Covering the GOP Debate: Lessons Learned

A sign points the way into the Spin Room.

The recent GOP debates were my first foray into covering a major political event. In all honesty I can say
the experience exceeded even my wildest expectations. I didn’t want the evening to end. As I reflect on my
experience, several key lessons come to mind:

  • Arrive Early: This holds true for any situation–job interviews, concerts, dates, you name it. But in this  case it was essential. By arriving early I was able to walk around, meet fellow journalists, and make  connections. It’s always good to know where the best vending machines are and where to find the  extra chairs.
  • Dress for Success: Even though we weren’t in the Debate location itself, through the night we were  able to meet and greet several of the candidates as well as their representatives and other media  personalities. Even if we weren’t on camera, it was not a time to dress casually. Besides, I always walk  a little taller in heels, literally and figuratively.
  • Come Prepared: Along with the essentials–laptop, camera, phone, chargers–I brought some cash,  a bottle of water, and a protein bar. These were key commodities, as there were no food items  available in the Spin Room and no drinks other than $4 Coke and water from the second floor vending  machines. Two men from the Wall Street Journal were complaining about the scarcity of provisions  (“CNN gave us free food and coffee for their debate!”) as I happily enjoyed my newly-purchased Coke and munched on my protein bar.
  • Without a doubt, the greatest lesson I learned while working on this assignment was to put yourself out there.  If you don’t believe in yourself no one else will. As soon as I found out about the Ames GOP Debate I started  following the Iowa division of the GOP on Twitter. I messaged the Iowa GOP Chairman and asked how to  gain entrance to the debate. He did not answer me through the GOP address so I found his personal Twitter  account and followed it, too. After a few weeks, I received a message from the Communications Director for  the Iowa branch of the Republican Party. The message included information on applying for media credentials  required for the debate. Had I not looked for these people and made the initial connections, I never would  have received the media credentials. Chairs of major events don’t go out searching for media contributors–you have to be where they can find you.

A view of the Spin Room early in the day.

This go-for-it attitude served me well the day of the event. Walking in to the post-debate spin room, I found  a dozen rows of tables lined up facing the stage where Fox anchors, candidate reps, and hopefully the  candidates themselves would hold ground throughout the afternoon and well into the evening. These tables  held placards naming various media organizations, from Al-Jazeera to the Washington Post, from Slate to  Politico. Even smaller newspapers like the Omaha World Herald had a seat. Unfortunately, I was told, there  were only so many seats available and smaller organizations such as mine were given access to the room,  but not seating. At this point in the afternoon–I came early–there were only a few reporters in the room. I  walked around scanning the rows of placards. Midway up the rows of tables I found a newspaper with three  spaces reserved on the outside end of a table. I gambled that a regional Midwest newspaper would not send  three people to cover the event, sat my bag on the edge of the table, and plugged my laptop into one of the  power cords stretched beneath the tables.

Milling about I heard other reporters who had no table access asking for extra chairs. They were told they  could sit in the coliseum seats on the second tier of the building. Meanwhile I befriended a couple of Fox  cameramen who told me they found folding chairs in the hallway on the second level. I marched up the steps  in my 3-inch heels and retrieved a chair for myself, placing it beside the other chairs at ‘my’ table. I hoped  that even if all of the other reporters came to sit, they would allow me to use their outlets. By that time a reporter from Norway had arrived, seated at the far end of the table. We became allies, watching each other’s  equipment when one of us wanted to stroll around. Eventually one reporter for the Midwest paper had  arrived. Trying to fly under the radar, I perched my laptop on my knees and worked from there. He was all  business and spoke not a word, but during the first commercial break he muttered and motioned that I could  put my laptop up on the table beside him, so I did. Neither of his seatmates ever arrived, so I scored a prime  position for the entire evening while my counterparts were up in the cheap seats, with no desk space and no power supply.

Ron Paul gets his mic for an on-camera interview.

Feeling lucky, I continued with my forward approach after the debate. When other photographers gathered in  front of the stage to take pictures of the candidates, I jumped right in. Being 5’3” and carrying a small digital  camera makes it easy to navigate through crowds, and the others were fine with me moving to the front  because they could easily shoot over my head. Sometimes being short has its benefits! I decided I would move  beyond taking pictures and talk to as many people as I could. As candidate Herman Cain was leaving the Fox  stage I heard him say something about supporting teachers who just want to teach. I replied, “Mr. Cain, I am  a teacher and I appreciate that.” His head turned in my direction and I was met with a broad grin and a warm  handshake.

Minutes later I was able to meet with one of my personal heroes, Senator Rand Paul. There to  support his father,candidate Ron Paul, Rand was taking questions from the press. I shared with him that I had  read–and thoroughly enjoyed–his book on the Tea Party, which he appreciated. Then I asked him how he  answers critics who say the Tea Party is not a grassroots organization but rather a top-down machine created  by the wealthy elite. He replied that any study of the Tea Party’s origins will show that several independent  organizations sprung up all over the country in the past several years; that these organizations are not  affiliated with a larger organization; that they meet separately and conduct their business separate from one  another. He did acknowledge that larger organizations were trying to capitalize on the success of the Tea Party  by building up larger, more corporate groups, but that they were a reaction to the Tea Party movement, not  the cause of it.

Senator Rand Paul stumps for his father, Rep. Ron Paul.

Perhaps the biggest highlight of my night was meeting Sean Hannity, one of Fox News’ biggest names. By  11:30 p.m. the spin room was emptying out, but Sean was still on stage speaking with a handful of people.  As I stood beside the stage an eager blogger beside me asked the burly security team at the base of the steps  whether we could approach Mr. Hannity. The men shrugged and let us pass. As I approached, Sean was deep  in conversation with Mary Hart (of Entertainment Tonight fame), her husband, producer Burt Sugarman, and  key political advisors Frank Luntz and Michael Barone. I was amazed that I was allowed to stand six inches from  them for fifteen minutes while they analyzed the debate–and while Hart invited Hannity to join her at the  State Fair the following day to enjoy “fried butter or some other fried thing”. Finally, as Sean’s handler told  him it was time to leave, he turned in my direction. I introduced myself and told him I was in my first year as a  conservative contributor for a predominantly liberal-leaning website. Mr. Hannity shook my hand and told me  I had a very important job. He encouraged me to “keep going even when it’s hard because your voice needs to  be heard. Right now it’s all hands on deck for the conservative movement.” Hearing a man I have watched and listened to for ten years encouraging me to let my voice be heard was an incredible moment for me–and it  never would have happened if I hadn’t put myself up on that stage to speak with him.

Rep. Bachmann preps for her post-debate interview with Hannity.

As I went back to my seat and began working on my debate piece for L&P, I heard a voice over the speakers  warning us that it was 11:50 and the Spin Room was closing in ten minutes. Like a kid at Disneyland, I didn’t  want the day to end! In hindsight I realize I got a little post-happy on Facebook during the debate (I was  simultaneously taking notes, posting to Facebook, and tweeting on Twitter); in fact, one of my friends  admitted to blocking me until after the debate because my comments were clogging her feed! However I did gain thirty followers on Twitter so at least some people enjoyed my thoughts on the evening. I have to thank  my good friend Tim for not laughing at me–at least overtly–when I texted him a proud photo of my first-ever  press credentials. For me the badge was better than an Olympic medal. Ultimately, covering the debate was  everything I thought it would be and more. The best experiences for me came when I stepped outside of my  comfort zone and went after what I wanted. That is a lesson I will take with me and apply in all areas of life,  and a lesson that must be shared. As philosopher Ayn Rand once said, “The question isn't who is going to let me it's who is going to stop me”.