campaign desk

The 15,000

What reporters are doing at the DNC
August 27, 2008

There are apparently 15,000 journalists attending the Democratic National Convention. Here is what some of them are doing:

14,000 are wearing terrible suits.

7,500 aren’t doing much at all. This isn’t surprising. Only a small number of reporters actually have a reason to be here. The rest are conventioneering—seeing old friends, eating Democratic-themed menu items (“Barack Obama’s Turkey Chili”) in pandering local restaurants, brandishing their press passes at all comers, looking for free things, and spending about 14 percent of their time trying to rustle up enough stories to justify their presence to their editors. These reporters are the ones mostly writing about themselves, or their friends, or their experiences exploring Denver with their friends (“I was enjoying some turkey chili with David Broder yesterday…”). At least they’re open about the fact that they’re enjoying themselves.

4,021 are smugly bad-mouthing the convention and its participants in their story ledes (“There is no reason for so many journalists to be here”). Oh, you truth-telling rebels! These dismissals invariably ring false. If they really didn’t want to be here, they wouldn’t have come.

2,294 are bitching about only having perimeter press passes. The press corps is divided into four levels of access—perimeter, arena, hall, and floor. Arena, hall, and floor passes are allowed to enter the Pepsi Center. Those with perimeter passes are restricted to the parking lot. Some of these are mournfully wandering around like Diogenes, looking for stories, or perhaps discarded arena and hall passes, but only finding sunburn. Others have tried to sneak into the Pepsi Center, only to be rebuffed by the robustly efficient Young Dem Robot security staffers. The rest are crammed into four or five huge white tents scattered across the parking lot. The tents house the remote operations of most of the news operations. In Pavilion Four, there is free Coors and free Swedish meatballs and a kiosk where media members can have campaign buttons made featuring their own names. There are also several comfortable leather chairs and flat screen televisions. During Hillary Clinton’s speech, several women clap when Clinton thanks the “sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits.” One of these women is wearing a button that reads “Vote Jeanne President.”

1,026 are drunk. This is as it should be.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

500 don’t have credentials, but are trying desperately to get them. The credentialing process occurs in a Hampton Inn about a forty-minute walk from the Pepsi Center. Each morning, reporters have to come and claim their credentials for that particular day. The media members are separated by medium—newspaper reporters on one floor, magazine reporters on another, multimedia reporters on another. CJR’s credentials are issued from the leftovers pile (third floor). It’s Denver’s answer to the Island of Misfit Toys—bloggers, activists, eighteen-year-olds, men wearing giveaway T-shirts, men complaining about having to pay eleven dollars for parking. One intrepid credentialee is so devoted to his job that he is videotaping the room, like a tourist. A DemBot hustles over and stops him. “There is a lot of sensitive material in this room,” he says. There is most definitely not.

340 are confused about how to find the proper press office inside the Pepsi Center. There are different press rooms with euphonic names like Radio Row, and Talk Show Row. Many of the broadcast journalists are stationed on the uppermost floor of the arena, in what is probably the press box during regular operation. Unaffiliated journalists are stashed on a Being John Malkovich-style semi-floor in the building’s mysterious middle. The unaffiliated press center is a large oblong room featuring several large, oblong tables, no wireless access, and dozens of reporters for small and desperate outlets. Everybody here looks vaguely depressed, or aggravated, possibly because the room was so difficult to find. One indignant woman, in a pink blazer, is desperately trying to find somewhere to have a cigarette. “They told me I had to go downstairs to have a smoke,” she said, shaking her head violently, as if she is about to abandon all caution and light up in the press elevator. She steps out onto the unaffiliated level. “Can I have a smoke here?” she asks. She cannot. The Blogger Lounge is appended to the unaffiliated press room. Its “lounge” credentials apparently hinge on the fact that it has sofas.

150 are in the CNN Grill. At the 2004 RNC in New York, CNN took over the Tick Tock Diner on 34th and 8th and offered round-the-clock free food and beverages to CNN staffers, their guests, and their hangers-on. In Denver, they have outdone themselves, assuming control of a giant brick building in front of the Pepsi Center, painting CNN-friendly slogans on its face (CNN=POLITICS, in a font face that brooks no dissent) and hanging a large electric star that reads CNN Grill. The Grill is ostensibly restricted to CNN staffers and talk show guests, and security is tight, although at times during the afternoon the Grill sets up an ice cream cart behind a fence and distributes free ice cream to all. 200 yards away, Fox News has commandeered another building, and it is much easier to get inside that one.

Sixty-two are enjoying massages.

Seven of them are having their photographs taken with Captain Morgan, the rum-loving pirate who, for some reason, was credentialed into the convention. Captain Morgan wears a red frock coat and a frilly shirt and sounds like he was once told in a high school acting class to project his voice from his diaphragm.

One of them is frantically trying to engineer a meeting between Captain Morgan and Ted Sorenson, the painfully dignified Democratic legend who is finishing an interview with Tavis Smiley just as Captain Morgan bursts into the tent, T-shirts and Morganettes in tow. That person is me, and, in this, I am a failure. But, then again, we are all sort of failures here.

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