What reporters are saying about the election in private

New York (CNN Business)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.

    In pictures: A tale of two campaigns

    President Donald Trump is applauded by his campaign staff as he visits his campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, on Tuesday, November 3.

    Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, walking arm in arm with his granddaughter Finnegan Biden, visits the grave of his son Beau early on Election Day.

    US Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden's running mate, visits a polling location in Detroit on Election Day. During <a href="https://www.cnn.com/politics/live-news/election-results-and-news-11-03-20/h_a217d48cf5e1cc4bcaf3f5011c183030" target="_blank">her surprise stop,</a> she thanked voters for waiting in line.

    Biden addresses supporters as he arrives with his granddaughters in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on November 3. <a href="https://www.cnn.com/politics/live-news/election-results-and-news-11-03-20/h_93b2e53c857d06cc90e94cdd9d4a83f2" target="_blank">He stopped by his boyhood home,</a> writing on the wall: "From this house to the White House with the Grace of God, Joe Biden November 3rd, 2020."

    Trump arrives at an airport rally in Opa-Locka, Florida, on Monday, November 2.

    Biden talks with singer Lady Gaga before a drive-in rally in Pittsburgh on November 2.

    A bundled-up baby wears a "Make America Great Again" hat at Trump's rally in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on November 2.

    Biden speaks at a drive-in rally in Pittsburgh on November 2.

    Biden supporters hold up a cardboard cutout of Biden and his running mate, US Sen. Kamala Harris, during a drive-in rally in Miami on November 2.

    Trump speaks at a rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on November 2.

    Trump arrives at a rally in Waterford Township, Michigan, on Sunday, November 1.

    Biden supporters attend a drive-in rally in Philadelphia on November 1.

    Trump supporters wait for a rally in Hickory, North Carolina, on November 1.

    Biden pulls down his face mask as he speaks in Philadelphia on November 1.

    Trump's daughter Ivanka reacts on stage during the President's rally in Dubuque, Iowa, on November 1.

    A woman watches Biden speak at a drive-in event in Detroit on Saturday, October 31.

    Former President Barack Obama points to Biden after speaking at a drive-in rally in Flint, Michigan, on October 31.

    Trump tosses out caps as he arrives for a campaign rally in Waterford Township, Michigan, on October 30.

    Nuns react as Trump campaigns in Waterford Township on October 30.

    Biden holds a drive-in rally in St. Paul, Minnesota, on October 30.

    Trump and first lady Melania Trump attend a campaign rally in Tampa, Florida, on Thursday, October 29.

    Biden gestures before speaking at a drive-in event in Coconut Creek, Florida, on October 29.

    Supporters sit atop their cars as Biden speaks in Coconut Creek.

    Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Goodyear, Arizona, on Wednesday, October 28.

    Trump, aboard Air Force One, arrives for a rally in Bullhead City, Arizona, on October 28.

    Biden speaks at a drive-in rally in Atlanta on Tuesday, October 27.

    Melania Trump arrives to speak at an October 27 rally in Atglen, Pennsylvania. <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/27/politics/melania-trump-election-2020-coronavirus/index.html" target="_blank">The event</a> marked her first solo appearance on the campaign trail.

    People listen as Kamala Harris speaks at a campaign event in Las Vegas on October 27.

    Harris speaks at a campaign event in Las Vegas on October 27.

    Trump speaks during a campaign rally at an airport in Lansing, Michigan, on October 27.

    Biden speaks at The Mountain Top Inn & Resort in Warm Springs, Georgia, on October 27.

    Trump tosses hats into the crowd at a campaign rally in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on October 26.

    Marine One lands at an airport in Martinsburg, Pennsylvania, where a Trump rally was taking place on October 26.

    Biden speaks at a voter activation center in Chester, Pennsylvania, on October 26.

    Women watch Biden speak in Chester on October 26.

    Supporters of US President Donald Trump listen to him speak during a campaign rally in Circleville, Ohio, on October 24.

    Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Circleville, Ohio, on October 24.

    Biden delivers remarks at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware, on October 23.

    Vice President Mike Pence walks on stage for a campaign rally in Waterford, Michigan, on October 22.

    Former President Barack Obama speaks at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park as he campaigns for Biden, his former vice president, on October 21.

    Trump addresses supporters at a rally in Erie, Pennsylvania, on October 20.

