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Photo by Jay Paul
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Photo courtesy of CNN
Hamby on the 2012 campaign trail, broadcasting from Tampa with Mark Preston, CNN's executive editor for politics
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Photo by Jay Paul
Hamby in CNN's D.C. newsroom
After Republican contenders Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman and then Rick Perry all dropped out of the running for the presidential nomination in 2012, with CNN’s Peter Hamby breaking the news in each case — one, two, three — someone took to calling him the Black Widow.
“The Rick Perry one was cool because I got it from someone nobody was talking to,” recalls Hamby, who also broke the story about Sarah Palin’s resignation as governor of Alaska.
National political reporters like the 33-year-old Hamby get pegged with the label “pack journalists,” and it’s true in a way — they do tend to travel together, following the candidates. It’s not easy to break news in such an environment, but Hamby has managed to do it several times. In April, he was named national political reporter for CNN Digital, a branch of the news network that focuses first on the Web but also extends to TV coverage. In September, he started filming weekly videos for his Hambycast, a light-hearted monitor of the nation’s political temperature.
A Richmond native who attended Douglas Freeman High School’s leadership center, the freckled, auburn-haired Hamby started at CNN’s Washington bureau in 2005 as a recent graduate of New York University’s journalism school. The network often hires young graduates, who learn about filming, producing, reporting and editing. The good ones move up.
Hamby’s first job was as a producer of the brand-new Situation Room, Wolf Blitzer’s evening news program. In 2007, he was one of several reporters sent to political battleground states for six months, assessing which direction the states might go in the presidential primaries; Hamby was assigned to South Carolina.
“He got to know everybody, what motivates them, what makes them tick,” says Sam Feist, CNN’s D.C. bureau chief and Hamby’s boss. “One of the things that Peter has done is that he covers national politics from the local level — what drives the story, what drives the players.”
But to understand Hamby’s continued love affair with U.S. politics, let’s go back to 2008, when we still didn’t know if Hillary or Barack would win the Democratic nomination, or who the heck Sarah Palin was.
Hamby was assigned to the planes and buses as an “embed” for CNN, backing up the guys on TV in Washington and New York. He spent time covering Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney, and he ultimately rode along with John McCain and Sarah Palin.
Campaign embeds hear the stump speech over and over again, log thousands of miles on the road and eat all manner of junk food. And that’s what Hamby did, relaying minute-by-minute details to the newsroom and becoming an encyclopedia of campaign ephemera. Embeds usually don’t go on air, and most of them are young, with no family responsibilities. The jobs can lead to bigger, more prestigious careers for those who do well, so they’re highly coveted. Among the ranks of former embeds are Time’s Mark Halperin, and Alexandra Pelosi, film documentarian and daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
“For an ambitious 20-something willing to sacrifice his or her personal life for a year or longer — and risk gaining a few pounds along the way — it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Hamby wrote in a 2013 study of presidential campaign coverage.
But the job has gotten progressively harder in the past two decades, with technological advances creating more demand for content, and campaigns allowing progressively less access to candidates. Sometimes the campaign staffers are openly hostile to reporters.
Gone are the days in 2000 when John McCain would treat the press to personal yarns on the campaign bus, staying so long that his staff would come get him. In 2007, when Hamby rode along with the candidate through South Carolina’s Lowcountry, McCain was less candid because of the influence of YouTube and the Drudge Report, Hamby says. The next year, things went even further downhill.
“McCain, by that point, had gotten kind of mean,” says Sridhar Pappu, who covered the Obama and McCain campaigns for the Washington Independent. Part of the tension was caused by an underfunded, disorganized campaign, making it harder for reporters to cover and leaving campaign staffers stretched thin. McCain didn’t have an official press secretary, and Palin’s selection for the ticket came very late in the game, heralded by a chorus of buzzing BlackBerries, Pappu recalls.
Pappu shuttled between both campaigns and often needed to catch up on news from the embedded reporters. “They were the ones who knew what was happening all the time. They’re basically the first record,” he says. “I think Peter stood out because of how hard he worked. He just struck me as a super-smart guy.”
Hamby asked lots of questions, even when campaign staffers were antagonistic toward him and his colleagues. The Clinton campaign staff was “very protective and standoffish,” Hamby recalls, and he remembers one of them screaming at reporters. The candidate, on the other hand, “was wonderful to talk to, very warm.”
It takes a special kind of person not to go raving mad while dealing with such obstacles and the unpredictability of life on the road.
