They've Got the Beat
Politico Reporters Annie Karni ’04 and Alex Isenstadt ’07 race to cover the campaign of a lifetime.
Annie Karni ’04 and Alex Isenstadt ’07 work all the time. That’s the deal you accept with this type of once-in-four-years gig.
Flying here, then there. Days and nights consumed by rallies and town halls, late-night huddles, and early-morning pings, state conventions, and speeches, and debates. Banging out analyses. Measuring the pulse of social media. Tweeting, tweeting, tweeting.
Whew! This is life on the campaign trail for Karni and Isenstadt. But they’re not candidates. The senior politics reporters cover opposite camps of the topsy-turvy 2016 presidential election for the highly competitive Internet news portal Politico. And, despite the grueling pace, both are having the time of their lives as they live their dream jobs.
In an interview in early May, in Politico’s swank newsroom in Arlington, Va., Karni, 33, who follows Hillary Clinton, describes her job: “It’s a sprinting marathon.” She should know. The avid runner who did cross country at Haverford actually snagged a lottery spot in the New York City Marathon. But she abandoned the effort when travel trampled any kind of training routine. “This is not the year for this. In February and March, I was on the road more than I was at home.”
Meanwhile, Isenstadt, 31, who didn’t know Karni at Haverford, keeps tabs on the Republicans. He takes a reluctant break from the day’s news— John Kasich has just announced his withdrawal from the election—to talk about covering this race of a lifetime.
“Basically, I’ve written about all of them,” says Isenstadt, who lives in Washington, D.C.
All 17 contenders?
“I’ve written about all of them at one point or another,” he affirms. “I hopscotched around.”
Known for his dogged reporting, the Politico veteran—he’s lasted eight years in a business with its share of turnover—pretty much pursues the story from the moment he wakes at 7 a.m. and pings his sources until he sleeps, sometimes well past midnight. No low-energy problem here.
“You’re competing with other outlets,” says Isenstadt, who this day is working his sources to find out whether big-ticket Republican donors will back the party’s presumptive nominee. “You’re competing to break news. You’re competing to write analytical stories that are ahead of the curve. … You have to be on all the time. It takes a lot out of you.”
“It’s exhausting,” Karni agrees.
Not that either one is complaining “It’s the job I signed up for, and it’s the job I wanted,” he says. “It’s incredibly stimulating work.”
She echoes: “I like coming up with an original angle or discovering something that no one else has written.” One of her favorite scoops was off the release of Clinton’s emails from her private server while she was at the State Department. While most reporters focused on messages related to national security, Karni found a tale (headlined “The Only Person Who Says No to Hilary”) in the tart exchanges between Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s then chief of staff, and the secretary of state.
“She was the only one mean to Hillary,” Karni says. “It felt like Hillary was kissing up to Cheryl. I just loved there was one woman in Hillary’s world who could give her the business. It spoke to the Clinton world.”
Hired in 2015, Karni usually works from her Brooklyn Heights apartment but every couple of weeks checks in at Politico headquarters. On this day, she pitches one of her quirky features, this one on what she frames as the attention-deficit-disorder, no-impulse-control candidate (Donald Trump) versus the obsessive-compulsive-disorder, not-a-spontaneous-bone-in-her-body candidate (Hillary Clinton).
“I like covering Clinton because, no matter what happens, it matters,” she says. “Either you’re covering the next president, or you’re covering the end of the Clintons.”
Charlie Mahtesian, senior politics editor at Politico, says Karni “has a real nose for a story. Her stories tend to really take off and often explode on the web.”
Politico snatched Karni from the New York Daily News, where she covered politics, including Clinton’s early campaign days. He praises her “tabloid metabolism. … We’re a fast-paced publication. Annie has the skill set to break news in a high-pressure environment.”
Mahtesian has also edited Isenstadt, when he covered Congress. “He’s a pitbull,” he says. “He was the best House reporter in the business. … When he’s pursuing a story, it’s nonstop around the clock.”
Meet the two reporters for the first time, and they come across as polar opposites. Isenstadt makes for a reserved picture in glasses, a snug tie, blue blazer and khakis as he texts sources from his Spartan cubicle. Karni, looking chicly New York in all black, is chatty, joking with colleagues and munching Skinny Popcorn even as she pounds at her laptop. He favors reporting; she argues with editors over word choice.
Isenstadt grew up in Piedmont, Calif., in the Bay Area, and picked Haverford for its intimate feel. The political science major says he was always interested in the process of politics. After a brief stint with Joe Biden’s presidential bid in 2008, he joined Politicker.com before jumping to the hot, upcoming Politico.
“I think the best stories peel back the curtain and provide readers with insight on what’s really going on in politics, how power is being used,” Isenstadt says. “This is one of the wildest election seasons probably in political history. It’s a great time to be a reporter and covering politics.” One of his points of pride is a March exclusive he wrote about Marco Rubio rejecting a unity ticket with Ted Cruz. It got 2,700 shares.
Karni, originally from Baltimore, was introduced to Haverford through her track coaches, Elson Blunt ’95 and Connie Kim-Gervey ’95. “I visited on a sunny day,” she says. “People looked happy.” The English major considered grad school before she fell for journalism following an internship-turned-job at the New York Sun.
Eight years and three tabloids later, Politico came calling. “I decided when I took this job, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it has an end date,” she says, “and I was just going to put everything else aside and this was going to be it for the next year and half.”
Well, she did get married nine months ago to Ted Mann, a Wall Street Journal business reporter. He’s taken the demands of his new wife’s job in stride. “He’s like, `Go do your thing. See you in a year.’”
On cue, Karni excuses herself. She has a deadline to meet.
-Lini S. Kadaba