On coronavirus briefings, digital campaigning, and media self-reflection – “Fourth Watch” BCC Interview with NYT’s Amy Chozick

For this week’s “BCC” interview, I emailed with Amy Chozick, writer-at-large at the New York Times and executive producer and co-creator of the Netflix original series “The Girls on the Bus.” Chozick’s book, “Chasing Hillary,” was a fascinating read about both covering Hillary Clinton in 2008 and 2016 – and the media landscape.

Below is the full email exchange between myself and Chozick. Click here for my “BCC Interview” with Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld, or here for my “BCC Interview” with the New York Times’ Ben Smith. And click here to subscribe to the Fourth Watch newsletter.

(photo credit: Earl Wilson, NYT)

From: Steve Krakauer

To: Amy Chozick

Hey Amy-

Thanks for doing this! Hope you and the family are staying safe in this crazy time.

I wanted to start with what feels like a less important aspect of the coronavirus crisis, but is actually a pretty consequential side effect, which is the lack of campaigning happening right now. Joe Biden is stuck at home, trying to Zoom and Periscope his way onto the virtual “trail.” Trump is trying to turn some of his coronavirus briefings into impromptu rallies. You spent a lot of time on campaign trails as a reporter for the New York Times, covering Hillary Clinton. What do you think this moment is going to mean for the Biden campaign? How is this version of non-campaigning going to affect his chances?

And speaking about the coronavirus briefings – there’s a storyline in the media now about whether cable news channels should air them. What do you think? And how do you think those who cover President Trump have handled this crisis – both in the briefing room on a daily basis, and through cable news hits and other coverage?

Feel free to throw any questions my way…

Thanks, Steve

From: Amy Chozick

To: Steve Krakauer

It’s actually a fascinating time to study the role of the traditional presidential campaign. I already felt in 2016 like the role of the campaign trail and the traveling press – in the era of Twitter and live streaming (and a candidate who hardly ever spoke to the press) – to be vastly diminished in the media ecosystem. Nothing beats traveling the country and talking directly to voters. Still, you can imagine that the right candidate could do exactly that very effectively via social media. I don’t think Joe Biden is that candidate. He has released videos, podcasts, etc, but they don’t seem to be breaking through. Then you look at an elected official like AOC and her Instagram Live videos and you can imagine a scenario (especially in the aftermath of corona) when a presidential candidate native to social media does extremely effective messaging online vs talking to a handful of voters at a roundtable discussion or holding a traditional rally. I also think there might be something democratizing about this. It’s a privilege to have the time to wait in line and go through security to attend a rally…but anyone can watch an Insta video. I’m not saying this replaces the traditional campaign trail, but it could hugely amplify it. (Trump did this with his Twitter feed in 2016, but that felt more like driving then news narrative vs. connecting directly to voters.) 

As a side note, I am currently writing and executive producing the Netflix series “The Girls on the Bus” about a group of female journalists covering a fictional democraitc primary – so I am thinking a lot about this!  

These briefings are theater. They’re performative for President Trump and they’re performative for the reporters who seem so eager for their own viral moment. To be honest, I find it all pretty pointless given the scope of human tragedy unfolding right now. I also find it all so boring and predictable – kind of like our daily life in quarantine. Oh, this again. The briefing ends and then there is the wave of Twitter outrage from both sides.  Hailing whatever journalist who sparred with Trump that day as an national hero. Trump firing back usually with more lies or smears. And then (my favorite) there are the journalists who basically live Tweet the White House briefing in order to prove a point that cable channels should ignore the White House briefing. It’s like a parody of political coverage. Meanwhile, journalists like my Times colleague Sheri Fink are embedding in ICUs to bring us what is really happening inside strained hospitals. That doesn’t really answer your question, but it’s how I feel.

Questions for you: What are you watching? Do you think traditional media companies like Disney can ever catch up with the streamers given where their fortunes have fallen in the crisis?

From: Steve Krakauer

To: Amy Chozick


Totally agree on the briefings – it would be pretty entertaining to watch if we weren’t going through a literal pandemic. So it’s really just sad. And I definitely want to find out more about “The Girls on the Bus”! But let me start with your questions. I’m stuck in the olden days of TV and DVR, so I’m mostly watching Better Call Saul, Bill Maher, Judge Judy re-runs, and way too much cable news (mostly Tucker Carlson, Hayes, Cuomo and Lemon for newsletter ideas, etc). I’ve been wrong about most things during this crisis, but I tend to think people will ultimately fall back into their habits, and Disney will be fine. I heard Jason Blum shoot down Bill Simmons’ theories about how the movie industry will forever be changed after coronavirus on a recent podcast – his point was that people have insanely short memories. I tend to agree. I think Disney – with their array of assets, including well-positioned for digital – will be a major player in however this shakes out.

