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The Midweek Mop-Up With Reid Epstein
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The Midweek Mop-Up With Reid Epstein

What it's like to be a campaign reporter covering Democrats for the New York Times.

We’ve covered various aspects of campaign life in this newsletter, but there’s another group of people who have their own campaign life separate and apart from the operatives. They’re the remoras to our campaign sharks … if the remoras sometimes ate the sharks. Yep, I’m talking about campaign reporters! 

This week I’ve got a conversation with Reid Epstein, a campaign and political reporter for the New York Times. Reid was with the Wall Street Journal when I was working on Carly Fiorina’s campaign. One of our more heated exchanges involved federal election law and a fictional super PAC named “Carly for Puppies.” To this day, both of us still believe we were right—although a court sided with me, I’ll have you all know. (Also worth noting that my best quote for the WSJ was also my last one while at the Department of Justice: “This is actually the dumbest thing I’ve been asked to comment on in a while.”)

We would see Reid on the road, in airports, at hotel bars … reporters and operatives live in a traveling college town together in a lot of respects. Whether Iowa or New Hampshire, you’re probably going to run into them. That’s all to say, Reid and I have a special Fox and the Hound kind of vibe.  

Sarah: Okay, so what’s the biggest difference between covering 2016 and covering 2020?

Reid: Well, 2016 I didn’t cover from my house. That’s probably the biggest difference. 2020 I’m covering mostly from my 5-year-old’s bedroom.

Sarah: Fair. Let me rephrase. Is there a difference in how the campaigns are approaching the media from 2016?

Reid: I covered the Republican primary for the Wall Street Journal in 2016, and I covered the Democratic primary and general election for the New York Times for 2020. And there is no job that I’ve ever had that afforded more access to high profile people than covering the Democratic presidential primary for the New York Times

The Republicans in ’16 were interested in reading the Wall Street Journal. Like we knew that for Jeb Bush, it was the first thing he read it when he woke up in the morning. And there were people on his staff—when they could not get through to him—they would leak things to the Journal so that we would write them so that he would believe them when he read them in the Journal

But the Democratic candidates and voters think that the Times is gospel in a way that there’s no corollary on the right. And so, that means that in a 27-way primary, those guys are falling over each other to have us write about them.

One example: I don’t think something like this would ever have happened in a Republican primary. But when my colleague Lisa Lerer and I went to the Iowa State Fair last summer, we invited all the Democratic candidates to ride rides with us. And so we wound up doing a 10-minute interview with Cory Booker on the Ferris wheel. I rode the sky glider—the sky glider is like a ski-lift type thing that goes all the way the length of the Midway—I rode that with Amy Klobuchar. And at some point she threatened to throw me off, which felt very on brand.

Sarah: With or without her comb?

Reid: There was no comb. I don’t know if she ever forgave us for the comb, but I was not responsible for the comb. But then once some of the lesser candidates saw us doing this, then they wanted to ride rides with us. And I was like, no, John Delaney. I’m not gonna ride the Ferris wheel with you.

Sarah: I’m at a loss for words. You know, oftentimes, I’m sure you’re asked what you wish readers understood about any number of things that go into making the final product that readers see. But a conversation you and I have had before that, that I’ve had with many reporters, is the gulf between what campaign operatives think your job is like and vice versa. And how fascinating it would be to switch jobs for a week like the 13 Going On 30, 17 Again rom-com equivalent of a campaign operative and a reporter. So this is your opportunity: What do you wish the campaign operatives understood about your job aside from the fact that you don’t write your own headlines. (We know, we know!)

Reid: I don’t want to cast all of the capital-M media into one place, right? Because there’s different outlets that reach different audiences and have different standards and move at different paces. BuzzFeed is not the New York Times is not television is not a college newspaper.

But I’m thinking of when people have gotten exercised or mad at me over the last year. And when we screw things up, we try to fix them. But a lot of times, operatives get mad about things just because it makes their candidate look bad and not because it’s wrong. And something’s not included. Especially this year when there were so many presidential candidates. Candidates would wake up, read the New York Times and say why isn’t my position about gun control in the story?

And so we get a call from …

Sarah: John Delaney!

Reid: From somebody who works for one of the candidates who said, “can you just go in and add a paragraph about my person to the story?” And the answer to that is almost always no. And I know that they’re calling because their boss is mad that they were not in the story and that they have to call but like the bar for something like that is so high.

