Review: ‘On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries,’ starring Dana Bash, Kyung Lah, Jasmine Wright, Daniella Diaz, Kaitlan Collins, Annie Grayer and MJ Lee

August 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Daniella Diaz in “On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries” (Photo courtesy of CNN/HBO Max)

“On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries” 

Culture Representation: Taking place in various cities across the United States, the documentary film “On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries” features a racially diverse (white, African American, Asian and Latino) group of female CNN reporters as they cover the primaries in the 2020 U.S. presidential race.

Culture Clash:  Several of the reporters talk about how their line of work conflicts with having a “normal” lifestyle; the intense competition between the political candidates; public animosity toward CNN and other media outlets that get criticism for being “fake news”; and issues such as racism, sexism and the massive divide between Democratic and Republican politics.

Culture Audience: “On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries” will appeal primarily to people interested in how CNN reporters work behind the scenes, because there’s very little in the documentary that includes exclusive access to the political candidates.

Kyung Lah and Jasmine Wright in “On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries” (Photo courtesy of CNN/HBO Max)

HBO Max’s “On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries,” produced by CNN Films, is part behind-the-scenes documentary, part promotional vehicle for CNN on how the network covered the U.S presidential primary campaigns of 2020. (HBO Max and CNN share the same parent company: AT&T’s WarnerMedia.) Because this documentary was intended to make CNN look good, people who hate CNN probably won’t be interested in watching, unless CNN haters (who love to call CNN “fake news”) are curious to see how critics of CNN are depicted in this film.

For everyone else—people who like CNN or people who are neutral about CNN—the movie gives some insight into not just the political campaigns but also about the employee politics of working for CNN. The documentary definitely puts CNN in a positive light. But there are some cracks that show how CNN, which has an image of being “left-leaning” and “liberal,” has some work to do in practicing the progressive ideals preached by CNN’s opinionated anchors and hosts, who are the collective voice of the network. (There’s no director credited for the entire documentary, which has the executive producers listed as Amy Entelis, Katie Hinman, Toby Oppenheimer and Courtney Sexton.)

Perhaps to try to deflect criticism of CNN being a male-dominated company (just like many news/journalism companies tend to be male-dominated), “On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries” only focuses on the female CNN journalists who were assigned coverage of various U.S. presidential candidates. There were many more Democratic candidates than Republican candidates (with Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee, since he had no real competition in the Republican Party), so most of the documentary is about coverage of the Democratic candidates.

The documentary gives a brief explanation of the hierarchy of campaign assignments at CNN and other major TV news companies like CNN, by describing the difference between a correspondent and an embed. A correspondent is assigned to cover a particular candidate’s campaign and make their reports on camera, while an embed is the lower-level person assigned to cover a particular candidate’s campaign by doing all the traveling to follow the candidate.

Embeds do a lot of the behind-the-scenes grunt work, while correspondents (who typically have more job experience) have more flexible hours and get the glory of being on TV. A correspondent usually has at least one embed counterpart who can do the correspondent’s work if the correspondent isn’t available. That doesn’t mean that correspondents don’t have to do a lot of traveling. It just means that correspondents get to travel less than the embeds.

Therefore, the embeds tend to be younger employees, who usually don’t have children. It’s mentioned many times in the documentary how this type of journalism is very hard on raising children and maintaining committed relationships. It’s also implied, but not said outright, that women are judged more harshly than men for having these jobs that take time away from their loved ones.

The CNN employees featured in the documentary are:

  • Dana Bash, chief political correspondent
  • Kaitlan Collins, White House correspondent, assigned to cover Republican candidate Donald Trump
  • Jessica Dean, correspondent, assigned to cover Democratic candidate Joe Biden
  • Daniella Diaz, embed, assigned to cover Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren
  • Annie Grayer, embed, assigned to cover Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders
  • Kyung Lah, senior national correspondent, assigned to cover Democratic candidate Amy Klobuchar
  • MJ Lee, political correspondent, assigned to cover Democratic candidates Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg
  • Abby Phillip, correspondent, assigned to cover Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg
  • Arlette Saenz, correspondent, assigned to cover Democratic candidate Joe Biden
  • Jasmine Wright, embed, assigned to cover Democratic candidate Amy Klobuchar

