Quid Pro Quo: The Press and Politicians

    Christina Aushana/Guardian

    I first learned the rules of Washington while studying American government in high school. One book, required reading for the class, taught me more about our political system and the media than any class I’ve taken before or since, and it still stands smartly on my bookshelf. What I didn’t know when I read the book six years ago was that I would one day intern for its author, personally learning the ins and outs of Washington from a veteran in the political game.

    The book was called “Hardball,” and its author is Chris Matthews. The rules inscribed in the book break down national politics in no-nonsense logic, and most are easy to memorize — if hard to exercise: it’s not who you know, but who you get to know; don’t get mad, don’t get even, get ahead; and only talk when it improves the silence. Secrets and schemes are peppered throughout the text, and I’m sure if there had been an interesting lesson to be learned from a sexual escapade, even that account would have been used. Unfortunately, the book was originally published before the Lewinsky scandal.

    Matthews now has his own show, also called “Hardball,” on MSNBC, and his mantras and methodology still intrigue me, aspiring political journalist that I am. So when I applied to intern at the National Broadcasting Company in Washington, I hoped that my cover letter and resume might land on his desk, giving me the chance to play the game of hardball myself.

    Fortunately, and after practically working as a slave for the Guardian at all odd hours of the week for most of last year, I was able to build off that experience and my career — as an unpaid intern for the show. And let me say, watching the game on a broadcast is a lot different from watching it in the home team’s dugout.

    The first day I walked into the “Hardball” office, I immediately noticed the full-size cutouts of Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain plastered on an office window, standing so close to one another I’d swore they were best friends. Every day, the two oversee handfuls of national magazines and newspapers that are delivered and stacked neatly for the researchers, producers, guests and anchors to easily peruse. Television monitors are stationed at every desk, where live political coverage from all the NBC channels — NBC, CNBC, MSNBC and the local affiliates — streams through the room like a lifeline. Computers are connected to the wire service, which updates every few seconds with breaking news from all over the country, categorized thoroughly by topic.

    I knew that the industry was fast paced from my time at the Guardian, but this was a whole different league. There’s a lot of preparation involved for an hour of television, but just as much improvisation. Here, if you don’t hit the ground running, you’ll get caught with your pants down, and unlike former President Bill Clinton, you won’t be able to get out of it.

    I thought I was used to this pace by the time I introduced myself to our host. So when he walked over to my desk and asked me what I was doing, I knew that he wasn’t interested in what was on my computer screen. I was ready to prove myself. Looking up at him with a half-smile and a furrowed brow, I asked, “What would you like me to do?” He paused for less than a second before stating, “Good attitude. I like that. Can you get me a large coffee?” Needless to say I was promptly put back in my place, lesson learned: I’m still just a benchwarmer.

    My tasks throughout the day put me in direct contact with the producers and guests as I assist in researching the latest news and numbers coming from the White House, the Capitol or the campaign trail. I run tape feeds to “30 Rock,” the office in New York, and coordinate guest lists in time for the 5 p.m. edition of “Hardball.” I’ve already met most of the NBC anchors and correspondents, like Andrea Mitchell, Norah O’ Donnell, David Shuster and Chuck Todd, as well as the show regulars who come in the form of strategists, historians and journalists — people like Todd Harris, Steve McMahon, Howard Fineman and Joan Walsh. I’ve even had the chance to meet a few politicians, notably Rep. Brian Bilbray from San Diego who asked me how often I visit Black’s Beach and seemed unsurprised when I informed him that it was a nude beach. “Not legally, of course. I never passed legislation on that,” he told me with a wink.

    It was surreal to watch this same seemingly friendly and engaging congressman walk briskly into the studio, where two minutes later his face filled my monitor and quickly turned shades of red as he and the anchor battled it out over the nature of the financial rescue package and how it would impact the economy.

    But that’s the catch when it comes to the media and politicians: they make up a balanced coexistence that is neither appreciative nor pretty. My favorite rule from my well-worn “Hardball” text was one that Richard Nixon articulated from experience: “The press is the enemy.” Most politicians and public figures are either immediately wary of the press and keep their distance or else they learn to do so the hard way.

    However, my time at “Hardball” has proven that the relationship between politicians and the press is much more intricate. Sure, politicians hate the media and, for the most part, the media hates them back. The producers of the show groaned when they discovered that the secretary of treasury scheduled an evening press conference without warning, because it meant they needed to pull strings to get more coverage of whatever it was he needed to say. “Does he have to wait until the last minute to give this conference? What’s the holdup?” our host demanded. Although Secretary Henry Paulson probably didn’t mean to ruin the early start of the weekend for our staff, he needed the media there to cover his speech. He might have earned more brownie points with the media if he had done it a little earlier.

    Local and national politicians face the same dilemma when it comes to the media, but if they know how to work the situation, it doesn’t have to be painful. The Obama or the McCain campaigns might have their gripes about the MSNBC coverage of the day, but their numbers are on speed dial and they send spokespeople to the studio every chance they get. The McCain campaign has already complained about the unfair line of questioning and biased filter that the “liberal media” uses against Gov. Sarah Palin. And on “Saturday Night Live,” Tina Fey’s flawless impersonation of the vice presidential candidate probably isn’t helping her public image, but it’s getting coverage. Palin is already booked to appear alongside her television persona for an episode of SNL just a few weeks before the election, because in the end, she needs the coverage as much as Fey needs her to say ridiculous things — proving yet another lesson found in “Hardball”: politics make strange bedfellows.

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