    Trump throws up his hands as an ad from Biden's campaign was shown at his rally in Erie.

    Biden speaks during a drive-in campaign rally in Durham, North Carolina, on October 18.

    Attendees look on from their vehicles as Biden delivers remarks in Durham.

    Trump dances to the music at the end of a campaign rally in Carson City, Nevada, on October 18.

    Trump supporters attend the campaign rally in Carson City.

    Trump attends services at the International Church of Las Vegas on October 18.

    Biden takes off his hat shortly after boarding his campaign plane in Romulus, Michigan, on October 16.

    Supporters cheer as Trump holds a campaign rally in Macon, Georgia, on October 16.

    Biden speaks at the Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit on October 16.

    Biden sits across from ABC News' George Stephanopoulos before the start of his<a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/15/politics/gallery/trump-biden-dueling-town-halls/index.html" target="_blank"> town hall event</a> in Philadelphia on October 15. Biden and Trump were originally scheduled to meet face to face and take questions from voters in a town-hall setting. Instead, they held <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/15/politics/nbc-abc-dueling-town-halls/index.html" target="_blank">separate town halls.</a> The change came about after Trump was diagnosed with the coronavirus earlier this month. The Commission on Presidential Debates proposed a virtual debate, but Trump refused to take part and Biden went ahead with plans for his own town hall. Trump's campaign later arranged its own town hall — on a different network, during the same hour.

    Trump speaks at his town hall, which was hosted by NBC News' Savannah Guthrie. The event took place at the Perez Art Museum in Miami.

    Biden is seen through the windshield of a car while speaking at a campaign event in Miramar, Florida, on October 13.

    Trump speaks at a campaign rally at an airport in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on October 13.

    Vice President Mike Pence speaks at a campaign rally at Weldall Manufacturing on Tuesday, October 13, in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

    Biden puts on a face mask as he delivers remarks at a voter mobilization event in Cincinnati on October 12.

    Trump tosses face masks to the crowd as he takes the stage for a campaign rally in Sanford, Florida, on October 12.

    Trump, in his first public event since he was diagnosed with Covid-19, gives a <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/10/us/gallery/trump-white-house-event/index.html" target="_blank">campaign-style speech</a> from the balcony of the White House on October 10.

    Biden is reminded by his wife, Jill, to maintain proper social distancing as he speaks to reporters at an airport in Miami on October 5.

    Supporters cheer for Biden as he arrives by train in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, on September 30.

    Biden speaks to union workers after touring an operating engineers training facility in New Alexandria, Pennsylvania, on September 30.

    Trump supporters attend his campaign event at the Harrisburg International Airport in Middletown, Pennsylvania, on September 26.

    People cheer for Trump at a campaign rally at Cecil Airport in Jacksonville, Florida, on September 24.

    People sitting in social-distancing circles are reflected in Biden's sunglasses as he speaks in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 23.

    Biden talks with, from left, NBA player Chris Paul, Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles and Tia Bozzell at a restaurant in Charlotte on September 23.

    White House senior advisers Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are seen with their daughter, Arabella, during the President's campaign rally in Township, Pennsylvania, on September 22.

    Trump supporters hold up signs as he speaks at a campaign rally in Swanton, Ohio, on September 21.

    Shadows are cast on a wall during Trump's campaign rally at the Toledo Express Airport in Swanton, Ohio.

    Trump supporters try to catch a hat during a campaign event in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on September 19.

    Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Fayetteville Regional Airport.

    Biden speaks to reporters before boarding his campaign plane in Duluth, Minnesota, on September 18. Biden toured a carpenter training facility, visited people at a coffee shop downtown and stopped at a fire station.

    President Donald Trump attends a campaign rally in Bemidji, Minnesota, on September 18.

    Biden <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/14/politics/joe-biden-wildfires-climate-crisis/index.html" target="_blank">speaks in Wilmington, Delaware,</a> about climate change and the <a href="http://www.cnn.com/2020/08/14/us/gallery/western-wildfires-2020/index.html" target="_blank">wildfires</a> ravaging areas in the western United States. "Donald Trump's climate denial may not have caused these fires and record floods and record hurricanes, but if he gets a second term, these hellish events will continue to become more common, more devastating and more deadly," Biden said on September 14.

