DES MOINES, IOWA — On Tuesday, I spent more than 13 hours in the “official media hub” for the Iowa caucuses. Given that Mitt Romney’s eight-vote victory was not declared until 1:36 a.m. Iowa time, this hardly counts as a full day’s work (lucky me, I was merely covering the media coverage of the caucuses). I surrendered around 11 p.m., with 96 percent of caucus precincts reporting—“too-close-to-call” was the word—and drove the two hours to my family’s home in Cedar Rapids, arriving just in time to see the final results announced.
I wondered how many journalists would still be there in the Google Media Filing Center. I pictured Chuck Todd, as he was when I left, standing on his elevated platform, looking bored while talking on his phone—watching and waiting for the empty spaces on his caucus map to be shaded in. Or MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, a couple feet away, on her own platform in a red suit and a director’s chair, working over her phone and doing an occasional make-up check. Or the NBC producer, who had probably been there longer than them both, and who for the last few hours had been in his own movie-star chair, looking bored, waiting, and shoveling red, white, and blue popcorn—brought to the media center by its sponsor, Google—into his mouth.
But if time sometimes seemed to stand still, there was no losing track of it in the filing center, where two large screens at the front periodically showed the countdown clock (also sponsored by Google): hours, minutes, seconds ticking by. When the caucuses began, the clocks were replaced by screen shots of Google’s live results page. Another game of waiting began.
While plenty of media chose to establish headquarters elsewhere, the filing center was popular among television, radio, and foreign outlets. The ground floor of the two-story complex had been partitioned by curtains into filing centers for outlets including NBC, ABC, and the BBC. On the second floor was a large dark space with rows of the tables, Ethernet cords, and power strips for journalists, as well as various tiers of scaffolding set up in the back as camera platforms.
Just beyond the scaffolding was the Google Hangout Room, filled with Google-provided amenities and the young Google employees using them. Journalists circled through the space almost exclusively for food and the unlimited supply of coffee, flavored root beers, and Mello Yello Zero (who knew?). There was also Google swag (those gloves that work on touchpad screens). In contrast, the AARP sponsorship area consisted of an unmanned refreshment table in the adjacent corridor where passersby could sample “Social Securitea” and trail mix.
Behind the scaffolding and the treadmills and swag were the “bloggers,” or anyone who chose to designate himself as such for the ($200) privilege of sitting there. Stationed in a large fluorescent-lit space with long tables, the blogging zone had the look of a school cafeteria populated with, indeed, bloggers—a lonely handful of people hunched over computers.
Actually, most of the journalists were hunched over computers—and for every Andrea Mitchell and Chuck Todd, there were 100 more anonymous reporters representing outlets of all stripes. I ran into Mike Aitken, an affable blonde cameraman and editor who was covering the caucus for NRA News, the media arm of the National Rifle Association, with an eye to gun rights issues. He and his colleague Cam Edwards had covered a Michele Bachmann event the day before, where they were part of a media contingent that far outnumbered Iowans—Aitken said he wasn’t sure why they had chosen Bachmann—and were now using the day to prepare for a night of live coverage, featuring interviews with the likes of Tucker Carlson and Matt Strawn, the head of the Iowa GOP. They seemed just the sort of small, out-of-town crew that the filing center was designed to serve, and indeed Aitken said he was having a fine time (though he’d found Iowa to be surprisingly cold).
Also at her first caucus was Keely Kemp, a reporter for IowaWatch.org, an investigative start-up recently co-founded by University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Berry. A 22-year-old senior at the U of I, Kemp recently completed “Iowa Caucus Campaign Coverage,” a coveted quadrennial fall course at the university that trains students in the essentials: how to interpret polls, fact-check, find sources off the beaten path, and generally cover a political caucus.