A Long Day—and Night—Covering the Caucuses

Patriotic popcorn, Google swag, and the ubiquitous Chuck Todd

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.

“Everything has led up to this day,” said Kemp, who over the course of 2011 had reported on Mike Huckabee (before he announced he was not running), the short-lived candidacy of Thaddeus McCotter, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney. Kemp says IowaWatch strives to steer clear of traditional horse race coverage, in keeping with its emphasis on explanatory and investigative journalism, though she admitted her own tastes are not always so high-minded—she confessed to loving MSNBC, even though she knows “it’s biased,” and she was thrilled to see Hardball host Chris Matthews ambling around the complex.

Down the table from Kemp were Fengfeng Wang, a reporter for China’s Xinhua news service, and two of his colleagues. Wang, who has been covering U.S. politics out of Washington, D.C., for two years, said the caucus beat has been “a bit of a party”—and extended the analogy by comparing journalists covering the candidates to paparazzi covering celebrities. (He did say, though, that the political reporters made for “diligent” paparazzi.)

Also well-represented at the filing center were local television journalists like Jason Fechner, the evening news anchor for WQAD, the ABC affiliate in the Quad Cities market, which straddles the Iowa-Illinois border. Fechner, who was polishing his script and preparing to anchor the 5, 6, and 10 o’clock newscasts from the center, was eager to be approaching the end of the station’s Caucus 2012 coverage, which he said got underway a year ago.

Like many observers, Fechner noted the national tone of this year’s campaign. Even when the candidates came to the state this year, “there are so many cameras; it’s not just shaking hands,” he said. Fechner also suspects another consequence of the national, web-savvy campaign: with the rise of Internet advertising, ad sales at his station are down.

Every so often, an exciting—or “exciting”—moment would strike and bring the scattered journalists together in a scrum. Around 1 p.m., DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz wandered into the filing center for an interview on Andrea Mitchell Reports. She was quickly swarmed by journalists, who came over with their cameras and recorders, the crowd growing as recognition of her presence spread. She entertained questions for ten minutes, pressing Democrat talking points—“not one of these Republicans polls better than Obama”—mostly in response to questions from the right-leaning media outfits like Town Hall and Breitbart.

Wasserman Schultz appeared eager to get her message out in the complex; she turned up later in the afternoon and then again, later that night.

Around caucus time, I ran into Al Jazeera English producer Ilona Viczian and a network freelancer, Bruno Arena, in the Google Hangout room. They were eating Google-provided baked ziti and grumbling about being denied access to both the caucus where Romney was speaking and his victory party planned for later in the night. They had been told there was no space left, but both were certain they were kept away because they were foreign press. Arena, now covering his fifth presidential election, said campaigns become more and more restrictive towards international media. “There’s no pay-off to have us there,” he said. “But it’s arrogant and short-sighted, and it’s a form of censorship.”

With the countdown clock approaching zero, I left the journalists and headed over to the on-site caucus. There were not enough seats for caucus-goers—a couple with a baby stroller had to stand in the back—and just a handful of press, mostly camera-bearing overseas outlets that had come over from the main center for footage.

I stood in the back as participants continued to file in, waiting for the caucus to begin. It was a few minutes after 7—I checked Twitter to discover the results of the NBC and CNN entrance polls were already pinging around. Intrade was responding accordingly; predictions were coming in.

The caucus hadn’t even begun and some of the media was already off to the races with results. This seemed slightly disheartening—and it became even more so as I watched the caucus unfold, with local citizens speaking genuinely about issues they cared about and on behalf of their favored candidates.

I was standing next to Marcelo Raimon, a D.C.-based Argentine journalist who writes for Clarin, that country’s largest newspaper. “This is nice—this picture of democracy—but it’s just such a bad time,” he told me, as we watched the caucus chair count out ballots at the front of the room, the video- and photojournalists jostling for images of the vote-tallying.

By the time I returned to the filing center, the Google map was beginning to show the live results. Based on the entrance polls, the chatter in the center—and elsewhere—was about a three-way race. There was collective frustration because the results were coming in slowly—no doubt, this was partly due to the unrealistic expectations I’d heard during the day that we’d know the results around 7:30 (that’s not long after the caucus site I was at recited the Pledge of Allegiance to kick off proceedings).

Eventually it became clear it was more of a two-way race. The buzzwords became “too close to call” and “dead heat.” The room started to buzz when the Google map showed 85 percent of precincts reporting—the race was still neck and neck, but it appeared the end was in sight.

But then, of course, it wasn’t. The percentage of precincts reporting crept up slowly to 93 percent. The journalists around me overheard NBC’s John Harwood say his network just couldn’t with certainty call a winner before the remaining votes were in. Though the news of the night was more or less clear, it was also clear that the reporting on that news wouldn’t be over for a while. Maybe I’m projecting, but a sense of resignation settled over the filing center.

“Hurry up and wait,” chuckled the Voice of America cameraman seated behind me. His crew of four had their package ready to air—aside from that little detail about who the winner would be, and sound bites from Romney and Santorum.

I’m not sure when they finished up. And it seems Chuck Todd never did. When I got to Cedar Rapids and turned on the TV I’m pretty sure it was Chuck Todd who reported the result—which makes it all the more unbelievable that when I turned on the TV again at 7 a.m. Iowa time, Todd was reporting on Decision 2012 from Manchester, New Hampshire. That’s a full day’s work.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.