On Air Obama, reporters gawk at him moving around up front, talking with aides or on a cell phone, but can only guess what he is saying or thinking. On Straight Talk Air, the flying McCain campaign, aides draw the curtains so that not even glimpses are possible.
Not only do the reporters have little interaction with the candidates, but increasingly they are having little impact on the broad campaign narratives and daily story lines that supply most voters with their impressions of the candidates.
That's more often taking place in cable studios or on Web sites far removed from the ceaseless grind of the press bubble — in which reporters schlump on and off the plane, in and out of buses and gymnasiums-turned-filing centers, several times a day, dozens of times a week.
A combination of technology and iron message discipline by heavily centralized campaigns has consigned these reporters – once the storied “boys on the bus” – largely to feeding off the public material available to almost anyone over the Web, with very little interaction with the next president of the United States.
McCain has not spoken to the press corps that follows him in five weeks, or invited national reporters onto his bus in more than two months. When reporters asked McCain’s traveling adviser, Steve Duprey, to bring the candidate back to talk to them, Duprey went up to the front of the plane and returned – wearing a McCain mask.
And Obama is available to the press corps in spurts – most recently, for an availability in Ohio eight days ago. He has had five press availabilities in the three weeks since the Democratic convention, several of them focused on Hurricane Gustav.
Since the dawn of campaign planes, print reporters were protective of their seat assignments, since those closer to the front had a better chance of asking a question if the candidate strolled back.
But in a sign of the times, Obama reporters in recent weeks have spread out to the empty rows, confident that there would be nothing to see up front.
“The access gets worse and worse with every campaign cycle, and candidates get more and more controlled," said Richard Wolffe, who is senior White House correspondent for Newsweek and has followed Obama for two years. "This campaign picked up where the Bushes left off, and the Bushes picked up where the Clintons left off."
Wolffe said he finds Obama more accessible than John F. Kerry when he was running in 2004, "but you don't have the Bobby Kennedy-style of access. So the challenge is to report around that. It's no different than covering the White House." At least with a campaign, he said, reporters are "physically in the same place as the candidate."
So reporters gripe among themselves, wondering why their news organizations pay tens of thousands of dollars to be shut out.
Officials of both campaigns said they had become exasperated with what they consider the petty controversies or insider minutia that is the obsession of the on-the-plane reporters, and didn’t want to take a chance of creating a story that would override the story they were trying to tell with their staged, scripted events.
Obama aides have said he has been willing to come back to the press cabin to chit-chat off the record, but the reporters have been reluctant to agree to that, since they aren’t able to get their questions answered on the record at other times in the day.
Both McCain and Obama do interviews with local and TV reporters nearly every weekday. On Wednesday, for instance, McCain talked to the ABC station in Youngstown, Ohio, and taped an interview with a radio host in Green Ba, Wis. Obama taped interviews with a TV station in Elko, Nev., and a Spanish-language station in Las Vegas, among others.
But the reporters assigned to shadow the candidates had no chance to ask a question. They just wait – on buses, on the plane, in their hotel rooms. A Reuters reporter recently spent a week covering McCain and never even exchanged greetings with him.
The campaigns’ thinking: They get their message out to local voters, and the questions are rarely hard-hitting. And the interviews are more likely to be about issues or local color, rather than the political conflict that consumes national reporters.
This spotty access is one of the key ways that bloggers and new-media outlets have undermined the ability of traditional organizations to set and drive the campaign narrative.
When a few of the many reporters flying with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin got a chance on Wednesday to asked her a few questions at a deli in Cleveland, Scott Conroy of CBS News told her the press was getting lonely at the back of the plane.
“Oh, are you lonely?” Palin joked. “Come on up!”
But none of the reporters expects to be allowed to take her up on that.
McCain has not held a news conference since Aug. 13, and the Democratic National Committee has mischievously started a “McCain Palin Press Watch” clock to count the days, hours and minutes since he held his last press conference.
Since then, McCain has done many sit-down network interviews and one-on-one interviews with local reporters, but has not spoken to any assembled group of reporters, according to ABC’s Bret Hovell, who travels with the McCain campaign.
Rolling, extended press conferences on McCain’s campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, once were his signature. But Hovell reports that a national reporter has not been to the back of the bus since July.
“Last fall he would regularly have three media avails each day, and even in the winter and spring of this year, it would be strange to have him go more than a day without talking to reporters,” Hovell wrote in an e-mail to ABC colleagues.
On Tuesday, reporters aboard Straight Talk Air tried to persuade the staff to bring the candidate back to talking to them chanting, “Bring Mac back! Bring Mac back!”
Campaign aides up in the business seats smiled and then promptly closed the curtain between business and coach, where the press sits.
Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), who has by far the smallest press contingent of the four nominees, hopes to draw a contrast to his more cloistered Republican counterpart by coming to the back of his plane every couple of days. He has given 84 formal interviews since Obama chose him.