A celebration of access in Tampa

Conventions are about getting in to the place worth being

TAMPA — It only took me two minutes to get kicked out of Liberty Plaza.

Liberty Plaza, sponsored by various conservative advocacy groups, is a tent city set up to entertain delegates and Republican donors. A vulgar, boring display of political spending in action, the Plaza features a cigar tent sponsored by the secretive, right-leaning nonprofit American Action Network; the “Citizens United Theater,” featuring the best in conservative documentaries; and nightly concerts by bands like Journey and Cheap Trick. I was there just long enough to realize that there was absolutely nothing of interest going on there, which is why I wasn’t too offended when security rescinded my admittance and insisted I leave. “This area is invitation only,” the security guy said. When I asked how to get an invitation, I was told to visit libertyplaza.com. Libertyplaza.com does not exist.

More than anything, the modern political convention is a celebration of access. With nothing substantively important going on in terms of platform-writing or candidate-nominating, the convention becomes an excuse for political parties to entertain and impress their donors, and the best way to do this is to tout the exclusivity of the cigar tents and concerts contained therein.

As you might expect, the media eats this up. We focus on getting into the places where we’re not supposed to go, protecting the areas to which we do have access, and conveniently ignoring the fact that not much is happening in either. It’s the apotheosis of a sort of proximity-to-power journalism that the Internet was supposed to kill, but obviously didn’t. The access game keeps the media on-message—the convention is important, really! —and keeps us convinced that where we are is where the story is; where we are is the place that’s worth being.

Where we are, most of the time, is the Tampa Convention Center, accessed through a maze of fences and checkpoints so dense that, once you’ve found your way inside, you don’t really want to leave. The entire center has been handed to the media for the week, and you can sort of gauge the relative importance of each media outlet by the number of flat screens installed in their workrooms. (The AP’s room, for instance, looks like a Best Buy.) CJR is housed in the flat screen-poor special press center, which is neither special nor much of a press center—it’s just a bunch of long, rectangular tables separated from each other by blue curtains, and peopled by reporters for outlets that no one’s ever heard of. The rest of the media is elsewhere, in makeshift cubicles on various levels of the giant convention center, which I haven’t yet fully explored, and in which I fully expect to get helplessly lost before the week is over.

Some people spend all day in here; it is air conditioned and has Internet access, which counts for a lot, and, as I said, it is also difficult to leave. If you want to go to the actual Tampa Bay Times Forum, where the convention is happening, you can walk through a series of air conditioned tents (which are easy to make fun of, but which are also useful, because it is very, very hot here), or you can take a shuttle bus. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the one bus that’s a limo-bus, with black leather seats, two flat screen televisions, and plenty of cocktail glasses, though no liquor. Secret Service personnel ride in the front of the bus, which reinforces the feeling that you are part of something important, and also the feeling that you might be expelled from this important something at any moment.

Inside the Forum, where they’re charging $2.50 for a can of Coke, CJR has been assigned seats all the way up on level six, on eye-level with the bunches of balloons that will drop at some point this week. On the sixth-floor concourse there is a kiosk where you can electronically ‘sign the Declaration of Independence’ (the kiosk is broken), and an alcove that has been designated a “prayer room.” The prayer room features eight chairs, a carpet decorated with lightning bolts, and a Bible open to the third section of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. I look at verse 12: “And so, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” When I try to go downstairs, I am rebuffed by a female usher, who informs me that I cannot under any circumstances access the floor. So much for compassion!

Back inside the convention center, the “special press” section abuts the media lounge, sponsored by Google, about which some visitors are unaccountably excited. “They’ve got all sorts of cool Google stuff in here,” one enthusiastic man says as he enters. “Where do I go to get some of the cool Google stuff?” (“Just go right on inside,” the door guy responds.)

Inside, the lounge features tables, a photo booth, massage chairs in which elderly reporters like to sleep, free espresso drinks from Buddy Brew Coffee, a “Google Goodies” wall featuring stickers and buttons, and TV screens flashing fun facts about US presidents. (“Since boyhood, Ulysses S. Grant had an aversion to any kind of profanity.”) There are two treadmills with desks attached to them, so that reporters can simultaneously work and work out. I can’t decide whether this is the greatest or the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen, so I try it out. I feel somewhat healthier, but I also can’t read the notes I wrote while powerwalking. There is also an interactive display touting Google’s benevolent effect on local businesses in each state—and this, of course, is the point of all this free stuff: to give journalists and delegates the soft sell about Google’s good works; to entertain and impress people who might be of use to them.

I assume the door guys are trying to keep uncredentialed people out of here, too; I assume there are people plotting ways to get in. But it’s just salesmanship and bullshit, designed to get otherwise-skeptical adults to put their guard down, like everything else in the access zone. It only took me two minutes to get kicked out of Liberty Plaza. That was all the time I needed.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.