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Candid Coverage

January 16, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: For network and cable television news divisions…

MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: The battle for the White House…

TERENCE SMITH: …the presidential election season is a high stakes battle for prestige, audience, exposure…

FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Politics in overdrive…

TERENCE SMITH: …and money. CNN, to cite one example, has expanded election coverage and is selling advertising packages that will reap more than $30 million in additional revenue for the network.

CNN CORRESPONDENT: CNN, America’s campaign headquarters…

TERENCE SMITH: This year, competition is more feverish than ever. Television is covering more candidates with more reporters and more cameras.

In the process, the essential nature of this first high-profile test, the Iowa caucuses, may be undergoing some subtle, but significant changes. (Cheers and applause)

After covering the protracted and costly presidential campaign four years ago, the broadcast networks are trying a different approach this time. Here in Iowa they’re using new technology that is changing the way candidates behave on the campaign trail and the way the viewers at home perceive them.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Thanks so much for being here. (speaking to crowd)

TERENCE SMITH: One new wrinkle in this year’s coverage: Small digital cameras that enable one person to shoot and feed video without cumbersome equipment and the cost of a large camera crew.

BYRON PITTS, CBS News: The great value of these small cameras is that it allows you to take intimate looks at candidates in an environment where everything typically is controlled. Everything is about being on message.

TERENCE SMITH: Correspondent Byron Pitts has been covering the Iowa caucuses for CBS News.

BYRON PITTS: These small cameras have allowed us to catch them in what we think are more human moments, when they’re off guard.

TERENCE SMITH: Mini cameras covering Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, for example, caught the Vietnam veteran in a relaxed moment.

CBS EVENING NEWS CORRESPONDENT: The candidate singing along with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame at a Saturday event, when Kerry took a lighthearted, imaginary puff.

TERENCE SMITH: While the Kerry campaign did not formally ask CBS News not to use the video…

BYRON PITTS: They certainly asked, “Are you sure you have to use it because we’re not sure we want that image out.” It’s something he probably wouldn’t have done if a major network camera had been there.

TERENCE SMITH: Steve Chaggaris, who shot the video for CBS News, says Kerry has been largely tolerant of the mini-cam intrusions.

STEVE CHAGGARIS: He doesn’t like you taking pictures of him eating, so I think that’s the only time when we’ve encountered … you know, not tension, but, you know, a time where I think that he wants his privacy.

TERENCE SMITH: Beyond the evening and morning network news broadcasts, the mini-camera video feeds the endless appetite of 24-hour-a-day cable and the Internet.

BECKY DIAMOND, MSNBC video journalist: He was singing along for a 40-minute drive. He wasn’t tired at all. Can the guy sing? Well, I think politics is a better career for him.

TERENCE SMITH: MSNBC video journalist Becky Diamond says this new kind of coverage suits a new demographic.

BECKY DIAMOND: I think in this generation, the MTV generation, “Survivor,” these reality shows, cable needs to compete, and this enables them to do that.

TERENCE SMITH: NBC calls its young video journalists “embeds,” as in embedded reporters, just as it did when reporters were placed with military units during the Iraq war.

ELIZABETH WILNER, NBC News political director: Are we talking about credentials?

TERENCE SMITH: NBC News political director Elizabeth Wilner says MSNBC is determined to provide blanket coverage.

ELIZABETH WILNER: The war came to something of a close, and MSNBC looked ahead at the campaign and thought, this is the next big story, and we want to cover it the way we’ve covered the war, and we want to have as many people out there as we had during the war. We want to give people really a taste and a feel of what this thing is like.

TERENCE SMITH: The less-intrusive mini-cams often provide a candid glimpse of a candidate’s personality, or at least his body language.

HOWARD DEAN: Seems to me, maybe I was right and they were wrong? (Applause)

TERENCE SMITH: But CNN’s veteran political correspondent Candy Crowley questions the value of such non-stop television coverage.

CANDY CROWLEY: The candidate’s … real moments are no longer real moments. I mean, if a camera’s on you all the time, you don’t get real moments. I don’t know whether 24/7 gives us much more insight than before.

TERENCE SMITH: With a bumper crop of Democratic candidates traversing Iowa…

GROUP: Dennis Kucinich speaks the truth to every man, woman, elder and youth!

TERENCE SMITH: …television has come up with another technological innovation. This one blends a traditional campaign tool, the bus, with 21st century broadcast equipment.

CNN STAFFERS: Dean winds up in Des Moines. But the Chicago truck is going to be tied to … tethered to the bus.

TERENCE SMITH: CNN and ABC News have outfitted buses as mobile studios. This one was once used by a member of the singing group the Dixie Chicks. Instead of setting up expensive technical operations along the campaign trail, ABC News uses this bus to conduct interviews, take in and feed video, edit and produce stories.

ABC NEWS STAFFER: After “Good Morning America,” they’re supposed to e-mail us the “Politics Live” Internet show. So we’re going to be listening to Iowans.

TERENCE SMITH: ABC News political director Mark Halperin says the volume of their coverage on television, radio and the Internet has already increased because of the buses.

MARK HALPERIN: We’re doing network work here, we’re doing affiliate work here, we’re doing … I’m doing an interview with Japanese TV from the bus. All of that can be done from one place rather than having to rent things and build things and move equipment around one by one.

TERENCE SMITH: Halperin also maintains that the buses, expensive as they are, will be cost-effective.

MARK HALPERIN: Probably by the end of New Hampshire, it will already have saved us money.

TERENCE SMITH: It is also a promotional vehicle for ABC News.

MARK HALPERIN: It is, because people are going to see the buses.

TERENCE SMITH: Congressman Richard Gephardt has been this way before, campaigning in the 1988 Iowa caucuses.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: …Caucus for me?

TERENCE SMITH: He says today’s media coverage is different.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: It’s more intense.

TERENCE SMITH: I noticed inside there an absolute scrum of reporters around you as you were giving a little news conference afterwards.

CAMERAMAN: Let her out. We’ll swap out…

TERENCE SMITH: Does it ever get in the way?

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: It is bothersome because you can’t even get to the voter to shake their hand and talk to him and ask him to come to the caucus for you, which is what you’re out here trying to get him to do.

TERENCE SMITH: Gephardt says the new technology allows even smaller stations to hook up for live broadcasts from almost anywhere, meaning better campaign coverage in Iowa and the nation.

But there may be a chilling effect on the way candidates conduct themselves.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you ever tend of forget that the camera is on you?

REP. DICK GEPHARDT: No. I’ve kind of gotten to the point where I know that we’re probably … everything’s being recorded, and that’s just the nature of modern-day politics.

TERENCE SMITH: And modern-day politics has become a contact sport.

HOWARD DEAN: Look, we’re happy to talk with you. This is not exactly the right place to do it. (Speaking to a press gaggle)

REPORTER: People have told us that you’re…

CAMERA PERSON: People are getting hit.

TERENCE SMITH: CNN’s Crowley says television’s new intrusive style of coverage…

PRESS ADVANCE STAFFER FOR REP. GEPHARDT: He’s popping in to make a quick phone call.

TERENCE SMITH: …may actually endanger the intimacy of Iowa’s caucuses, especially given the large field of candidates.

CANDY CROWLEY: I don’t know whether it is the function of there being so many of us or there being so many of them. I’m not sure we know coming into this who these people are.

TERENCE SMITH: All of which leaves unanswered a related question: Is more coverage necessarily better coverage?

GROUP CHANTING: J.K. all the way! J.K. all the way! J.K. all the way! J.K. all the way!