Stupid hat tricks

In which CJR’s Justin Peters wears a crown to the convention to see if he can get interviewed

CHARLOTTE — The DNC, like the RNC before it, is a locus for stupid hats. As the convention proceedings kicked off Tuesday night, the variety of hats on display in the halls of the Time Warner Center would’ve made Dr. Seuss proud: about a dozen men and women in plush Uncle Sam hats; an otherwise-dignified gentleman wearing a top hat decorated with Minnie Mouse ears; a woman wearing a big floppy hat with tea bags dangling from the brim; a man wearing a green Robin Hood hat that appeared to be made from construction paper; a woman in a weird, island-style straw hat better suited to a community theater production of South Pacific.

In 2008, after attending the DNC in Denver, I wrote a piece warning reporters away from obvious media bait: those sign-toting, costumed convention attendees who really, really wanted to get on the news. “It’s expedient to write the story that’s right in front of you. This is why Flag Shirt Man gets interviewed while Khaki Pants Guy walks by unmolested,” I wrote. But “the level of enthusiasm somebody shows for being interviewed is inversely proportional to the level of discourse they will provide…. Anybody who wants to be interviewed that badly most likely has nothing to say.”

Four years later when I arrived in Charlotte, nothing had changed; it still seemed like all you needed to do to be interviewed at the DNC was wear a dumb hat. So yesterday I drove to a Party City way out on the outskirts of the city and bought the dumbest hat I could find—a floppy, bulbous king’s hat in fake red velvet, like something worn by an actor at some cut-rate Medieval Times—and went to the foyer of the Time Warner Center around 9 p.m. to see if I could get interviewed. I decided that I would be completely open about who I was and what I was doing, but I wouldn’t volunteer any information. Otherwise, I would answer all questions as idiotically as possible. I would have absolutely nothing interesting to say.

That wasn’t a problem. Literally as soon as I donned the hat, I heard somebody behind me say, “What about this guy?” I turned and was greeted by two reporters from something called Global Grind (“the world according to Hip-Pop”). “I love that hat!” the cameraman said. “I got it at Party City,” I said. They wanted me to play a word association game, wherein they’d say a name or a phrase, and I’d say the first thing that popped into my head.

“Barack Obama,” the reporter said.

“The President of the United States,” I replied.

“Michelle Obama.”

“His wife.”

“Michelle Bachmann.”

“A congresswoman from Minnesota.”

It just went on like that for a minute and 40 seconds. After the interview concluded, I started walking the main concourse in what I hoped was a regal manner, trying to bait some cameramen. I was soon approached by two people who wanted to interview me for a “get out the vote” video. (Kings don’t normally vote, but if that fact didn’t bother them, it didn’t bother me.) “Awesome hat,” the cameraman said. “I got it at Party City,” I said. With that out of the way, the interview began.

“Do you know anyone who doesn’t vote?”

“I don’t vote.”

“Why not?”

“I’m too busy buying hats at Party City.”

“What would you say to people who don’t vote?”

“If you’re not out buying hats at Party City, you have no reason to not vote.”

For some reason, they kept interviewing me. They seemed satisfied when they finished, though I don’t know why.

“These videos might make you famous,” the cameraman said.

“Hooray, I might be on a website,” I said.

I roamed the halls some more, and, soon, a print reporter asked if he could take my picture. The answer, of course, was yes.

“Are you a delegate?” he asked.

“No, I’m press.”

“Oh. Where are you from?”

“The Columbia Journalism Review.”

“So… you’re covering the convention?”

“I’m going around trying to get interviewed and get my picture taken. I’m seeing how many people interview me just because I’m wearing a hat.”

“Well, you got me.” He laughed nervously, then closed his notepad and walked away.

All in all, I was interviewed three times in an hour, and I’m positive I would’ve doubled that number if I had arrived two hours earlier, when dozens more cameramen were stalking the halls in search of B-roll; at that time, it seemed like the number of stupid hats was only matched by the number of camera crews rushing to interview people wearing stupid hats. This is sort of a metaphor for convention coverage in general. Thousands and thousands of reporters are here in Charlotte, covering one of the biggest political spectacles of the year.

Reporters love things that are big and colorful and dramatic—those stories are easy to report, and they play well on page one and at the top of the hour. But most people here aren’t wearing dumb costumes, which is why it’s aggravating that reporters so consistently spotlight these outliers. Pageantry is obviously part of a political convention, but when you focus primarily on the spectacle, you give readers and viewers an incomplete picture of the sort of people who are here and what’s actually going on. (Granted, at least one of the outlets that interviewed me probably isn’t here to tell their audience what’s actually going on).

On my way out of the convention at the end of the night, I put the hat back on to see if I could tempt anyone into interviewing me one last time. Sure enough, I was jumped by a young man wielding a small video camera. “Sir, can I interview you?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” I said.

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