Throughout the documentary, it’s clear that for all the money that CNN spent to put these journalists on the campaign trail, the political candidates featured in this documentary didn’t really single out CNN as the “go to” outlet to do in-depth, one-on-one interviews with any of the journalists featured in the documentary. The only one-on-one interview time that’s shown in the documentary is a quick interview (lasting maybe a few minutes) that CNN’s Phillip did with Buttigieg after a campaign speech. The majority of the time, the CNN journalists are either lumped in with the rest of the press corps, who end up getting the same candidate soundbites at a speech or rally, whether the cameras are stationed on a platform or are following a candidate like a pack of vultures.

There is no footage of the journalists on the candidates’ buses or traveling with the presidential candidates by plane. (By contrast, Showtime’s docuseries “The Circus” has this type of footage.) There’s no footage of a candidate in a personal or informal setting. Instead, there’s a lot of footage of the CNN journalists in their homes or hotel rooms, packing suitcases or getting ready for their next trip. As Diaz says in the documentary, “I stalk presidential candidates for a living.”

By the time this documentary premiered on HBO Max, it was already known which Democrat in the race was the last one standing (Joe Biden). And that’s why there’s no real suspense in seeing the ups and downs of certain candidates’ campaigns. Therefore, the documentary spends a lot of time giving background stories on several of the CNN journalists who are featured.

Out of all the journalists in the documentary, Bash has been with CNN the longest. She joined CNN in 1993, not long after graduating from George Washington University. She admits that she’s been “lucky” to have been given the opportunities that she’s had. (Most on-air journalists at CNN usually have to spend years paying their dues working at local news stations before getting a job at a national network such as CNN.)

And she says of her political coverage of this election cycle: “I get to have a front-row seat to history.” It’s an apt description, since she spends more time seated in front of a camera than traveling on the campaign trail with the candidates, compared to her CNN colleagues who are featured in the documentary. Out of all the CNN journalists featured in this documentary, Bash has the highest position in the employee hierarchy. And with that ranking comes the privilege of not having to travel so much, but she still has to work under a 24-hour news cycle where anything can happen.

Bash says in the documentary, “I’m so lucky that I get to work with so many young women. I know what it was like for me when I was younger, to have somebody help me keep perspective, and so I really try to do that with them.” However, the documentary doesn’t actually show Bash do any mentoring, other than a few sentences of encouragement that Bash gives to Diaz during some free time in a hotel’s event area after a candidate’s appearance. If Bash does in fact devote significant time mentoring her younger colleagues, it’s not in the documentary.

Bash, who has a son named Jonah (born in 2011) with her second ex-husband John King (who’s also a CNN correspondent), is shown talking about the difficulties of balancing raising a child with a busy career that doesn’t have regular 9 to 5 hours. While in the CNN studios, Bash and King are seen doing a video conference chat with Jonah. There’s no mention of who’s at home watching their son while they’re at work, but Bash and King make the type of CNN salaries where they can easily afford a nanny. A lot of people watching this documentary know that being able to afford great child care isn’t a problem for a CNN star like it is for a lot of average working folks, so Bash won’t get much sympathy from viewers, especially since a lot of people already think that CNN stars are “out of touch” with their “privilege.”

Whatever salary Lah is making at CNN, it’s obviously not nearly as much as Bash’s salary, because Lah doesn’t have outside help in raising her children. Lah’s husband stays home and watches their two kids while Lah is at work. Lah (who worked in Japan as a TV journalist before joining CNN) says that her husband, who used to work at ABC News, had to make sacrifices in his career in order to have the time to take care of their children: “He’s definitely taking the professional hit, in order for me to do what I’m doing.”

Lah adds, “If you were to ask my kids, they’d tell you that they don’t like my job at all.” However, Lah says she loves doing this kind of journalism and wouldn’t trade it for any other career. “In order to tell the story, you have to go to the story,” she comments on all the travel required for her job. Lah is a straight-talking, often foul-mouthed, sometimes abrasive journalist who comes across as more “real” than some of her CNN colleagues in the documentary, who seem afraid of admitting to having any flaws or painful experiences in their past.