One of the lines in your book that really stayed with me was a quote from your colleague after Trump won, saying “I didn’t go to a single Hillary or Trump rally, and yet, I wrote with such authority.” Whether it’s this coronavirus crisis, where most of us are totally just guessing, or even political horse race reporting, there is so much “authority” in media coverage, particularly with TV punditry. Such a lack of humility. So I guess… do you think the media has learned any lessons from 2016, that they’re taking to 2020? What are they still not seeing that you saw on the trail?

Last thing for now – you mentioned Twitter, so I have to ask – who is one Twitter follow you recommend that may surprise people, and who is one you think would make everyone happier if we all unfollowed?

From: Amy Chozick

To: Steve Krakauer

Steve – Judge Judy?? 

I just finished Babylon Berlin on Netflix and it was the most delicious and addictive trip. It’s a German crime noir set in pre-WW II Berlin and is the most riveting world – a mix of solving crimes against the backdrop of the creeping Nationalist movement. I’ve been trying to tell people to abandon Tiger King for Babylon Berlin but – surprisingly! – haven’t gotten much traction. 

I also watched Unorthodox on Netflix about a young woman who abandons her Hasidic community in Williamsburg based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 (also spectacular) memoir. It is almost entirely in Yiddish which is super cool. My Bubbe would be proud.

BUT…I am definitely not all about high brow TV. I devoured “Love Is Blind”…am a “Bachelor” addict…and love an episode of “Pen15” on Hulu. I am also watching “Containment.” It’s a miniseries (originally on the CW, now on Netflix) about a virus outbreak in Atlanta created by Julie Plec who also created The Vampire Diaries and is my co-writer/co-executive producer on The Girls on the Bus.

I am hoping corona brings back drive-in movie theaters. That would be a silver lining. As for Jason Blum, I did just pay my $19.99 to rent “Invisible Man” on Amazon, so I’d say he just fine however things shake out.

I don’t want to let you down but I am out of the 2016 analysis business. It is just exhausting and I think it’s still too raw for anyone to have any objective, constructive perspective. I wrote a book called “Chasing Hillary” that has a couple chapters of media reflection particularly on how the press covered the hacked Russian emails. That didn’t go over all that well in some media circles, so I am just going to leave it there. But we are, frankly, terrible at self reflection. I get it. I suck at it, too – always look forward to the next story, never backwards at ourselves. Which reminds me of a line from “Broadcast News,” one of my favorite journalism movies and a major inspiration for “The Girls on the Bus” – “Let’s never forget, we’re the real story, not them.”

[On Twitter recommendation / unfollow]

Mel Brooks. The 10,000 Year Old Man was the original podcast. 

Any fitness influencer who uses the expression “Quaran-TONED.” UNFOLLOW.

From: Steve Krakauer

To: Amy Chozick

Judge Judy is like my guilty pleasure, except I feel no guilt about it. I love it, and have for years. She’s the exact kind of person I want leading our country (which is why she was my write-in vote for president in 2016). Drive in theaters! I like it. There’s one on our drive to my in-laws from Dallas to Houston, and I’ve always wanted to go. And I’m now following Mel Brooks.

Tell me more about the Netflix show. When does it come out? What’s the process of converting your non-fiction book into a fictionalized version? And how is it to work on a scripted show after years on the trail and in newsrooms?

Last thing… I spend way too much time critiquing the media, so what is one development in journalism that has you excited or hopeful – a young reporter you’re watching, or a cool upstart idea that you think could work? 

Thanks for doing this – stay safe, and hope to get back to some normalcy, and laughing at the absurdity of everything soon.

From: Amy Chozick

To: Steve Krakauer

The show is inspired by a chapter of my book called “The Girls on the Bus” – which is an homage to Timothy Crouse’s 1972 classic “The Boys on the Bus.” It has been a blast to dive into this fictional world and write for TV. We had the luxury of just using the tone and world of the book as a jumping off point to create this show that revolves around four very different female journalists who would never be friends in normal life but who become a found family while covering a chaotic Democratic primary. Politics is just the backdrop, but it’s really about women and ambition and female friendship. I like to say that politics is to our show the way football was to “Friday Night Lights” in that hopefully you’ll love the characters and their emotional journeys even if you’re not that into politics. Greg Berlanti (Warner Bros), Julie Plec and I schemed up the characters and the broad strokes of an arc for several seasons and we pitched it last summer. We got a bidding war (!) and Netflix offered us “straight to series”  – so that was pretty much the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me. We were supposed to premiere in Spring 2021, but given the world right now, who knows. But we are working away on the scripts and casting and plan to start production in Atlanta as soon as we can. 

There are so many reasons to be optimistic. I love that podcasting and other formats have brought in younger readers (listeners) and can make seemingly dull policy stories much more palatable for a different audience. I worship so many of young reporters:  Astead Herndon, Taylor Lorenz, Olivia Nuzzi…I could go on.