Meanwhile the reporters, most of whom must have seen this routine many times over, were making last-minute runs to the food table. But just about every journalist was settled into his or her seat and had opened up Twitter—Tweetdeck or Hootsuite for the younger and more tech-savvy in the room—by the time CNN’s intro package went on air. Santorum was pronounced to have “renewed momentum”; Paul, “an insurgent army of young people.” And just in case you forgot where we were: “Welcome to the South” (“where values matter”). The reporters in the room seem to relish the hokiness of these promos; snarky 140-character comments are de rigeur.
And with the action underway, the wild tweeting (and more) began. For most journalists in the filing center—my row excepted; some of my fellow monthly magazine colleagues didn’t even bring a computer—it’s no longer enough to sit, watch, and then write quickly about the debate. There is also the tweeting, live-blogging, storifying, and simultaneous fact-checking that is part of debate coverage. I have no idea how they do it; I struggle to merely read Twitter as I process what the candidates are saying.
I also have little idea who reads all of this in real time, other than the journalists themselves. It is an odd experience to sit in a large, often silent room with three hundred people who are furiously tweeting, retweeting, and reply-tweeting to each other (and their professional peers who aren’t in the room)—cracking jokes, settling on sound bites, ranking candidate performances and ties. While there’s certainly a little (very little, in 140 characters) debate in these exchanges, there is far more consensus-building. This is how the hivemind is made.
As you’ve heard by now, the debate got off to a fiery start. (So much for those audience ground rules.) In the filing room, the journalists—the despicable “elite media” all in one place!—appeared to be more entertained by the theatrics of Newt Gingrich’s angry denunciation of moderator John King and the press corps than insulted by its substance. There were lots of laughs in the room (it’s not entirely silent); Twitter went wild. The consensus seemed to be that Gingrich had handled the episode marvelously.
There were plenty of laughs over the next hour, too, most prompted when a candidate’s tics came to the surface. Newt attacks the media; Newt invites a “Lincoln-Douglas debate”; Romney reminds everyone how long he’s been married; Romney says he’s from the “real streets” of America; Ron Paul gets ignored and ignored and ignored.
At 9:02, my closest seatmate, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, got up and left (or at least relocated). This was not long after he buried his head in hands in reaction to Romney’s “real streets” comment.
That flagging spirit seemed to have infected the room by about 9:15—there was more milling about; less tweeting. By ten o’clock, the debate was done.
The work is hardly over when the debate is, though. That’s the signal for journalists to begin the oddest portion of their night: time in the “spin room.” Think the concept of “spin” is antithetical to journalism? That’s not the case here, where most of the reporters herded into an adjacent room with their cameras and equipment. Surrogates for each of the candidates stood beneath signs held up by unfortunate young staffers, waiting to be approached by journalists. (At each station, a second employee was dispatched to hold a “CNN Politics” sign.) You know these folks are going to say something positive—the only suspense is how they get there.
Romney backer Tim Pawlenty, for example, when asked about Romney’s “maybe” moment, said his candidate’s stated plans to release his tax returns far surpass those of any other: Gingrich has just released his returns for one year, Santorum gave a “non-answer,” and Paul doesn’t have any plan to release his.
And Pawlenty, no surprise, thought King’s opening question about Gingrich’s ex-wife’s comments was A-OK. “It was the lead story of the day,” he said.
When a reporter followed that up with, “How do you think Governor Romney did tonight?” I left and headed over to the Gingrich section. Gingrich’s press secretary, R.C. Hammond, was telling journalists how inappropriate King’s question was.
It’s probably worth considering how much value this sort of commentary adds, but in the moment, there’s not a lot of time for that. The spin room is a crush of people, and the best strategy is to quickly glob on to the scrum, thrust out your recorder, and push to the front. If the filing center is journalists in their pens, the spin room is reporters at the feeding trough. (Or, in the words of Scholastic Kid Reporter Zach Dalzell, the reporters were “swarming like bees at the smell of honey.”)