Don’t Make Eye Contact

And other tips for getting where you need to go at the conventions

DENVER — As far as the media were concerned, the most powerful people at the Pepsi Center weren’t the various politicos assembled onstage and on the arena floor during the DNCC’s proceedings. Those latter have political clout, sure—but the people who had the most direct impact on press members’ ability to get stories at the arena were the guards: the guards manning the various security checkpoints leading to the center’s inner sanctum; the guards checking badges at the entrance to “the perimeter,” nearly a mile from the arena; the guards checking badges before conventioneers passed through metal detectors (and their bags, through x-ray machines); the guards checking badges at the entrance to the Pepsi Center’s lobby; the second round of guards double-checking those badges about ten feet further into the lobby; the guards at the entrances to each individual seating section in the arena.

It was those guards who decided how far we—we low-on-the-totem-pole souls who were not delegates or “honored guests” or DNC bigwigs or media bigwigs, but simple storytellers—could go.

Given that the writing press galleries at Denver’s main events—the Pepsi Center proceedings, last night’s Invesco Field speech—are often situated in areas that provide sidelong-at-best views of the action (the Pepsi Center’s gallery was pretty much behind the stage; Invesco’s gallery was situated at stage left, its view of the speakers’ podium almost completely blocked by the CNN and MSNBC tents), I wondered how hard it would be for a wayward media type such as myself to find a better place from which to view the convention’s events. And given the fact that I, like most many some of “the 15,000” who descended on Denver this week, had a basic press credential, I wondered how far that access could take a reporter.

Turns out, pretty far. My lowly press pass got me into, among other normally-off-limits-to-reporters places: an opulent party at Elitch Gardens, the amusement park right next to the Pepsi Center, sponsored by the Democratic Governors’ Association. A VIP viewing box at the Pepsi Center. A third-row seat off Invesco’s forty-yard line.

The trick, for reporters now heading to St. Paul, is getting past the guards without them getting a good look at your press pass. Which comes down to behaving like an Important Person would. Which comes down to a combination of not making eye contact with the guards (Important People are too busy to acknowledge non-Important People); walking quickly (Important People always need to be somewhere, you know, five minutes ago); and, of course, turning around your credential badge so the word “press” isn’t visible (since Important People, with the exception of the aforementioned BigWigs, are generally not members of the press). Given the crowds and the controlled chaos of the convention floor, more often than not, doing that will get you where you want to go.

I was both pleased and alarmed by this discovery. Pleased, of course, because venturing out of the press-box bubble allows one to witness history with those storied “real people.” And alarmed, of course, because the checkpoint security people are supposed to provide, you know, security. Their job isn’t to make journalists’ lives harder; it’s to maintain the order that will, in turn, maintain the safety of the conventions’ participants. If I, a lowly reporter, could get into places I wasn’t technically supposed to access, what about someone out to bear more than witness?

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.