Lah opens up about being a Korean immigrant and how coming from a working-class background are indelible to who she is and how she approaches reporting, since she can relate to the people whose struggles are often ignored by politicians. Lah says that her parents had master’s degrees when they immigrated to America, but because of language barriers, they couldn’t get jobs in their desired fields. Instead, her parents owned and operated a store, which eventually went bankrupt. Lah breaks down and cries when she says that she spent so much time working in the store, she remembers what the inside of the store looked like more than she remembers what her childhood home looked like.

According to Lah, her immigrant background made her strive hard to achieve the American Dream that her parents didn’t quite have. A few moments of comic relief are in the documentary when Lah’s mother calls her, almost like a mother in a sitcom, to nag Lah about her job and not being at home with her kids. Lah says that her mother sometimes drives her crazy with these calls, to the point where she no longer tells her mother where she is going when she has to travel for her job. Even though Lah acts annoyed by her mother at times, it’s obvious that they have a lot of deep love for each other.

Bash and Lah are the only female CNN journalists in the documentary who were in these two categories when this documentary was being filmed: (1) mothers and (2) over the age of 40. Whereas Bash doesn’t really express concerns about her job security (in an industry where getting older can be more harmful to a woman’s career than a man’s career), Lah says that complacency is not an option for herself. Lah is also candid in saying that, as a woman color, part of her drive to work extra hard comes from knowing that racists will see her has “less than,” just because she isn’t white, and she wants to prove the naysayers wrong.

Wright also has a similar outlook on life, so that’s probably why the documentary shows that she and Lah have a special bond, which they both talk about in the film. It’s a mentor/protégée type of relationship where it’s obvious that they really enjoy working together and respect each other. It’s a great example of the type of female empowerment in the workplace where women can help each other, and it’s not about bashing or badmouthing men.

A proud native of Chicago, Wright seems to have been born to work in politics in some way, since her parents took her to political rallies and events, ever since she was a child. She also comes from a well-educated family. Her mother was a surgeon, and her father was a lawyer who was an aide to former Chicago mayor Harold Washington. Wright’s father also did presidential campaign work for Bill Clinton. She says of her politically active upbringing: “It really shaped my view of the impact that I wanted to have on the world.”

Out of all of the CNN journalists in the documentary, Wright is the most outspoken about how being a woman of color affects her job at CNN. Wright says in the documentary that she told CNN bosses early on that CNN needed to cover Klobuchar’s record of siding with police officers accused of unlawful killings of black men, when Klobuchar was a county attorney in Minnesota, before Klobuchar became a Minnesota U.S. Senator. Wright says that her CNN bosses told her that it wouldn’t be a good time to cover it because the New Hampshire primaries were coming up.

“There’s always [supposed to be] a time for this story!” Wright says in exasperation, as she mentions that she could’ve reported this story first if she hadn’t been stonewalled by her CNN bosses, whom she does not name on camera. Later, when Klobuchar’s county prosecutor record was fully exposed and covered by the media, Klobuchar awkwardly defended herself in interviews when she was asked if her county prosecution record made her look too sympathetic to police accused of racist brutality. Her fading presidential campaign took a big hit and never recovered.

During the final days of the Klobuchar 2020 campaign, Wright comments that it’s ironic that she is the only African American embed at CNN, and it’s for the remaining Democratic candidate who has the least amount of support from black voters. It’s a pointed comment to let people watching the documentary know that even though CNN has an image of promoting “liberal” politics, it still has problems with racial diversity when it comes to the journalists they hire and promote. As of this writing, CNN has no women of color anchoring any of the weekday newscasts, which have higher ratings and more prestige than the weekend newscasts.

Just like Lah, Diaz also comes from a working-class immigrant background (her parents are from Mexico) and is very close to her mother. Diaz wears her mother’s wedding ring and engagement ring as unusual good-luck gifts that her mother gives her—an indication of how highly Diaz’s family must think of her to entrust her with wearing that jewelry in a job where Diaz has to frequently travel and be in large crowds.

