Road Trip! What Reporters Still Live For

When I started in this business ages ago, it wasn’t unusual to hear a reporter say, “I can’t believe I get paid for this.” This was in the days when most of us – even law and government reporters — were regularly on the road, visiting the scene of the crime, so-to-speak, covering live events, traveling with officials, talking to real people. News organizations don’t have the money they had for travel, and the time pressures of filing for the Web make it impossible to linger anywhere.

In my early years on the Supreme Court beat, I used to go to the locales of all the big cases each term. I’m thinking of places in the 1990s such as Hialeah, Fla., for people practicing Santeria, or Denver, for Richard Evans, one of the challengers to the anti-gay rights Amendment 2. This term, I drove up to York, Pa., to interview Albert Snyder, father of the Marine whose funeral was picketed by anti-gay fundamentalist pastor Fred Phelps. But for other people in this term’s marquee cases (the women of Wal-Mart, video game producers), I’ve mostly stuck to the phone.

I was reminded this week of the thrill of actually going somewhere for a story when I covered the first U.S. appeals court hearing on the Obama-sponsored health-care law. Now, it meant only a two hour drive down I-95 to Richmond, Va., to a courthouse even older than that one I’m at every day, to listen to people in the same black robes. But it was truly exciting to see a new set of players, to hear how they would react to this landmark law, and to experience the atmospherics of this political and legal battle.

Eager to check out any early action, I left my hotel at 6:30 a.m. and ran over to the courthouse to see if people might already be lining up for the 9:30 morning session (they were!) and whether TV satellite trucks had started getting into place (yes). Then I went back to the hotel to wait for the 7:30 a.m. announcement of the names of the three judges on the panel. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is one of only three appeals courts that wait until the day of the hearing to announce the judges. (The Seventh and Federal Circuits are the others.)

When I saw the names go up on the Fourth Circuit’s web-site, I couldn’t believe the luck for the Obama administration in this random draw: three Democratic appointees. I also didn’t trust what I was reading. I kept looking at it and checking my notes of the circuit judges’ biographies. (I even called the clerk’s office to double-check.) Shortly after 8 a.m., I filed a story for our newspaper’s web-site, letting readers know the judges who would be hearing the case, providing a little about the arguments expected, and offering some of the color already emerging, e.g., long lines, rallies, press conferences.

I had told my editor that I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to predict the outcome of the dispute based on the oral arguments, but after more than two hours in the Richmond courtroom, I felt confident that we could say that the administration would likely win. As soon as presiding Judge Diana Gribbon Motz closed the hearings, I was out the courtroom door, down a flight of steps, on the street, and heading back to the hotel to quickly file an update. It was just about noon (check-out time) and I begged the indulgence of the maids for an extra 30 minutes. It occurs to me only now, as I recall all that raced through my mind at the time (how much of the give-and-take to put in this first draft, whether to stay in Richmond and wait for the 2 p.m. release of the court’s audiotape, or drive back to my D.C. office  …. how much more of a tip to leave for the maids), that I never thought bigger news was happening anywhere else. But of course it was. Everywhere. From the Mideast, to the Mississippi River, to Maria and Arnold. The health-care arguments didn’t make the front page of any big paper. But that didn’t matter to me, at the time or now.

After I filed my update of the arguments, I drove back to Washington, listened to the audio tape, re-wrote our main story and added a little side-story on the broccoli discussion. I was happy for what readers I could draw and simply glad I had been there. My journalism colleagues rarely say anymore that they can’t believe they get paid to do this job. We talk more about pay freezes and lay-offs. On nearly a daily basis, we question whether we should stick with this work or move on. But for some of us, the chase is still there. My mantra (at least this week): If the news industry sinks, I’m going down with the ship.