Sarah: How often do you think it’s what I call soccer flopping, they’re literally screaming at you and yelling at you because they need to be seen to be raising their voice at you?

Reid: The operative types? But I mean the candidates do it too, right? This last summer, the Times did this big project on the walkup songs that all the candidates used. They didn’t do all of them because there were 27 candidates. And a couple weeks after this ran, I was in Cedar Rapids (Iowa). And as happens on presidential primaries, the Klobuchar campaign was also staying at the Cedar Rapids Marriott. And so I got in at the end of the night and walked through the bar to get a drink. And they were all at the table and the senator said to me, “Why wasn’t I included in this music thing?” Which mind you, I had nothing to do with and did not write and actually was on vacation when it ran and didn’t know that she hadn’t been included because actually I hadn’t read it. So I was like, “you know what, Senator, I have no idea but can I buy you a drink?” 

So the press aggrievement in these places usually starts at the top.

Sarah: Though, not always. I’ll throw in an “on the other hand” line here, which is, as a campaign operative, you also feel like it is your job to be protective and defensive of your candidate. And so when something like that happens, you feel like you failed. And it can feel like you let down the team, not just the candidate. 

Reid: Right, that makes sense. 

Sarah: But yeah, sometimes it’s just that the candidate already yelled at you, and you’re gonna shovel that right down the line.

Reid: Or you have to go and say, “you know, I gave him what-for.”

You know, this year was my third full presidential campaign. And the operatives keep getting younger and younger. And I keep getting older.

Sarah: No, no, it’s supposed to be: “That’s what I love about these campaign operatives. They get younger and I stay the same age.” 

Reid: No, I actually think the operatives are getting younger. This year because there were like 25 candidates, they were pulling operatives out of middle school.

Sarah: Ha! How do you balance cultivating sources with the most amount of transparency to your readers?

Reid: Well, I don’t think those things are necessarily in conflict.

Sarah: No, they’re not all the time. But let me give you an example. You have a piece of not all that newsworthy information, but you need to file something for the day. On the other hand, you could trade that for something bigger and not run the little newsworthy nugget.

Reid: I don’t ever remember sticking something in my pocket because an operative said, “I have something better for you.” But I can remember an operative trying that. So I was still at the Journal and this was in January 2019. I found out that Beto … remember the big crazy road trip he did by himself? I found out that he was doing it. He had asked someone to map it out. And that person foolishly told me that he had asked him to map this out. And so I was like, ‘Oh, this sounds like news—that Beto wants to drive around the country by himself and talk to regular people.’

And so I called the campaign. And I said, “I am writing this.” And they were like, “please don’t. And Beto will be mad that you have found out.” Their first offer was, “We’ll have him call you from wherever his first stop is.” And I said no deal to that. And then they said, “You could come meet him where his first stop is.” And that sounded at least interesting enough to take to my editor and say, “Is this a deal we should take?” But at that point, we did not trust them to follow through on that offer, frankly, and it wasn’t so much better than what we already had. 

So I wrote a story that said Beto is going on this road trip. They refused to confirm it for anyone else. And, you know, there’s scoops that everyone else has to match. But the unmatchable scoop is always a little bit dangerous, because, what if it turns out not to have been true? But then, like three weeks later, he started journaling from Kansas or wherever he was. So that’s one concrete example of someone trying to bargain.

Sarah: You mentioned that you didn’t trust them. 

Reid:I didn’t trust that the person who made that offer, frankly, had the authority to follow through on it.

Sarah: How does trust work between you and a campaign as things move through a primary to the general election to the White House potentially? How do you build that trust? How do you lose that trust?

Reid: All of this is relationships, right? I’m just a Midwestern boy with a typewriter and a dream. So I trust people until I have reason not to.

Sarah: Same.

Reid: So, if I find out that someone has lied to me or I go to somebody with a story and then find out that they gave it to another outlet. But the most unforgivable sin is basically to get ghosted.

Sarah: Interesting. I would have thought the most unforgivable sin would be giving your story to another outlet that the operative thought would write the same information more favorably, but you think it’s being ghosted?

Reid: It’s so rare that your thing happens. I mean, this White House does that, but that sort of thing doesn’t really happen. Or I don’t think it happens so much in Democratic politics, which is where I’ve lived basically the last two years. And also those guys are not gonna f*** with the New York Times like that.

