- Bulletin Features
A Q&A with Taft Bulletin Editor Linda Hedman Beyus
Photo credit: TeddyandMia/Shutterstock.com
Starting out as a sportswriter for the Vanderbilt University student newspaper, Neil Vigdor '95 didn't quite foresee his interviewing a presidential candidate for a newspaper franchise, or running around national and state political conventions and rallies in his post-college professional life as a political reporter.
Now, having hit his stride, Vigdor says he "enjoys the chase" of a controversial or quirky story.
The Bulletin asked him in September about his daily work during a heated political year from his front-row seat as the statewide political writer at Hearst Connecticut Media Group. Hearst's publications in Connecticut include Greenwich Time, The (Stamford) Advocate, Connecticut Post, Danbury News-Times, Norwalk Hour, and six weekly newspapers. Vigdor's Twitter handle is @gettingviggy.
Q: What's it like being a political reporter in this contentious presidential election year?
A: I think that everything you do is amplified that much more in this climate. You're fielding more complaints, more criticisms of bias, and so you really start to think in terms of stories you decide to cover and how much coverage you give to a certain issue.
"It's hot, you're sweating, and you're under intense pressure to get your story out....You've got people yelling and screaming— you're not working in a library, let's put it that way."
You're constantly on—it's 24–7, the cycle. You could be on a weekend and something breaks. You're dealing in this cycle with two candidates who have such high negatives and who so many people have major criticisms of, that it leads to a lot more "gotcha" stories, coverage that's not flattering, rather than the homespun "retail politics." There's some of that, but given [Donald] Trump, with his businesses and his business background and the rhetoric, and the Clintons, given the Clinton Foundation and her tenure as secretary of state, it's really a lot of material and fodder for stories that people perceive as negative.
[It's harder this year] but I think I'm going to go through withdrawal when it's all over. For any reporter worth their salt, there should be no shortage of stories out there. There's rarely a day when I say, "What am I going to write about?"
It's been a kind of wild and mesmerizing year.
Q: Is it hard to stay unbiased as a reporter this year, and in general?
A: No, I don't think so. I tend not to harbor strong political views, so that definitely helps in my job. I call it as I see it, and I realize there are going to be things that I write that people are going to have a problem with, but I generally try to be straightforward with people in terms of what the angle of my story is and not blindside them. I will say, I'm sorry, I'm doing this story, you're not going to like it—I somewhat prepare them for it, and it is what it is.
When people engage on social media, my general policy is not to really engage with people and go back and forth, but to let the stories speak for themselves. Frequently we have comment threads on our Hearst Connecticut websites, and people will vent about stories on there. Even when you go to political events and people are friendly, and maybe want to take a photo with you or something like that, it sometimes puts you in an awkward position.
Q: Do you get to choose your assignments?
"For any reporter worth their salt, there should be no shortage of stories out there. There's rarely a day when I say, 'What am I going to write about?'"
A: Ninety percent of the stories that I do are self-generated—the tips that come in to me, the things I think of. I try not to follow the pack. I try to think of things that are more quirky or offbeat. A couple of stories that come to mind: A couple of months ago at Lake "Quassy" in Middlebury, there was a magician there doing a comedy routine, and he made an offhanded kind of quip about Donald Trump in front of children and their parents. One of Trump's supporters actually went up to the stage and cursed the guy out when he was in the middle of the performance, and the amusement park people had to escort the guy off the property and ask him to leave. That's something that somebody tipped me off on, and I said, that's a great story, so I wrote about it.
Another one was before the Democratic primary [in Connecticut] in April. Someone tipped me off that John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton's campaign, had to come here to meet with Connecticut union folks to try to placate them because they're angry at Governor Malloy over layoffs of state employees, and union people didn't want to go out and knock on doors for Hillary. The Hillary people were really worried that was going to hurt them and that Bernie Sanders might win Connecticut, so that's another kind of example of something that the Associated Press or other publications might not necessarily be chasing.
Q: What was it like to cover both the Democratic and Republican national conventions this summer and the New Hampshire primary earlier on?
A: Speaking of the conventions, the anticipation was a much bigger deal than actually being there. You worry about worst-case scenarios—riots and tear gas, that sort of thing. Before going to Cleveland, I was debating whether to bring an escape-hood gas mask with me, actually. There were stories about reporters from major news outlets signing up for actual courses that cost $1,200, $1,500, from former Israeli commandos on what to do if you were kidnapped or involved in a terrorist attack.
I think that both cities and the state and federal law enforcement did a phenomenal job protecting not just the media, but the delegates and moving people along.
They were very memorable conventions, and very different. In Cleveland, Trump clearly had his fingerprints on the convention, so you had a lot of unorthodox choices for convention speakers. You also had the dynamic of Republicans sitting on their hands—a lot of the A-list Republicans were not in the speaking lineup in Cleveland.
For the Democrats, clearly Hollywood and the whole glitz and star power is a big part of the narrative, and the convention in Philadelphia had no shortage of the firepower in terms of the celebrities and all. Actually, I found the convention in Philadelphia to be much more topsyturvy, in terms of the protests by Bernie Sanders' supporters leaving in the middle of some of the convention speeches and having sit-ins outside the arena. I think some of the things they predicted for Cleveland manifested in Philadelphia.
