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Politics, ‘The Circus,’ and the perils of access reporting

“The Circus,” is access journalism at it’s highest level, but it also highlights and age-old dilemma for journalists. 

Mark Halperin and John Heilemann host the new Showtime series “The Circus.”
Bloomberg Media

Last month, I had ​a tough time finding local business writers​ who had seen the Oscar­-nominated moving, “The Big Short.” My luck is now even worse. None of the local political reporters and analysts I contacted have seen the new Showtime series, “The Circus,” a loose­-but-­savvy rolling documentary of this year’s presidential campaign, featuring Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, authors of the twin best­sellers “Game Change” (about the 2008 race) and “Double Down” (2012).

They’re missing something. “The Circus” is crack-­laced catnip for political junkies. As they’ve proven with their books and their (relatively) new Bloomberg TV show, “With All Due Respect,” no one right now is doing access journalism on the presidential trail like Heilemann and Halperin.

Likewise, no one is quite maximizing their assets and brand like those two guys. I say that because, “The Circus,” (new episodes air Sunday nights through November), is at its essence, a video­-recorded log of them reporting for the inevitable book they’re writing on the 2016 campaign. At 28 minutes a week — with cameras following Halperin, Heilemann, as well as veteran Republican strategist Mark McKinnon — we get to witness the protagonists’ chummy interactions with candidates we only normally see as caricatures.

Here’s Chris Christie in an elevator and having coffee in the lobby of distinctly middle­-class hotel. Then it’s Bernie Sanders and the seemingly guileless missus in their hotel room talking about their grandkids. Or Marco Rubio on his bus interrupting them to joke with Jimmy Fallon’s people. Then Ted Cruz and Rick Perry firing up the fervently faithful in … a barely­-heated horse stable.

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Occasionally there’s also some waving or shouting questions at Bill and Hillary Clinton. (Access to the Clintons is obviously a much tougher nut to crack. Not much kicking back with Hillary thus far. But then neither Bill or Hillary could have been pleased with how they came off in “Game Change.”)

It’s irresistible stuff, especially if a behind-­the-­curtain view of these messaged-­up and heavily marketed characters is what floats your boat. And the two leads, Heilemann and Halperin, are the real deal when it comes to knowing the political game and doing their homework. They live and breathe this shtick. It is truly impressive to watch them pepper candidates, campaign staffers and fellow pundits with a ceaseless barrage of questions on tactics and assumptions, never searching for what to ask next.

The “but” here is that “The Circus” is, as it unabashedly advertises itself, access journalism at its highest level, or certainly its most theatrical. As a result, the “accountability” side of the journalism game is not a muscle group Halperin and Heilemann end up exercising nearly as much. The mission is to stay close and chronicle the spectacle: what strategy each team is playing; how well it’s working; what they’ll have to do to stay on the field another week. It’s transactional stuff. It is not meant to inform viewers on who is trading in flagrant BS, gross distortion and/or nausea-inducing demagoguery. And it doesn’t.

As such, it highlights and age-old dilemma for journalists, political or otherwise: balancing access vs. accountability. Overplay the latter and you and your employer may get cut out of the former. Which is why mainstream beat reporting ­on politics (and sports), among others, puts a premium on access. You are of little to no use to anyone if the primary subjects on your beat won’t talk to you.

Many organizations apply a two­-track approach. Umbilically­-connected beat reporting plus an accountability function, whether it’s an editorial page, a columnist, or a (preferably sage) commentator who makes clear to readers and viewers what is and isn’t true, what is fair and what is foul. But not every news organization has that luxury, or chooses to invest in it.

With that in mind — and with a lot of sympathy for their predicament — I asked a handful of seasoned political reporters (who hadn’t yet seen “The Circus”) what tactics they’ve developed over the year to counter politicians steadfastly ignoring questions and hewing to (news-­free) messaging?

Brian Bakst, MPR​: “I just keep pressing. I’m not afraid to ask the same question repeatedly and tell them they’re not answering. Other times, I play dumb. ‘I’m dense and I don’t get it, can you explain to me how that makes sense or how it jives with something you’ve said before?’”

Patrick Condon, Star Tribune:​ “It’s certainly a common occurrence. But my response is largely situational. Sometimes you know another politician or official in a similar position of authority who will give you a more honest assessment. Sometimes thanks to a combination of reporting/sourcing as well as your own knowledge, you can write with authority in a way that allows you to call out the talking points or at least elaborate on the situation.”

Rachel Stassen-­Berger, Pioneer Press: “While I’m not always successful at getting politicians off message ​(case in point)​, I try to ask questions for which they do not have pat answers, tell them I know their pat answers and ask them to go beyond those and work with politicians to get more informative information. I also work multiple sources and do research to get beyond talking points. Last, if a politician has been given enough opportunity to answer a question and still has not, I let the readers know it.”

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Pat Kessler, WCCO­-TV:​ “I don’t have a particular tactic or strategy. But I have long­standing relationships with most of the people I cover. Many long before they were candidates. We talk regularly. So when I get them on camera and can’t shake them out of their talking points, I interrupt. Not in an impolite way, but just as you and I would having a conversation. If that doesn’t work, I keep shifting until I get something I can use, something newsworthy. And, I’ll tell you, there have been times I’ve just shut down the interview. TV is kind of one­-dimensional. It’s very direct. It’s there or it’s not. So I’m not a believer in ‘letting the viewer decide.’ That’s one reason we started ‘Reality Check.’”

Larry Jacobs, who’s the director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota is not a reporter, but he is a practiced hand at trying to get substance out of conversations with politicians. His strategy: “Ask specific questions. At a recent forum with the GOP candidates in the 2nd Congressional District, I asked: ‘You say you want to cut spending; which specific programs will you cut​?’ … ‘Would you cut the three that account for [two­-thirds] of spending?”

I followed up, asking Jacobs, who often conducts interviews of politicians in public forums, if he ever resorts to signs of exasperation? “Yeah, I’ve done that, but you end up becoming the story: ‘Oh he’s being obnoxious.’ After I ask two questions and get two evasions, I’ve come to trust folks to get it. Evasion and double-­talk (e.g. ‘Let’s cut spending’ but, ‘No, I won’t cut the big popular programs’) is an obvious one. Once in awhile, I’ll make a joke of it ­ smile and look out at the audience with a, ‘I tried.’”