Desk Jockey

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Last week, a woman called to ask if I had received an invitation to her organization's party at the Boston convention. I told her I was not going to Boston. "Oh!" she replied, with a mixture of shock and pity. A moment ago, she had been beseeching me. Now, she was embarrassed for me. A couple days later, a reporter friend called to inquire about my convention plans. I gave the same answer and heard the same "Oh!" It was the sort of response you'd get if you begged off an invitation to go out to dinner by explaining that you couldn't afford to eat three meals a day.

Professional Washington has relocated to Boston for the week, yet I chose to remain behind. Well, "chose" may be a slight overstatement. My editor, for reasons that will become clear as you read on, decided not to send me. But I didn't want to go anyway. For one thing, I remain traumatized by my one previous convention experience, in Los Angeles four years ago. Conventions are often portrayed as joyous, nonstop festivals of party-hopping. In truth, they're ruthless Darwinian competitions, in which those who have attained high status, or are particularly adept at networking, gorge themselves on crab cakes and foie gras, while the socially inept are left behind to scrounge hotel vending-machine fare. The struggle is so fierce and so elemental that it consumes almost every waking moment. It is almost impossible to have a conversation with anybody without asking, or being asked, "Do you know what parties are going on tonight, and, if yes, can you get me in?" It is the closest approximation an adult can have to being in the ninth grade, and, for me, the result was eerily similar. I whiled away the evenings alone in my hotel room, reading the newspapers, periodically checking my unringing cell phone to make sure it was charged, and watching the hotel's one movie channel, which, night after night, replayed a movie about superintelligent sharks. (I can't remember if the sharks were supposed to be superintelligent by human standards or merely superintelligent by shark standards. Either way, I was sure that, if the sharks had been in L.A., they, unlike me, would have figured out how to get into the GQ party.)

Conveniently enough, I've developed a theory justifying my opposition to convention reporting. Here it is: Reporting as a whole, while obviously necessary, is overrated. The mania over attending news-free conventions merely epitomizes a mentality that values going places and talking to people above all else. This prevalent ethos was expressed in the ur-journalism movie All The President's Men. Protesting the assignment of the Watergate story to young city-desk reporters, a Washington Post editor notes, "I have some experienced guys sitting around," prompting a devastating rebuke from his fellow editor: "You said it-- sitting around."

But what's so bad about sitting around? You can learn a lot sitting behind a desk, mining the papers for interesting factual nuggets, reading political commentary from every perspective, poring through books and reports, and using the Nexis database to compile enormous stacks of newspaper stories. Most journalists scorn this kind of research because they're obsessed with uncovering new facts, not synthesizing them. NBC News spent an entire day bragging about the fact that Andrea Mitchell reported the John Edwards veep pick an hour and a half before the campaign announced it. But such "accomplishments" pale alongside the perceptual errors that come from an addiction to campaign-trail reporting. The national press corps spent the better part of 1999 and 2000 insisting that George W. Bush was a centrist, because he kept repeating slogans that suggested as much. Reporters could have avoided this misinterpretation had they spent less time following Bush around the country and more time sitting at their desks doing Nexis searches, where they could have unearthed old Bush quotes like this one from 1996: "The Republican Party must put a compassionate face on a conservative philosophy." Surely that would have told them more about how Bush was actually planning to govern than the number of times he described himself as "compassionate" or was filmed with black or Hispanic children.

Part of the problem is that journalism terminology glorifies "shoe-leather reporting," whereby you pound the pavement so often you wear out the soles of your shoes. Yet there's no widely used term of approbation for the other kind of reporting. For this very reason, my New Republic colleague Franklin Foer and I decided a few years ago to coin a phrase: ass-welt reporting. It means you've sat in your chair for so long reading books and documents that you've worn a welt the shape of your backside into your chair. I'm not saying that every news story could be reported without leaving one's desk. (Bernstein: "Woodward, look! I found a clip from 1971 in which President Nixon tells the Omaha WorldHerald he plans to order his goons to break into Democratic headquarters in the Watergate Hotel!" Woodward: "I'll cancel that meeting with Deep Throat.") I'm simply saying that, sometimes, laziness can be the better part of valor.

Case in point. Earlier this year, The Washington Post Magazine published an interview with "Meet the Press" honcho Tim Russert. The premise was that the Post would give Russert a dose of his own medicine, ambushing him with his own quotes. The reporter cleverly juxtaposed Russert's deferential interview with President Bush alongside his snarling interview with Howard Dean. But Russert was ready, saying he had "a sense you may have asked this." The surprised Post interviewer interjected, "You researched the possibilities of my question in advance?" Russert then explained, "When you called `Meet the Press' and asked for the Howard Dean transcript and the George Bush transcript, I said, `I see where he's going.'" The lesson here is that ambush interviews work better when you don't ask the guy you're ambushing for the incriminating quotes in advance, especially when they could be found by a 30-second Nexis search. Indeed, I see this incident as a case study in the need for reporters to avoid human contact unless absolutely necessary. It's my expert grasp of such journalistic skills that no doubt led my editor to conclude I was far too valuable to send to Boston.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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