to them about what’s just transpired, then you set yourself up for what could be a series of interesting interviews.…[And] that sort of proximity isn’t earned overnight. I didn’t contact the McCain campaign and say, “I’m going to do this story and I demand intimate access.” You have to earn your trust with these people. And I did, over a lengthy period of time. It’s also true that I didn’t come with a thesis in mind.…That gave me credibility, and ultimately, access.
WWD: You mentioned that the McCain campaign thinks that blogging is inimical to journalism. Do you think it’s true what they said in your story, that reporters are “primarily young, snarky, blog-obsessed and liberal?”
R.D.: Oh, yes, I think it’s true, but I don’t think it’s a fatal impediment. Steve Schmidt and Mark Salter and others who would characterize the media these days in such a way have it about right, except that I also found that a lot of these younger journalists who were my companions aboard the Straight Talk Express were extremely diligent, incredibly hardworking, extremely intelligent and very much of a mind to give the McCain campaign a fair shake. I do think that they are impeded by the imperatives of the trade now…you’re in this eternal footrace, with so many competitors, to get something out that’s fresh and hot and get it out quickly. But Obama’s people have coped with it, and I think that McCain’s people have coped with it less well.
I know a lot of people covering the Obama campaign who are displeased with the level of access being given them, and they have concerns with what an Obama administration would look like in that regard. But they’re also not made out to be the enemy.…And there is a level of disdain that is palpable in the McCain campaign that does not exist in the Obama campaign, and I cannot believe that that is helpful to McCain’s efforts.
WWD: All this having been said, why did you agree to blog?
R.D.: I could give a crass response to that — something to do with my quota with GQ — but I won’t. The additional truth is that there’s a lot that I’ve learned over the last few years in covering the candidates that I’ve just not been able to print…it’s actually been a fairly interesting process for me, by which I can return to key items in my notepad that I never got a chance to deploy, and use them as a way to explain how these last days are going to shake up.
WWD: You’ve spent a lot of time with Republicans. If Obama wins, do you have to start making a lot of new friends?
R.D.: No, I’ve got them already. I’m OK there.
— Irin Carmon