On the Road With the ‘Embeds’

Oct 6, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Nobody has to ask how closely Felix Schein, MSNBC’s reporter assigned to the presidential campaign of Howard Dean, is following his subject. For about two weeks, if you saw Mr. Dean, you saw Mr. Schein.
He appeared twice during George Stephanopoulos’ on-location interview with Gov. Dean on ABC’s “This Week” and once during HBO’s “K Street” debut.
Mr. Schein is not the only highly visible “embedded” reporter. They’re showing up all over the place, from magazine pictures to blogs dedicated to their candidates.
“I think the embeds are getting a lot of attention,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, NBC News executive producer of specials and “Decision 2004” coverage. “The campaigns … recognize that these are people who are interested in their story, whose total effort is to tell the story of that campaign, both the good and the bad, but they’re fair and they’re smart and they’re enthusiastic. And they have airtime. And that matters.”
TelevisionWeek wanted to know about the nearly nonstop lives of NBC News’ “campaign embeds,” who were fielded in late summer with a full array of portable, albeit heavy, equipment and orders to file early and often about their candidates on MSNBC, MSNBC.com and NBC’s daily political briefing “First Read,” and for NBC News correspondents. What follows are excerpts from accounts of their travels with politicians by eight of the 10 embeds. (Marisa Buchanan, covering Carol Moseley Braun, was reassigned to retired Gen. Wesley Clark and was replaced by Angela Miles.)
From Felix Schein, covering former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean:
The road routine: If I have eaten anything that doesn’t come between two pieces of bread and consist of some type of meat, I can’t recall what it was. People tell stories of soldiers who fall asleep anytime they stop moving while at war. I understand that now. Never has a Delta seat felt so soft and so wide or a minivan so luxurious. You forget about jet lag. You’re never in one place long enough to make it worthwhile.
The equipment: The most important equipment is on your body: your shoes and pants and shirts. Being comfortable is essential.
The highs and lows: Reporting live gives you an extra boost of energy and a greater sense of responsibility. Knowing others are competing with you only adds to the adrenaline.
If you are a male wearing TV makeup, it does attract random stares and starts conversation.
My grandparents, who live in Europe, have seen me on television there and friends have started to call after seeing me on TV. That is truly thrilling.
An unofficial campaign Web site has labeled me The Snitch. I am honored.
From Sophie Conover, covering Sen. Bob Graham:
The road routine: The day begins when you get up and ends when you get into bed. Time zones are a nightmare. There’s no way to keep diet or exercise routines even close to intact.
Every time I go through security I get stopped for a special security screening since I almost always am booking one-way tickets, often less than a day in advance. I went through this type of screening next to one of Sen. Graham’s press secretaries. It certainly broke the ice.
The equipment: I carry a laptop, a camera, a tripod, various camera and computer accessories, lots of electrical cords, tape stock, batteries, a tape recorder, cellphones, pager. The only items I covet are female print reporters’ high heels.
The highs and lows: My fiance and I have postponed our wedding until we know what happens with Sen. Graham’s campaign. Mrs. Graham teased the senator about how I was yet another person who was putting her life on hold for him.
From Becky Diamond, covering Sen. John Kerry:
The road routine: I’ve covered wars in Iraq, the West Bank/Gaza Strip, Southern Sudan and the rebuilding of Bosnia and Kosovo-all as a one-woman band. I always work alone, shooting, editing, reporting and producing. This is more intense. I’m so tired at the end of every day that I fall asleep in my clothes with the television still on. I am an avid rock climber. To stay in shape I do pull-ups on the hotel room doorframe.
The equipment: Every time I turn on my Sony PD-150 video camera with my wide-angle lens and extra-sensitive shotgun microphone, I smile. My wireless microphone is very moody. I often end up using only my shotgun. I’m schlepping about 20 pounds of gear to every event. It can be draining, but you need it all. I have to arrive an hour and a half early to the airport because I get selected for that special screening every single time.
The highs and lows: The love of my life is a fighter pilot for the U.S. Marine Corp stationed in Scotland. He’s very politically savvy and opinionated. He challenges me to think critically. I am smarter because of him.
From Tom Llamas, covering the Rev. Al Sharpton:
The road routine: I was up for 30 hours during our launch week. I read somewhere that if you nap with your legs up (on a pillow) your body thinks you’ve slept longer. It doesn’t work. I take a pair of khaki pants and three to four dress shirts with me. I also take a sports jacket. Socks and items like that I wash at the hotel. I eat when I can and drink lots of caffeine. I make friends with anyone who works at my hotel because you inevitably need their help.
The equipment: I carry two bags. One holds my camera, tapes and related equipment. The other carries my laptop, my clothes and has an attachment for my tripod. That bag is a real lifesaver. I found it in a surf-and-skate shop. It’s really designed for a traveling skateboarder.
The highs and lows: The first Sharpton event I covered was in a very small town, Sycamore, S.C. The Rev. Mr. Sharpton was preaching, singing and dancing. Add incredible gospel music and it was a great way to start.
The first time I appeared on TV my mom got a call from the mother of my third-grade girlfriend. She didn’t recognize me, but she recognized the name. My girlfriend is very supportive. She’s a journalist and knows this is a great opportunity.
From Karin Caifa, covering Rep. Dennis Kucinich:
The road routine: I never get to bed earlier than 2 a.m. I’m usually up at 6 every morning to go through the papers (I read five a day) and watch the morning news (national and local wherever I am). The in-room coffeepot is a must, and God forbid Starbucks is more than two blocks away.
I am a clotheshorse. Of course, you have to have the shoes to match. This has been an exercise in minimalism and restraint. I keep it to one rolling carry-on suitcase and my camera bag. I won’t check anything anymore since I almost ended up sans clean clothes and makeup before a day full in Cleveland.
During and after the blackout, I worked about 48 hours straight on nothing but catnaps and coffee. I ordered about five dishes from the Olive Garden plus dessert, drinks. The whole nine yards. They came to the hotel with two shopping bags of food and flatware for five people. The delivery woman looked at me like, “There’s no way she’s going to eat all of that herself.” But I did!
The highs and lows: At the Baltimore debate I got a hot tip that another campaign paid volunteers to make their supporters look more diverse. I ran out the door with my camera and starting poking around in the mud and in garbage cans to find the fliers the campaign allegedly handed out to these folks. At the time I felt like Woodward and Bernstein. Now I’m like, OK, that was kind of gross.
From Dugald McConnell, covering Sen. John Edwards:
The road routine: If the desk tells you you’re live at 11:30, a time-zone miscalculation could be a real disaster. I wear two watches on the trail-one on local time, one on New York time. Some people can do the math in their head; I know better than to try. I’ve been living out of a car or out of a suitcase since Aug. 31. I bought a car a few weeks ago for this job and drove it unregistered until a few days ago when I got North Carolina plates.
The equipment: I’m learning how to use the time in the press van to review my tapes, cue them up and transcribe the best quotes. On the plane, I’ve done video editing on my approved electronic devi
ce, but the laptop battery only lasts so long.

