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.
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.