Diaz says she grew up poor in McCallen, Texas. Her parents came to the United States to give their family a better life and to pursue the American Dream. Diaz says that although she is very proud of her ethnicity, she constantly has to fight some people’s misperception that her ethnicity is a detriment to her qualifications as a news journalist. Diaz comments that it really irritates her when she’s told that “being white is objective, and being Latina is biased.”

Diaz, Lah and Wright all say that because America is continuing to be more racially diverse, being a woman of color in U.S. journalism matters for an accurate representation of what the U.S. population looks like. And it’s pointed out in the documentary that although Republican presidential candidates generally don’t need a lot of people of color to vote for them to win, the opposite is true of Democratic presidential candidates. Biden’s major comeback in winning the 2020 South Carolina caucus is shown as proof (he went from the middle of the pack in the Democratic candidate polls to first place), since his victory was significantly boosted by black voters.

Collins, the only CNN journalist in the documentary whose job is to cover a Republican presidential candidate, talks about coming from a family and community in Alabama which are mostly Republican and very pro-Donald Trump. Since Trump’s hatred of CNN is well-documented, Collins obviously doesn’t get to interview him. Instead, the documentary shows Trump and his supporters at some of his rallies. When Trump brings up “fake news” and the media, the crowds boo, and Collins looks both embarrassed and defensive.

Collins doesn’t reveal what her political views are, but she does comment in the documentary: “I don’t think that people think about what they’re saying when they say, ‘Fake news.’” She adds that people’s general perception of the media is that “We all think alike and act alike.”

It’s a very myopic and untrue statement, because there are plenty of media outlets to serve all kinds of people, whether their politics are conservative, liberal or somewhere in between. In fact, conservative-leaning Fox News gets higher ratings than liberal-leaning CNN and MNSBC. Clearly, there are millions of people who don’t believe everyone in the media thinks alike, by virtue of the fact that numerous media outlets exist for diverse groups of people. Collins seems like a nice person, but she’s not the smartest of this bunch of CNN employees in the documentary.

The documentary shows a little bit of socializing between the younger CNN employees, to give viewers an idea of what their camaraderie is like. Diaz, Grayer and Saenz are seen eating breakfast together at a diner and talking about how their work is affecting their love lives. (Not surprisingly, they all say that it’s hard to maintain a relationship because all the traveling they have to do.) Diaz, Wright and Grayer are seen in a hotel room together, watching the Democratic candidate debate in Las Vegas on February 19, 2020, and reacting to Warren’s tear-down of Bloomberg during the debate.

Diaz says that she’s not surprised that Warren was capable of that type of attack. Multiple times in the documentary, these CNN journalists say that they’ve become experts on the candidates they’re supposed to cover, but they don’t share any interesting anecdotes about things they learned about their candidates while following them on their campaigns. And the only time that the documentary shows something that’s close to these journalists getting a “scoop” is when Wright got a tip (that she passed on to Lah) that Klobuchar was going to end her campaign. The information turned out to be correct, so Lah was able to be one of the first TV journalists to report it.

The movie ends with the COVID-19 pandemic beginning to hit the United States, leading to campaign events being cancelled, and journalists having to social distance and doing their reporting from home. Lah ended up getting sick and had to quarantine herself, while the CNN journalists who covered presidential campaigns that ended had to stay at home and wait for their next assignments.

“On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries” doesn’t have any surprising revelations about how the featured presidential candidates operated in their campaigns, and there are no interesting interviews with any of the candidates. Instead, the movie is more of a showcase of female journalists covering politics for CNN.

If CNN Films is making a documentary about CNN employees, there’s going to be an inherent bias. It’s impossible for most viewers to know how many negative things behind the scenes could have been edited out of the documentary. However, if people want to see a documentary about female colleagues in TV news where their work relationships are about camaraderie instead of catfights, then this movie serves that purpose.

HBO Max premiered “On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries” on August 6, 2020.