The other day, a “Hardball” producer asked for a clip of what Sen. Edwards had just said. I found the nearest Starbucks. I fed the tape to MSNBC out of my laptop using a HotSpot high-speed wireless link, and they had it in less than 30 minutes.
The highs and lows: There’s a pecking order of which journalists the campaign will call first, and as an embed I’m not at the top. But it’s an even competition between some star reporter covering the candidates from Washington and a full-timer like me who, as often as not, is with the candidate when news breaks.
From Dionne Scott, covering Sen. Joe Lieberman:
The road routine: I’m a vegetarian who eats fish. In Iowa I went a whole day without eating (which is the norm). By the time food was actually in my future, my body was screaming, “Gimme me some protein, girl!” So I had a huge steak. It was gooood.
The other press has been extremely helpful, especially the camera operators. They’ve helped me figure out my equipment or saved me a spot or allowed me to move in front of them-I’m kind of short-to shoot Sen. Lieberman and even [“K Street” producer] George Clooney. One of the press secretaries has taken to calling me “Madam Embed.”
The equipment: I stopped carrying the extremely heavy camera tripod. It was hard to check the thing at the airport and it was plastering bruises on my arms and legs.
The highs and lows: I went to a debate-watch party to talk to people in New Mexico. I finished up there around 11 p.m. or midnight, caught a cab to pick up my rental car, got lost trying to find my hotel and then realized I had left my notebook with names, quotes and numbers in it somewhere. I retraced my steps and found it.
From Priya David, covering Rep. Dick Gephardt:
The road routine: Before you go to bed you write up notes, send in reports, feed video, make sure phones and camera batteries are all charging, then get under the covers of a new bed and make sure you’ve got at least two alarms set for the morning. You’re exhausted, physically and mentally, so you desperately want sleep; but you keep running down mental checklists to make sure everything’s done. You’re trying to forget that the room is freezing and you can’t seem to adjust the thermostat, that you didn’t send a present for your cousin’s wedding, that you have to get up extra early to do your hair and makeup and read the morning papers before your shoot.
I talked to my mom on the phone the other day and she asked, “Where are you?” I had to scramble for some hotel stationery to remember that I was in Albuquerque.
I lost 5 pounds my first week il because I never had time to eat. When I sit down to eat, pretty much everything tastes good.
The equipment: The cameras are fantastic. They’re solid but not terribly heavy, and they produce great images. The computers are tough. They’re made to store up to three hours of video, and they have a large screen so we can watch our video, but they’re very heavy and cumbersome. I carry 25 to 30 pounds on my back, plus a small, jammed-tight, wheeled suitcase that probably weighs another 40 pounds. I ran 3 miles regularly before I got this job, but this is a tougher workout.
The highs and lows: We were all together as a group in the field for the first time at the first debate, and we kept talking about what our candidates were saying and how they acted. Sen. Gephardt coined his phrase that President Bush is “a miserable failure” during that debate and was all fired up, which was new for him and made for some very exciting discussions.

I’ve had e-mail from people I haven’t heard from in ages who ask, “Did I just see you on MSNBC?” or say, “My folks said they saw you on TV,” and I have one aunt who now introduces me by saying, “This is my niece, Priya. She’s on TV. Have you seen her?” I’ve also started getting requests for my autograph, which feels bizarre.