Both were huge logistical undertakings, with security and getting around and being able to stay at the hotels with the delegates from Connecticut. Same with New Hampshire—getting around in the snow and the black ice. New Hampshire is a really remarkable and unique place to get the kind of intimate interaction with the candidates and see them close up and see them do their "retail politics." The people up there take it very seriously in terms of vetting candidates in the first primary in the nation.
When I was up in New Hampshire, the hotel that I stayed at was the same hotel where Marco Rubio was staying. The first night that we got there, when it was snowing, his campaign bus was in a dark corner of the parking lot, and those campaign buses don't strike me as having the best traction in snow, so I figured that he would be marooned at the hotel. The next day he was camped out in the lobby with his family and security and handlers, so that was kind of neat to see him in downtime. These people are constantly on, and to be able to see them with their families and not going through the talking points was refreshing.
Q: It sounds like it was also, especially at the national level with two conventions back to back, exhausting.
A: I had 17 bylines during the two weeks of the conventions. I did probably a dozen videos and 300-plus Tweets. I had to go through nine, ten different security checkpoints, Secret Service. You get to be really efficient in terms of getting your wallet and iPhone out of your pockets and going through that and turning on your laptop.
Actually, for the undertaking and the crowds and all that, [it was] much more efficient than the airport. They moved people through quickly.
Q: I know that you majored in communication studies and English at Vanderbilt University, but how did you get into political reporting versus other kinds of journalism after college?
A: I worked on the student newspaper at Vanderbilt, which is one of the oldest student newspapers in the country and has a very storied history—a lot of great sportswriters went to Vanderbilt. I started out doing sports on the student newspaper, and was really lucky the summer between my junior and senior years to get an internship at Roll Call in Washington, one of the Capitol Hill newspapers.
I took some summer classes at Georgetown, and my internship turned me on to politics on the Hill and the personalities. Certainly you have to understand policy to write about politics, but my interest has always been more on the personalities and profiling and the game of politics. But again, you have to know about the policies to understand that.
Q: What do you love about being a political reporter?
A: I like the ability to influence people with your stories, and to have the most influential people in the state [of Connecticut] reading your stories, following you on Twitter. There's really something to be said for that.
I enjoy the chase, and, sometimes, some of these quirky stories may cause a little bit of controversy. I like that.
Q: How has this election cycle been different locally?
A: There was always this conventional wisdom that Connecticut would be an afterthought this year, as it was in 2012, when Mitt Romney won the Republican nomination, and that by the time the end of April rolls around, nobody really cares about Connecticut.
But this year, given the dynamics of 16 to 17 Republican candidates, an extended nominating race, Clinton and Sanders going for as long as they did, Connecticut suddenly became pretty strategic for the campaigns, so you had all of the candidates—with the exception of Ted Cruz—making appearances here, some of the them multiple appearances, for the primary.
You had Bernie Sanders on the Green in New Haven that drew 15,000 people the Sunday night before the primary; you had Hillary Clinton go to Bridgeport, go to Hartford; John Kasich was here, did multiple events in the state; Donald Trump, three stops in the state—Waterbury, Bridgeport, and Hartford—so that was just an incredible opportunity for the people of Connecticut to get to experience this race in a way that they wouldn't ordinarily be able to.
It's almost like they got a taste of New Hampshire or Iowa, and all of a sudden, Connecticut matters.
Q: What are some of the toughest challenges in your work, not just this year?
A: Challenges are sometimes about time management. You want to, of course, have consistent daily breaking-news stories, but some of the best journalism is done on some of these enterprise investigative pieces that typically run in our Sunday papers, so setting aside time to work on those things and balancing that out with the daily grind of getting breaking news, that's one of the big challenges.
Also you have go to be able to focus in sometimes grueling working conditions, particularly when you go to these conventions, and you've got a band playing, there's music, it's loud, you've got balloons dropping, you've got difficult deadlines. A big emphasis for our papers is to localize content, so for the Connecticut Post we want to have Bridgeport voices and stories, and Greenwich people [for Greenwich Time], so chasing people around at these massive conventions and rallies and spotting them in the crowd is a challenge.
I think of when Trump had his rally in August in Fairfield. It was a Saturday afternoon at Sacred Heart University, temperatures well over 100 degrees, no air conditioning inside the arena where they're having this rally. The media have a kind of dedicated corral, some people like to call it the "petting zoo," and we have our own dedicated Secret Service agent there for crowd-control purposes. It's hot, you're sweating, and you're under intense pressure to get your story out for print. I have to think both in terms of print deadlines; I can always make revisions for the online [versions], so that's a challenge.
You've got people yelling and screaming—you're not working in a library, let's put it that way.
Q: When the presidential election is over, first of all you can breathe a little, but will you be doing more national coverage then, or does it just depend what hits the state?
"I enjoy the chase, and, sometimes, some of these quirky stories may cause a little bit of controversy. I like that."
A: Certainly if Clinton wins the election, as the polls would seem to suggest, that could mean that you'd have a lot of people from Connecticut, whether it's Governor Malloy or Congressman Himes or Senator Blumenthal, who's a Yale Law School classmate of Hillary Clinton's, that could put them in position for a job in a Clinton administration, so there could be major stories to come out of that. And then it's a whole kind of domino effect in terms of if they move on to greener pastures, although [Vigdor laughs] maybe that's not the right characterization, but if they move on, that opens up other jobs, and you've got people already waiting in the wings and eyeing things. So I don't think that everything just ends after the election. Certainly there's going to be a lot of musical chairs, I think.