“He’s passionate about politics,” notes Jonathan Martin of The New York Times, who knows Hamby from the road. “He clearly enjoys — even relishes — getting to know people.” And Hamby has managed to boil packing down to a science, making sure he has all the power cords he needs, plus his Starbucks card (“Thanks, Mom”) and a suit jacket in case he needs to go on air. His mileage points are enviable.
Martin, a national political correspondent, says that Hamby’s reporting helps him stand out from the pack: “There’s no lack of punditry. There should be more reporting and holding candidates accountable. It’s a very rewarding approach.”
Out on the Road
Despite his activity on Twitter and other electronic channels, Hamby wants to be out of the office and on the road, meeting people face to face, an old-school approach to journalism. On average, he’s outside of D.C. two or three days a week.
Even though Hamby is based out of CNN’s Washington bureau, a sleek, open-plan office with at least four or five TV and computer screens per person, his two-minute-long Hambycasts are filmed in other states: Iowa and South Carolina, so far, with New Hampshire, North Carolina and other states on the horizon. They draw on his familiarity with the campaign trail, as well as a humorous approach to the circus surrounding candidates or near-candidates like Hillary Clinton and Rick Perry.
“If you’re a source reporter, this is the stage when you find out the little secrets the campaigns don’t want you to find out. I made an effort to get to know the interns and the field staff,” he says, noting they may not know everything but they would be well acquainted with their piece of the campaign. And, crucially, they’re often more willing to talk than the people in charge.
“They give me a lot of freedom,” Hamby says of CNN, although it was hard-earned. In 2009, when he returned from embed duty, “they didn’t know what to do with me.” So, this was an opportunity to create a job covering politics outside the beltway, which Hamby continues to do.
Right away, his familiarity with South Carolina politics came in handy, with a scandal brewing over the disappearance of then-Gov. Mark Sanford.
The governor’s spokesman said he was “hiking the Appalachian Trail” after Sanford missed public appearances for six days in June. Back in the state, Hamby got a tip that the governor’s car was at the Columbia airport, and he took a picture to post on the Web, breaking the story that Sanford was definitely not on the trail. (He later admitted to an affair with a woman from Argentina.)
This marked Hamby’s first time appearing on camera for CNN, direct from an NBC affiliate in South Carolina. “I was on a swivel stool,” he recalls, “and I was swiveling on the stool. Howie [a producer] said, ‘Stop swiveling, stop swiveling!’ I never move in my seat anymore.”
In 2012, Hamby returned to the campaign trail, focusing on Republican nominee Mitt Romney but also breaking the news of the GOP dropouts along the way: Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
It’s easy to get “caught in the minute-by-minute news cycle” and “fleeting scooplets,” Hamby says, particularly in the era of Twitter, fully raging by 2012. Although only news and politics junkies are truly keeping score, “it matters,” he says. “That universe is small, but it matters. Twitter has redefined the news ecosystem. Niches now are important beats.”
And never forget, Hamby loves political minutiae — a trait that photojournalist Jeremy Moorhead, who shoots and edits Hambycasts, reins in when necessary. “I’m really dorky and in the weeds about politics,” Hamby admits, often citing polling results and percentages, so he appreciates that Moorhead steers him toward material that’s closer to the audience’s interests.
The Bigger Picture
In 2013, the slowest point in the national political cycle, Hamby took a sabbatical from CNN to be a fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
During this time, he reflected on his experiences covering two presidential campaigns and produced a paper about being a “boy on the bus” (a reference to The Boys on the Bus, a famous book by Timothy Crouse about reporters covering the 1972 campaign) in the time of Twitter. It’s a vivid view of campaign life, packed with political and media sources and blunt opinions on both sides. A year later, commentators including The New York Times’ Frank Bruni are still citing the paper, titled “Did Twitter Kill the Boys on the Bus?” “That paper was very well received; it’s very hard to disagree with anything in it,” Feist says.
In the paper, Hamby notes, the 2012 candidates and their staffers were even more wary of reporters than in 2008, and access was highly restricted, often because they were worried that their words would be twisted and gaffes would be magnified on Twitter, where there was little reflection and context. And reporters were tweeting and reading tweets nearly constantly, which created divisions between campaigns and the press. By 2012, Twitter had become both a source of news and a way to broadcast it to thousands (or millions) of followers, Hamby wrote. Pappu notes that it was rough getting face time with candidates in 2008, but in the age of Twitter? “I would have lost it,” he says.
A second factor that has limited press access to candidates is the cost of traveling. After examining several reporters’ financial paperwork, Hamby estimated that it cost media outlets an average of $10,000 a week for a full-time embed to follow the Romney campaign, including hotel, food and other expenses. Midsize newspapers and local TV stations were automatically priced out, and even Newsweek, a once-prominent publication for political coverage, was virtually absent from the trail during the campaign.
