Fast Chat: Michael Hastings Can’t Quit the Campaign Trail

BuzzFeed and Rolling Stone reporter on Obama, Reddit, and winning elections

If the first draft of political history was written on Twitter during the 2012 presidential election, Michael Hastings wasn't far behind with his attempt at the second. Wasting no time after Nov. 6, Hastings, a campaign trail veteran who covered Barack Obama's 2012 bid for BuzzFeed, offers a bluntly told, insider's account of the 2012 campaign written from Hastings' acerbic perspective as the oft-disgruntled observer. The e-book, Panic 2012: The Sublime and Terrifying Inside Story of Obama's Final Campaign is out now in joint publication with BuzzFeed and Penguin's Blue Rider Press. Adweek sat down with Hastings to talk about the broken system of campaign coverage, meeting Obama, and how Obama owned the Internet to win re-election.

Adweek: After reading, the first thought that comes to mind is 'Why the hell would somebody put themselves through this hassle of covering a campaign?' You swore off campaign reporting after 2008. Why do it again?

I needed to move out of Vermont and needed something to write about and keep me busy rather than go into a hole and do more national security stories. I tried to put off going out on the trail until the very last possible moment and I thought, if I'm going to do this to myself—subject myself to the kind of humiliation that can come from covering this—I wanted to walk away with something substantial. I think the book attempted that. Hopefully I won't make this mistake a third time (laughs). The thing is, this is a fascinating subject. You go through the history of campaign journalism books and it's clear it's a huge dramatic subject for any writer so I'd recommend that anybody do it, if only just to see and experience it. Only a few are deranged enough to want to do it repeatedly and for a living. It's just a whole lot of bullshit being thrown at you at one time.

It sounds like the system of campaign coverage might be broken. Is it worth the money to keep doing this same kind of campaign journalism?

Is the practice of having a group of reporters go everywhere with the president—is that a flawed system? Possibly. But what the president thinks and what the advisors think will always be of extreme value to the news cycle and those who consume it. There is an attraction to the presidency too, which is why journalists will always want to do it, because you are there at the historic moments or get to go on Air Force One or whatever. It's a real privilege. But there ends up being a problem and a brutal sort of class system develops.

News organizations have to pay literally hundreds of thousands, if not over a million dollars—I was never able to confirm it—to be in the travel press pool. It is a huge amount of money to [get] a permanent slot. You do then get a system where the people who get the closest are a very small handful of media outlets who are still very influential in how we end up viewing this whole thing. There's a hierarchy to the whole system that the press operates on. Every section of the media has a different story, too. For example, the photographers would see everything totally different from the print reporters.

You got a chance to meet and be candid with the president during the campaign and you described the experience as being extremely powerful. How influential was that moment during your time on the trail?

To be honest, I didn't think I'd ever get a chance to speak to the guy during the campaign. [I] was just glad I was in the same hotel. So there's this buildup and he's the white whale. He's the central character of this story and before this the only way to get close to him is through White House pool reports. So then there's this moment where he shows up, and everyone just loses their minds. They just swooned and fell for him. He's the president.

Why release it e-book only? Is that because you were looking to turn it around so fast? Was it because of the ties to a Web-only place like BuzzFeed?

To me there is no distinction anymore. I love the political books that come out after a campaign and while there's certainly a tradeoff for turning around and writing a book in only a few weeks in terms of how much you can report, what's fascinating about all of this is that you'll be able to judge with brutal honestly from the numbers how this experiment is working out. I could be checking them on Amazon, but I won't yet. In my experience with books people come back to them over time, too. But the numbers are all there now to see.

One of the most interesting chapters was the behind the scenes of Obama's Reddit Ask Me Anything Interview. What did you make of the actual importance of the online engagement from the Obama campaign? In terms of the AMA and their Tumblr, social presence, etc.?

I think it was hugely important. I think the most important thing for them, as they'd tell you, is ground game—but they so owned the online space. Online presence shapes the media perception and media perception gives some shape to the general perception. It makes it so easy to get in touch, organize grassroots. The registration numbers to vote after the AMA were incredible too (30,000 people registered to vote from the Reddit link). People really actually dug the chance to go into an uncensored environment and ask questions. Of course they'll like this. There are a ton of people who love this stuff and could never get close enough to really ask a question. It was a good interview too. You could tell he was totally into it.