Talking to beat reporters who spent months covering the campaigns of President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden is like hearing about journeys to two completely different planets.
On planet Biden, the coronavirus pandemic affected almost every decision and meant the candidate was at a physical distance from the press corps. On planet Trump, the pandemic was downplayed and reporters were sometimes ridiculed for wearing masks and taking the risk seriously.
Reporters on both beats called the experience “surreal.”
In 2016, CNN Business surveyed a group of reporters who spent the most time on the trail with Trump and Hillary Clinton. We granted them anonymity to gain the most candid insights possible.
In 2020, the virus upended traditional “campaign trail” coverage, but there were still dedicated teams of beat reporters assigned to each candidate in the general election. So we spoke with a dozen people who covered Trump and Biden for TV networks, websites and other forms of media. Some worked from home for much of the year while others filed stories from the White House and Biden’s home base in Wilmington, Delaware. Relatively small groups traveled with the candidates on campaign stops.
“It was just a weird year because we were on the road so much less, and not really traveling on a campaign plane,” one White House reporter said.
As in 2016, Trump’s campaign was defined by his rallies, which were mostly held outdoors this fall due to the virus.
One journalist who was on the road for weeks said Trump “used his campaign rallies to drown out the din of a country on edge, instead listening to cries of adulation, however divorced from reality they may have been.”
And, as in 2016, Trump made media-bashing one of his signatures. “By the end of the trail, large men were yelling at me to go away, and leave their president alone,” a female reporter said.
Biden’s arm’s length campaign
On trips with Biden, there were far fewer supporters, and they generally didn’t heckle the press corps. The campaign made a conscious decision to respect the coronavirus — a visible contrast to the Trump camp’s attitude.
“The lasting image of this campaign,” one Biden beat reporter said, are “those empty summer Biden events where a dozen reporters sat in those plastic circles in empty rooms and watched Biden pretend to deliver speeches to big crowds. It was surreal — especially when he and Kamala Harris did their first event together and were waving to a nonexistent crowd.”
A veteran political reporter called it an “arm’s length campaign” in more ways than one. All campaign season long, members of the media grumbled that Biden wasn’t more accessible. Trump and his surrogates claimed that Biden was hiding from the press and the public.
“It left us without the ability to get more and deeper answers on much of what he would do as president, or his responses to events as they unfolded,” the veteran reporter said. “The Biden campaign was able to keep control of the candidate and its narrative in a way that would never have been possible or tolerated otherwise, to their clear political advantage.”
But the upside, this reporter said, was that because they were at a literal arm’s length, no one felt threatened by Covid-19 the way some Trump beat reporters did.
“It’s shocking, really, that this was distinct, but the Biden campaign should be commended [for] the steps it took to protect the health of everyone on staff, among supporters and among reporters,” the reporter said.
Multiple Trump beat reporters, on the other hand, likened the final stretch of his campaign to a coronavirus super-spreader tour.
Good faith coverage of bad faith actors
All of the Trump reporters we surveyed brought up the president’s dishonesty and his campaign’s penchant for disinformation.
One reporter described “the challenge of being fair and diligent while also capturing the absurd and abnormal nature of this campaign,” like “dealing with Trump sources in good faith but while publicly calling out some of the un-democratic things this White House and campaign have done.”
The White House reporter argued that “the complete lack of credibility from Trump world,” evidenced by the first term of the Trump administration, “ended up really hurting them this year.”
“When you have a president who lies constantly and is abetted by staffers so shamelessly, you wind up devaluing the information you’re receiving from the campaign manager and other top aides on their near daily conference calls. You just don’t take it seriously,” they said.
Trump beat reporters came to expect daily anti-Biden trolling by the campaign, followed by complaints from aides about why the media wasn’t playing along.
“It’s hard to tell a source, ‘You guys are full of sh*t, so no one’s interested,’ but that was more or less the situation,” the White House reporter added.
Journalists who covered both the 2016 and 2020 races were struck by the pervasiveness of misinformation this time around. “In 2020,” one fixture at Trump’s rallies said, “supporters of the president told me confidently that JFK Jr. was joining Trump’s ticket, that Joe Biden was ‘getting a shot in the ass’ ahead of each debate, that Kamala Harris ‘MeToo’d’ Joe Biden in the primary, and that wind turbines were killing the nation’s bird population at unprecedented rates. None of this was true.”
“Whether Trump wins or loses,” this reporter added, “there’s still a lot of work to be done to remedy the mistrust he’s sown in media.”
How important is the physical campaign trail?
Hard as it is to remember now, there was a Democratic primary campaign before the virus reached American shores.
A reporter who was with Biden during the primaries said, “Early on people seemed to think the Biden campaign was the boring one to cover — but I feel like there was always something fun to push him on. Like: What his place was in this incredibly diverse field of candidates, and how he was handling the conspiracy theories about his son, and whether or not he called some guy ‘fat’ in Iowa one time.”
Several Biden reporters pointed out that the campaign held tight to a strategy that shrugged off daily Twitter-sized controversies and focused on big themes instead.
“Biden’s campaign got lucky with a lot of things, but the smartest and most important choice they made was to confidently ignore the second guessing and Woke Olympics aspects of the Twitterverse,” one Twitter-hating reporter said. “They stuck to their initial broad ‘Soul of the Nation’ message aimed at older, more moderate, and less-online voters. That’s how they won the primary. And I can think of dozens of moments Twitter collectively decided were major game-changers, but voters almost entirely ignored.”
Another member of the Biden press corps said the Democratic campaign was so low-key — and almost invisible on days without public events by the candidate — that assignment editors didn’t know how to frame the daily story of the campaign.
“Biden’s careful and light campaign schedule makes me wonder whether the thing we all focus our coverage on — the actual campaigning — is mostly irrelevant to presidential campaigns,” the reporter said. “Voters made their choice based on big dynamics that didn’t change much, namely a pandemic and recession, and rallies weren’t going to affect many votes.”