Trapped by Deadline, Hammered by Spinners

Spin Alley at the first
presidential debate

Editor’s note: For two days this week, Thomas Lang joined Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s traveling press corps at the first presidential debate and as the candiate made post-debate appearances in Florida and Washington, D.C.

By Thomas Lang

Miami — If the quadrennial nominating conventions have become the equivalent of a pre-game pep rally, the presidential debates seem the equivalent of a fast-break basketball game. And, sure enough, at the University of Miami’s Wellness Center last Friday, an enormous workout and weightlifting room had morphed into a media filing center containing row after row of fold-up tables, each spot marked by a number, a phone and an Ethernet cord. The “premier tables” lined up horizontally, with TV’s stacked overhead every other row. The seats were cheap but the amenities were not. If you were so needy as to want a phone line to make local phone calls, that would cost you or your organization $250. (You did get to keep the plastic phone, retail value $9.99). Perhaps you needed Internet to file; that’d cost you $350. Wanted them both? The combination bundle cut $50 off the total — a reasonable $550.

In line, inquiring about prices, I asked the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Dick Polman about the work ahead of him for the upcoming night. The veteran told me that he would have to “start writing halfway through the debate,” as his first deadline was 11:10 p.m., just forty minutes from the scheduled end of the debate.

Over lunch at the Anheuser-Busch hospitality tent, the Miami Herald’s Lesley Clark and the St. Petersburg’s Times’ Adam Smith also seemed anxious about their deadlines. Clark told me that she writes part of her story beforehand so when 10:00 p.m. rolls around she’s not caught staring at a blank computer monitor. Smith’s first deadline for the early edition going out to Jacksonville and other parts of Florida was 10 p.m., an hour in to the debate. “No time for A material, mostly B material,” he said, meaning that the majority of the story would be context and preview mixed with a few of the shining moments from early in the debate.

“It’s scary to scrap what you’ve done and start over” after the debate, said Clark. Smith said he wasn’t reluctant to start from scratch, but admitted that it’s difficult to work outside of a frame-of-mind set by an early edition version.

The reporters were aware that, in the days leading up to the debate, there had been nearly as many stories, and as much speculation, about their own role in the minuet as there had been about the candidates and the pending debate. As Campaign Desk documented, many had opined that the press corps’ expectations and interpretations are as crucial to molding public opinion as the debate itself. Some of the reporters I talked to didn’t put much stock in that idea. “You’re paralyzed if you think like that,” USA Today’s Jill Lawrence said dismissively, little more than an hour before the debate was set to begin. But campaigns believe it, said colleague Judy Keen, “That’s why [the campaigns] work so hard to influence us.”

Indeed, in order to influence the stories of those with an early bedtime, campaign surrogates were in hot pursuit of the campaign dailies. Joe Lockhart was in one corner, Ralph Reed in another. The debate was still ninety minutes away, but a silly fact like that wasn’t stopping Kerry and Bush surrogates from declaring victory.

The departure of the pre-debate spinners and the countdown clock on CNN indicated it was time to find an unclaimed spot at the table. Sensing the presence of a debate virgin, The New Republic’s Ryan Lizza asked me, “You ever been to one of these?” (Nope.) With the debate hall crowd applauding the entering candidates on the TV screen, Lizza said, “It’s a lot like watching from your living room — just less comfortable with more distractions.”

Lizza was right. Five minutes into the debate, what sounded like (and may have been) a 50-pound weight came crashing to the floor somewhere. At times, some of the candidates’ gaffes would bring a chorus of laughter — most notably when an exasperated Bush declared to both John Kerry and Jim Lehrer that he knew that it was Osama bin Laden, not Saddam Hussein, who had attacked the United States on 9/11. But by far the biggest distraction was the army of campaign minions charged with scurrying about the press center, waving insta-press releases directly in reporters’ line of sight. (The flimsy folding chair was no bargain either. After 90 minutes of sharp shooting pains in my back, I hobbled into Spin Alley with a gait akin to Kirk Gibson’s trot in the 1988 World Series.)

Lizza’s off-the-cuff description turned out to be wrong on one count. Most reporters, including myself, did not experience the debate like every other American sitting on their couches in their living room tuned to the networks or cable channels. Instead, the majority of the media center’s TV’s carried the pool feed, which, with a few exceptions, followed the guidelines agreed on by the campaigns that banned the camera from showing the candidates while they were not speaking.

As everyone learned last January with the infamous “Dean Scream,” a candidate’s future often depends on his or her performance as perceived through the subtle distortions of television, rather than by those seeing it live.

