SOUTH CAROLINA — The campaign media horde congregated in Charleston Thursday night for the Republican presidential debate, eagerly billed by host network CNN as the “First in the South.” I was there, too—not for the debate, but for the horde. There were about three hundred of us in all, lined up at our stations in the filing center, glancing between large screens (the TV monitors showing the debate occurring in the adjacent hall) and small ones (computers, tablets, smartphones).
The whole scene kind of reminded me of industrial farming. Here’s how the sausage gets made.
CNN opened the doors of the North Charleston Coliseum to credentialed journalists at noon, and at three offered a sneak preview of the debate hall. Possibly because it was so early, possibly because this was the twenty-third debate of the season, or possibly just because news reporters have better things to do, the tour group consisted of a few international reporters, some local television crews, myself, and twelve-year old twins from Daniel Island, S.C., who were on assignment for the Scholastic Kids Press Corps.
Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief and executive producer of the debate, played tour guide. He told us it was the same set that CNN has used at all the other debates this year—it’s just packed up and moved from place to place. He encouraged us to feel the carpet, still cold from the ice lying beneath it (the Coliseum is home to the South Carolina Stingrays, a minor league team in the East Coast Hockey League). And he told us it had been a wild day in debate-planning: the CNN crew had learned that morning that Mitt Romney hadn’t really won the Iowa caucuses, and that Rick Perry, who was supposed to occupy the furthest podium at stage right and receive a fifth of the night’s questions, had dropped out of the race. (Not to mention the interview given by Newt Gingrich’s second ex-wife to ABC, in which she said he’d asked for an “open marriage.”) The moderators had been busily working on more queries for the remaining candidates.
Feist pointed out the red chairs in the center of the debate hall, which would be filled by select audience members who might get the chance to ask a live question at the debate. (When I asked how the lucky questioners were chosen, a CNN spokeswoman didn’t seem eager to tell me the secrets of the sauce, but left it at, “They are vetted very carefully—to make sure they’re not part of any campaign.”) The red chairs were ringed by tiers of blue ones, which had been labeled with masking tape bearing the names of various VIPs—politicians, conservative bigwigs, candidates’ spouses, CNN personnel. South Carolina governor Nikki Haley’s chair was starred. Beyond the blue seats was the arena seating that would be filled by two thousand audience members.
I asked whether the audience was briefed on how to react during the debate. Yes, I was told—audience members would be encouraged to applaud and react, but to do so respectfully. The producers said they’d had no problems with disrespectful audiences in previous debates this year. (Huh.) The tour concluded on the stage itself, where the podiums were labeled with small nametags—Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul. Many of the journalists took turns being photographed behind the podiums.
Then it was back to the filing center, which by about seven o’clock was starting to fill up with reporters reading, checking e-mail, and eating sandwiches out of Styrofoam boxes. The assembled journalists were arranged roughly by media type. Up front were the wire reporters (as well as the Scholastic kids), followed by the newspaper reporters, followed by the weekly magazines, followed by the monthly magazines. Behind them, the internationals. Then, in the far back corner, the bloggers, working more constantly and frantically than anybody else. There seemed to be more bloggers than chairs. (The seating arrangement put me back center, between seats reserved for Vanity Fair and CQ, each of which remained empty.)
Around 20 minutes before the 8 p.m. start time, the pre-game festivities began in the debate hall. Governor Nikki Haley spoke, and the Pledge of Allegiance was recited. If you’ve ever been in a studio audience, what happened next will be familiar: an enthusiastic, muscular man, wearing a headset and all black—he looked like a burglar, or maybe a Tae Bo instructor—came out and baited the audience. “Who wants to be on TV tonight?” He encouraged them to applaud energetically—“We want to feel your love!” “We want to hear your hands clapping!”—but to avoid heckling, shouting, and standing.