Sarah: Touche. So talk about being ghosted. 

Reid: I understand everybody has a job to do and not everybody wants to be quoted in every story. And if it’s a story that you don’t want any part of, and I call you and you say, ‘you know, I have nothing to say to you or my person doesn’t have anything to say to you and we’re not going to answer any of your questions.’ That to me is an acceptable position. 

Sarah: But why they ghost you is because they’re afraid that it will say, ‘Person A declined to comment for this story.’ Whereas if they don’t get back to you at all, you can’t say they declined to comment.

Reid: I can say that they did not respond to repeated attempts to contact them. Because you’re a critical piece of the story, or if there’s a part of the story that’s about you, I’m going to try to find you. And so, I’m going to email you. I’m going to text you. I’m going to call you. I’m going to call your boss. I’m going to find your boss’s cell phone. You know, I did a story this summer about Lexington, Virginia, which is this little town in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Sarah: Washington and Lee the college is in Lexington!

Reid: Washington and Lee and VMI are both in Lexington. And Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are both buried there. And so it’s this liberal, cute little college town in the mountains with an economy and a history entirely tied to the Confederacy.

And in full disclosure, during the pandemic, my wife and I and our kids rented a house 15 minutes outside of Lexington for July to get out of the city. And we got there and I was like “everything about this town is insane.” Because there’s like yoga shops and artisanal tea places. And the Stonewall Jackson cemetery is across the street. 

And so the city council was having like these six hours Zoom meetings to decide what to do about the Stonewall Jackson cemetery. And so I wrote a story about all the drama in this little town where we spent five weeks. And one piece of the story was the congressman who represents that part of Southwest Virginia. It’s a guy named Ben Cline who’s in his first or second term—I can’t remember—but he’s a backbench Republican without much profile in Washington who I had never heard of before I wrote the story. 

But when the city council voted to take Stonewall Jackson’s name off the cemetery that Stonewall Jackson is buried in, Ben Cline had a little Facebook thing about it. It was a short rant about liberal Lexington and maybe they’ll change the name of the cemetery to a place for dead Democrats or something. It was fully obnoxious. 

And so in writing the story, I wanted to talk to him. And so I emailed his office. I called his office. I tracked down the cell phone number of his chief of staff and his comms director. I looked up his home phone number and left a message there. And one of my colleagues used to cover the Virginia legislature when Cline was a delegate, and he had a number that he thought was a Cline number. And I called it and then suddenly I was talking to Ben Cline’s mother. So I explained to her all the different ways that I had tried to get in touch. And that this number someone had given me for him had turned out to be her. And she said that she would give him the message. And so I called her back a couple days later, and she said “he doesn’t want to talk to you.”

And so I wrote the story. I did not say that Cline’s mother declined to comment. But I did say that Cline and his staff did not respond to phone calls, text messages, emails, etc.

It would have cost them nothing to say, “We’re not going to participate in the story.” It would have saved me a lot of time. And the outcome for them would have roughly been the same.

Sarah: Okay, last question. What fictional journalist do you most admire?

Reid: Let me not answer that question. 

Sarah: Perfect. You’ve learned that skill from the campaign operatives. 

Reid: I’ll do a journalist from 100 years ago instead. So we actually named our dog after Nellie Bly who was really the first famous female newspaper reporter in the United States.

Sarah: She took a lot of risks. She’s a brave woman.

Reid: The thing that really made her famous was she snuck into the insane asylums in New York City. And spent some not insignificant amount of time to write an expose about how terrible the conditions were there, which sort of fell analogous to us adopting a dog into a house with two children.

So her. Because, you know, political reporting is a little … what we do is important but we’re not changing the world by writing about campaign tactics. Right? This is not like my colleagues who are, you know, exposing war criminals or Harvey Weinstein. 

Sarah: Hey now! You’re reading those FEC reports on Sunday. Don’t undersell yourself.

Reid: But the reporters who wrote about the civil rights movement at grave risk to themselves. I think it would be super interesting to talk to people like that whose work product made a significant change to how the country operated. It’s hard to see anything that gets published now doing that, but certainly not, you know, stories about the demise of the Pete Buttigieg campaign.

Photograph by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in northern Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she had worked in every branch of the federal government and on three presidential campaigns. When Sarah is not hosting podcasts or writing newsletters, she’s probably sending uplifting stories about spiders to Jonah, who only pretends to love all animals.