Discussing the topic two days later on the Kerry press plane en route to Washington D.C., David Jackson of the Dallas Morning New emphasized the role of TV as a filter, “People watching on TV saw something different than those watching on the [pool] feed, who saw something different than those watching in the hall.” He added, “The fact that reporters couldn’t see the split screen is significant.” Significant, because viewers across the country watching the cable news networks noticed, as 79-year-old Republican Alta Brandon of Kingwood, Texas put it, a president “obviously agitated and uneasy in his reactions to Kerry.” (It wasn’t until I reached the Spin Room, the gossip haven of the campaign press, that I even found out that the networks had blown off the campaign press rules and gone with the split screen.)

At 10:22 p.m., with eight minutes left in the debate, the quiet murmur of cell phone rings gradually increased into a boisterous chorus. And at 10:26 p.m., as the Bush campaign was handing out its tenth press release of the night, reporters began flowing into the spin room. Soon the collegial flow turned into pushing as sweaty reporters clawed their way into earshot of the big-time political operatives, each denoted by a placard. Bush-Cheney surrogates were recognizable by taller signs decorated with Bush-Cheney campaign logos, which soared over the understated Kerry campaign placards.

Despite the crowds, the access was incredible, if one was willing to wait long enough. And if it didn’t look bad in a news story to just quote one person, then there would be no need to jump from Matthew Dowd to Nicole Devenish to Dan Bartlett. It’s all a game. Hurried reporters ask obvious questions, affable spinners offer canned answers.

Hey there’s Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd — “Matt, what was your opinion on the debate tonight?”

“I think Sen. Kerry had a problem closing the credibility gap with the American public, especially when he said in one sentence that the war in Iraq was a mistake, and then in the next sentence said it wasn’t.”

Look — there’s Bush campaign spokesperson Nicole Devenish gesturing as if she’s measuring something, I wonder what she’s talking about? Ah, of course, Kerry’s “credibility gap.” It turns out he has “no conviction.” First he said “the war in Iraq was a mistake, and then he didn’t.”

Why, amazing ! Nicole seems to agree with Matt!

Surrogate after surrogate repeated the same talking points, no matter what the question. A reporter could have asked White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett about the upcoming Redskins game and would have gotten this response: “The important thing to remember about the Redskins is that in one breath Kerry said the war in Iraq was a mistake, and then in the next sentence said soldiers in Iraq weren’t dying for a mistake. You can’t have it both ways.”

Karen Hughes, Bush spinner-par-excellence, did take a detour to tell a story about her son’s (hint to voters: she’s a mom) fascination with the drama of the spin room after tagging along during the 2000 campaign. Hughes loves it: “There’s nothing like trying to convince people you’re right.”

But convincing reporters that Bush had a good night turned out to be an impossible task. One reporter told me “You could tell from the body language of the spinners that Bush had a bad night,” adding that “it was a [tell-tale] sign that Rove showed up late and left early.”

The Kerry campaign press release that reporters found on their desks when they grew tired of the broken records in the spin room confirmed the emerging conventional wisdom that Kerry had won. On it were three instant polls from CNN/Gallup, CBS, and ABC indicating that viewers declared Kerry victorious by as much as 18 percentage points (according to the CBS poll.)

On the Tuesday prior to the debate New York Times’ Adam Nagourney told the Miami Herald, “I avoid Spin Alley at all costs. I think it’s degrading for reporters and degrading for political operatives. What’s important to me is what the candidates say. I don’t care about anyone else.”

The Houston Chronicle’s Bennett Roth shares the same disdain for Spin Alley, whose “usefulness” he said he finds “limited.” A better bet for insight, says Roth, is to “get [the political operatives] after a few drinks at the hotel bar.” This raises the obvious question, why even leave the hotel room? Or why not, like Nagourney, cover the debate from your living room?

“It’s mostly protective,” said Roth. “In case something happens, then you’re there.”

Aside from the unlikely spontaneous occurrence — Bush lunges at Lehrer? Kerry falls down? Karl Rove switches sides? — attendance at the debate is about two things, neither of which have much to do with covering the policies argued about by the two candidates over the course of the night.

First, much like the campaign trail itself, the debate media center does give reporters insight into at least the surface of the inner workings of the campaign. With so many people from each campaign packed into a small space, each yammering their case, reporters believe they are bound to learn something.

Second, there’s also the undeniable power of, as one reporter put it the next morning, “peer pressure,” the exhilaration of being there, on the imagined inside.

It’s hard to believe there was any other explanation. Both the reporters chained by deadline to their keyboards in the media center and those who scrambled down the hall to Spin Alley might as well have spent the night at a nice sports bar at home. That way they would have seen what they missed at the media center — Bush’s obvious frustration and agitation as he listened to Kerry — and they wouldn’t have had to put up with the talking mimes in charge of spin.

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.