    Trump supporters gather for a rally in Henderson, Nevada, on September 13. It was <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/13/politics/trump-indoor-rally-coronavirus-2020/index.html" target="_blank">Trump's first entirely indoor rally in nearly three months,</a> and thousands of people attended. The Nevada company that hosted the rally will face a <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/14/politics/trump-indoor-rally-fine-corornavirus/index.html" target="_blank">fine of $3,000</a> for violating state coronavirus guidelines banning large gatherings.

    People cheer for Trump as he arrives for a rally at MBS International Airport in Freeland, Michigan, on September 10.

    Trump speaks at his airport rally in Freeland.

    Biden speaks with supporters from a distance after he met with labor leaders in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on September 7.

    Trump arrives to speak at a <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/08/politics/donald-trump-north-carolina-2020-election/index.html" target="_blank">campaign rally in Winston-Salem, North Carolina,</a> on September 8.

    Biden puts his face mask back on after discussing the US economy at an event in Wilmington, Delaware, on September 4.

    Supporters react as Trump delivers a speech September 3 at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/03/politics/trump-biden-coronavirus-mask/index.html" target="_blank">Speaking to a largely maskless crowd,</a> Trump at one point mocked Biden: "Did you ever see a man that likes a mask as much as him?"

    Biden speaks at an event in Pittsburgh on August 31.

    Trump points to his supporters during a rally in Londonderry, New Hampshire, on August 28.

    Trump delivers his <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/27/politics/gop-convention-donald-trump-joe-biden/index.html" target="_blank">presidential nomination acceptance speech</a> at the White House during the <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/24/politics/gallery/republican-convention-2020/index.html" target="_blank">Republican National Convention</a> on August 27. "I stand before you tonight honored by your support, proud of the extraordinary progress we have made together over the last four incredible years, and brimming with confidence in the bright future we will build for America over the next four years," Trump said.

    Trump delivered his convention speech to a group of more than 1,000 people on the South Lawn. The <a href="https://www.cnn.com/politics/live-news/rnc-2020-day-4/h_44941467cd6176a7d4af25d46aaceef3" target="_blank">guests were seated close together,</a> and many did not wear face masks.

    Trump greets the crowd at the White House on August 26 after Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech for the Republican National Convention.

    First lady Melania Trump gives a speech at the White House during the Republican National Convention. "I want to acknowledge the fact that since March, our lives have changed drastically. The invisible enemy Covid-19 swept across our beautiful country and impacted all of us," she said as her husband sat in the front row of an audience that did not appear to be socially distanced.

    Biden and his running mate, US Sen. Kamala Harris, appear before supporters outside the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, during the <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/20/politics/gallery/democratic-convention-2020/index.html" target="_blank">Democratic National Convention</a> on August 20.

    Delaware state Sen. Nicole Poore and her daughter Alexis rally outside the Chase Center during the Democratic National Convention on August 20.

    Members of the media are spread out from one another before Harris' speech during the Democratic National Convention.

    Trump supporters attend a rally in Yuma, Arizona, on August 18. The President delivered a <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/18/politics/donald-trump-yuma-arizona-border-patrol-endorsement/index.html" target="_blank">wide-ranging speech</a> to a crowd with little to no physical distancing.

    Trump speaks at Yuma International Airport on August 18.

    Trump <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/17/politics/donald-trump-campaign-swing/index.html" target="_blank">holds a rally</a> August 17 at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

    Supporters look on as Trump delivers remarks in Oshkosh on August 17.

    Biden speaks July 28 at the William "Hicks" Anderson Community Center in Wilmington, Delaware.

    Biden meets with families who have benefited from the Affordable Care Act during an event in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on June 25.

    Trump arrives for a <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/20/politics/tulsa-rally-trump/index.html" target="_blank">rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma,</a> on June 20. It was his <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/20/politics/gallery/trump-rally-tulsa/index.html" target="_blank">first rally since the Covid-19 pandemic began</a>, with the the indoor venue generating <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/20/politics/donald-trump-rally-tulsa-coronavirus/index.html" target="_blank">concerns about the potential spread of coronavirus.</a>

    Biden meets with small-business owners at Carlette's Hideaway, a restaurant in Yeadon, Pennsylvania, on June 17.

    Biden speaks in Darby, Pennsylvania, on June 17.

    “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.”

    Guests and journalists sit in socially distanced circles as Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in October.
    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.

    President Donald Trump speaks during his final rally of the 2020 campaign
    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.”
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