And if your media outlet could afford embeds, they often weren’t treated well, Hamby writes. Their youth and relative inexperience bothered campaign staffers. He quotes a Romney adviser who asked to be anonymous:
“If I had to pick three words to characterize the embeds, it would be young, inexperienced and angry. Their first journalistic assignment was being given a camera and sent on the plane of a presidential candidate. It’s remarkable. They have no formal or practical reporting experience.”
A Richmond Kid
Bill Hamby, Peter’s dad, says he can’t stop bragging about his son and how well he has navigated the modern media landscape. And yet, he didn’t really have an inkling his son would become a national political reporter, at least not until Peter attended NYU’s journalism school.
Growing up, Peter and his younger brothers, Patrick and Michael, played basketball in the driveway of their West End Colonial, played soccer and “adopted my fondness for the Cincinnati Reds,” Bill Hamby says. Peter also coped with the nickname “Hambone,” a trial every man with the surname Hamby apparently must endure.
Both Bill and Tressa, Peter’s mom, worked in Washington, D.C., television journalism — Bill as a producer and Tressa as an award-winning film editor and producer. They moved to Richmond in 1987, when Peter was 7, after Siddall Matus & Coughter, the advertising and public relations firm, closed its Washington office and moved its headquarters here. Bill Hamby started its PR branch and is now retired and doing some freelance travel writing; Tressa Hamby works at St. Christopher’s School.
Their youngest son, Michael, recently returned to the United States after serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand. Patrick died in a car crash in 2002 when he was a 19-year-old college student. The family doesn’t like to discuss the tragedy, but it has strengthened their bonds, Bill Hamby says.
When he’s not out on the road reporting, Peter likes to come home to Richmond and try out new restaurants, and he’s become a cheerleader for the city, encouraging his fellow reporters to visit.
“The way we raised the boys was [to] do your best, get a good education, and the future will work itself out,” Bill Hamby says. But as Peter’s career path became plain to everyone, he told his dad, “There are three Emmys in the living room, and I’ve been walking past them since I was born. What did you think would happen?”
When Peter was in high school, Bill Hamby took him and several classmates to the National Press Club in Washington, followed by a meeting with Chris Matthews of MSNBC, whom Peter would intern for while at Georgetown University.
“Chris said, ‘Among other things you need to be successful, you need to learn how to write,’ ” Bill Hamby recalls. Bill is writing a novel now, his second, but he says Peter can write circles around him.
His Shorenstein paper “blew me away,” Bill says, “because I remember reading The Boys on the Bus. Tressa and I look at each other and ask, ‘How did he get so smart?’ It was not only well reported but well written.”
And that’s one thing that makes Peter Hamby a modern journalist: his ability to write, report, shoot and talk on air. During journalism school, he covered the NBA for Dime magazine, talking to Stephon Marbury and other hoops celebrities — a job that pretty much cured him of getting starstruck. Writing and producing video for the Web drives his day-to-day work, with occasional appearances on John King’s Inside Politics show.
“I’m a big fan of his coverage,” says Andrew Beaujon, media reporter for Poynter Online (and former Richmonder). “He gets great stuff from people who ostensibly hate the U.S. news media, which says a lot about how well he’s built his beat.
I also really appreciate that he turns the camera around from time to time on other reporters covering politics, like he did in a recent podcast. I actually suspect his Richmond upbringing looms large in the way he manages to bridge otherwise-gaping cultural chasms — if you live in RVA for any amount of time, you learn how far being polite can take you. He’s also very good-looking, which is why I hate him.”
Back in Iowa
In an Iowa field, at a farewell steak fry for retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, Hillary and Bill Clinton have attracted more than 200 journalists, including Hamby, who is there at the mid-September event to capture the scene for his Hambycast. Hillary is undeclared, but it doesn’t matter.
Wearing an untucked shirt, dark-wash jeans and sunglasses, Hamby talks to some of her supporters, many of whom wear T-shirts that proclaim “Ready.” Ready for Joe Biden? Hamby teases. Nope, ready for Hillary, a woman tells the Hambycast audience.
A man wearing a self-cropped, belly-baring “Ready” shirt says he’s “hella ready” for Clinton’s 2016 run. It seems all but inevitable that Hillary will run when the non-candidate candidate says, “I’m ba-ack!” The Hambycast captures a cameraman tumbling off his stepladder, beaning
a reporter with his gear.
It’s all part of the circus.
“This is the beginning of the campaign, I guess,” Hamby says, a smile on his face.