Almost everything we know about Barack and John and Hillary and Mitt we know because some caffeinated scribbler with a notepad and a deadline told us about it. He or she checked into chain motels in cities like Des Moines, Hanover, and Corpus Christi to dispatch to the voting masses the narratives that would shape our understandings of the candidates--injecting images directly into our political consciousnesses, images that will resonate in infamy: He strapped the family dog to the roof of his car! He thinks the swing voting bloc clings to their guns and religion! Her husband runs around with international billionaire lotharios!
Though the journalistic stakes continue to rise as the general election approaches, covering such an unprecedented primary season resulted in both new highs and new lows for political journalism. With the primaries officially ending this week as the two major parties nominate their contenders, TNR polled 12 of the nation’s most influential political journalists on six different categories of primary coverage. The winners received the most votes in each category. (TNR writers were not eligible for the awards.) All of our judges’ votes and comments are anonymous, but a list of their names and qualifications can be found at the end of the article.
Best Candidate Profile
Winner: “Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama,” by Ryan Lizza, The New Yorker, 7/21/08
“Hands down the best,” one of our judges proclaimed about Lizza’s New Yorker profile of Obama-as-young-Chicago-politicker, an article which was unfortunately overshadowed by its accompanying Obamas-as-terrorists cover cartoon. Tracking down Obama’s friends and colleagues from his early years in Chicago, Lizza narrates the senator’s infiltration of the city’s legendarily vicious political machine. The 15,000-word profile helped recast Obama as a tunnel-vision politician rather than a hope-spangled naïf.
Runner-Up: “The Making of Mitt Romney,” a seven-part series by The Boston Globe
Written by a team of the Globe’s best journalists, this series about Romney was mentioned not for its scoops or revelations--“it didn’t mine much new information,” one participant explained, “because frankly Mitt doesn’t have much in his closet”--but for its layered portrait of Romney as businessman, family man, and politician.
Each section is accompanied by photos and video segments, and bits of the profile are now keystones of Romney lore: “The longest lasting image of that was the dog strapped to the roof of his car,” recalled several of our judges.
Best Scoop That Never Was
Winner: “For McCain, Self-Confidence On Ethics Poses Its Own Risk,” by Jim Rutenberg, Marilyn W. Thompson, David D. Kirkpatrick, and Stephen Labaton, New York Times, 2/21/08
This controversial piece, which tried to politically and romantically link McCain with lobbyist Vicki Iseman, sparked manic chatter for its anonymously sourced content and skimpy evidence, as well as its journalistically tortured path to publication. The story didn’t drown the McCain campaign, as many feared it would, but it did mark a turning point: “It was the point where the media’s coverage of McCain and his image changed,” one judge observed. “And so far, it hasn’t changed back--the image of McCain as an inside-the-beltway politician and not the maverick of yore.”
Runners-Up: The Bill Clinton scares
“After Mining Deal, Financier Donated To Clinton,” by Jo Becker and Don Van Natta, Jr., The New York Times, 1/31/08
This exposé narrates Bill Clinton’s trip to Kazakhstan in January, during which he
introduced a wealthy donor to the nation’s human-rights-abusing president, ostensibly helping the contributor secure a uranium deal. Hillaryites across the country gritted their teeth at this newest Bill gaffe. “I thought for sure this would doom the Clinton campaign,” said one of our judges. “But it barely registered.”
“The Comeback Id,” by Todd S. Purdum, Vanity Fair July 2008
One of this summer’s most explosive pieces, Purdum’s portrait of Bill Clinton as a seedy, jet-setting, off-his-rocker old man prompted the former president to play the part by denouncing Purdum as a “sleazy,” “slimy” “scumbag.” But our judges gave it their praise: “It should have been written a year ago,” one of them insisted.
Best Infiltration of a Campaign
Winner: Jeff Zeleny, the Obama campaign
As a Chicago Tribune reporter until 2006, when he moved to The New York Times’s
D.C. bureau, Zeleny “was covering Obama before Obama was Obama,” one of our judges remembered. “He was just an Illinois candidate with a weird name, and it wasn’t clear at the beginning of that Senate race that he was going to go anywhere.” This early coverage paid off, lending depth and familiarity to Zeleny’s take on such Obama dramas as his “bitter” white working class slip-up, and his accounts of the candidate’s race speech in Philadelphia and victory rally in St. Paul. “When Obama wasn’t talking to reporters,” another of our judges offered, “Zeleny was smart enough to get behind the rope line to ask questions.”
