On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries boasts of unprecedented access to the campaign trail, but it only manifests as a dull travelogue for CNN correspondents on a thankless mission.
The big takeaway of On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries, a CNN film exclusive to HBO Max that aired yesterday alongside An American Pickle, is that covering a campaign trail seems absolutely awful. We’re assured by the voice of Dana Bash that there’s nothing quite like the rush of covering a presidential campaign, and then the film spends 90 minutes proving her wrong.
The news cycle these days is a nightmare anyway; an endlessly circular and increasingly petty back-and-forth about the same few rehashed issues while what would otherwise be major breaking stories pass by virtually unnoticed. Throughout our daily finger-pointing about who’s to blame for the Coronavirus pandemic, I distinctly recall at least two separate and verifiable stories about aliens and alien spacecraft that didn’t even get any traction. So great is the fear of distraction, of “fake news” drummed up to divert attention from the real stories, that the real stories fizzle away while the same clickbait headline is rewritten a thousand different times.
On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries seems well-suited to that hellish reactionary news climate, since it’s taking a relatively measured look back at the Democratic presidential caucuses and primaries from January as we hurtle inexorably towards the next general presidential election. Those things are covered with a frantic this-just-in energy that doesn’t exactly promote measured analysis, even when the most diverse Democratic candidate pool in history is withered down to presumptive nominee and living sigh Joe Biden. That process deserves a degree of careful examination – this film, though, doesn’t bother to provide it.
On the Trail isn’t all that interested in the political process, really, at least not in any way beyond how it relates to CNN’s reporters, many of whom – all women – are followed by cameras as they themselves follow candidates through Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Any insight it offers isn’t related to the various newsworthy fiascos of the primaries but to the all-consuming process of essentially stalking Elizabeth Warren – or Bernie Sanders or Amy Klobuchar – for weeks and months at a time. It’s all a frantic last-minute sprint from one stump speech to the next in the hopes of a picture or a soundbite that’ll generate a new cycle of sustaining clicks. CNN is a legacy media titan that floats on a river of dinero driven entirely by coverage that is explicitly designed to champion attention above all – a feature-length travelogue following its put-upon employees only seems the newest component in a long-time strategy of turning reporters of the news into the news itself; a strategy that CNN is historically rather bad at.
A reality that this film touches on but swiftly – and one assumes consciously – abandons is that this traffic-driven reporting model leaves important issues unaddressed because airtime is dictated exclusively by an issue’s ability to bring in eyeballs. With that in mind, video producer Jasmine Wright, who works with Korean American senior correspondent Kyung Lah, feels like she has wandered in from another film entirely. She seems like the only person really willing to lay out how CNN’s financial agenda often forces the issues that most affect her and people like her to be ignored. She’s the only one who seems to be aware that CNN ostensibly serves communities who’re poorly represented among their own staffers. And on and on it goes.
On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries also positions Lah as a beacon of personal self-sacrifice, as one of the first scenes is her preparing to leave her family behind once again for a lengthy outing on the road. It’s a real issue, and one that those embedded with political candidates have to grapple with; a later conversation slightly cracks a window into the difficulties of maintaining a long-distance relationship or even starting a relationship in the first place under these conditions. But who’s going to be the next leader of the free world is quite important, and it’s understandable that the thorough coverage required of the process that decides these things also comes with a degree of personal sacrifice. It’s another element of this long-winded feature that feels shoulder-shruggingly obvious.
Now seems a better time than ever for CNN to make a film like this, especially considering that Donald Trump is famously antagonistic towards the organization specifically and female journalists in general, all of which goes strangely unremarked upon aside from a brief moment when it’s suggested that Trump leading his acolytes in a “fake news” chant makes the job of the press a bit more difficult. Well, you don’t say.
In plenty of ways, On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries feels very typical of CNN’s uniquely impressive ability to try and make celebrities of their reporters rather than doing any actual reporting. I suppose that’s only fitting.