Honorable Mention: Michelle Cottle, the Clinton campaign
Though Cottle, as a TNR writer, isn’t eligible for one of our awards, she did get many votes from our judges. She began her coverage of Hillaryland in 1999, when she argued that a Clinton run for Senate would handicap the Democratic Party. During Hillary’s presidential run, Cottle tackled the electoral pros and cons of running as a female candidate, the civil war within Hillary’s campaign, and her eventual fall from grace, picking up many juicy tidbits from campaign insiders along the way. Cottle was charmed by the Hillarylanders’ fierce devotion to their candidate, a sentiment she eloquently recounts in an honest farewell to Hillary. As one of our judges said, “Michelle knew more about the goings-on in the Clinton campaign than I know about my own family.” Despite all the praise, "The experience will have me in therapy for years to come," Cottle tells us.
Bonus Retrospective Points: “The Front-Runner’s Fall,” by Joshua Green, The Atlantic, September 2008
Green’s insider account of Hillaryland squabbles didn’t appear until months after Hillary dropped out, but in producing reams of internal documents, he chronicled the day-to-day decision-making at the highest level of the campaign like no other journalist had.
Most Influential Article
Winner: “Obama and blue collars: Do they Fit?” by Ronald Brownstein, 3/25/07, Los Angeles Times
In fitting Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton into a historical narrative of Democratic candidates, Brownstein, as one of our judges put it, “basically framed the Democratic race.” Democratic primaries tend to pit “warriors” that appeal to “beer-track” America against “priests” popular with the “wine-track” crowd, Brownstein explained, and though the Obama-Clinton race fit this pattern in many ways, it had a few key twists. As Brownstein told us:
“It was a very satisfying article to write because it came out very early in the process, and I think it basically laid out the dynamic that ultimately guided the primary all the way through. If you asked me why Obama won when every other wine-track priestly candidate couldn’t, the two things that happened were that he moved black beer-track voters to his side and that the wine-track side of the aisle got bigger.”
Rookie of the Year
Winner: Ben Smith, The Politico
As the Dems blogger for Politico.com, Ben Smith has been at the forefront of pretty much every sound byte, story, and scandal of the Democratic primary. Though Smith had previously blogged about New York politics, he proved his mettle as the insiders’ go-to campaign blogger during this primary season--with one of our judges referring to him as “the brightest news star.”
Runner-Up: Karl Rove as Fox commentator
After resigning from the Bush administration last summer, Rove has been dabbling in political commentary. He’s made dozens of appearances on Fox News, and he contributes to Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal on a fairly regular basis. As one of our participants wryly observed, “Everybody freaking loves him now. Go figure.”
Most Indispensible Blog
Winner: The Politico’s corral
This political website, founded in part to cover the 2008 election, has assembled a team
of stellar reporters to provide intensive daily coverage of the entire political spectrum.
“The Unmaking of a President,” by Robert Draper, GQ December 2006
This lengthy narrative of last summer’s crack in the McCain campaign, for which Draper spent a year trailing in Mark Salter’s cigarette smoke, received nods in several categories. “It’s not a profile,” one participant insisted, “But you guys have got to mention this extraordinary piece on McCain’s meltdown last year.”
After working at The Hotline and ABC’s political news unit, Marc Ambinder joined the staff of The Atlantic, where he maintains a political blog.
As a senior editor of The New Republic, Michelle Cottle covered Hillary Clinton’s campaign and continues to report on the general election both for the magazine and The Plank, one of its blogs.
Michael Crowley, a senior editor of The New Republic, has covered Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain, and various other candidates throughout the primary season, and is a regular contributor to TNR’s election blog.
Ezra Klein is an associate editor of The American Prospect, where he blogs and writes about politics and the election.
A former editor at The New Republic, Ryan Lizza now covers national politics and the 2008 presidential campaign for The New Yorker as the magazine’s Washington correspondent.
Now The Politico’s GOP blogger, Jonathan Martin formerly worked at The Hotline and the National Review.
Kate Phillips is a reporter for The New York Times and edits The Caucus, its blog about the 2008 election.
As a senior editor of the National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru writes for the magazine and contributes to The Corner, one of its blogs.
A senior editor of The New Republic, Noam Scheiber covers the 2008 presidential campaign for the magazine and its election blog.
David Yepsen, The Des Moines Register’s chief political correspondent, reported on some of the most important battlegrounds of the 2008 primary.
Kate Zernike is a national political correspondent for The New York Times.
Nicole Allan and Bess Kalb are former web interns at The New Republic.
By Nicole Allan and Bess Kalb