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Behind the Scenes: What it Was Like to Cover the Obama vs. Romney Debates for PolicyMic

For this week's Editor's Corner post, I interviewed the four Pundits who represented PolicyMic at the presidential debates this election: Jesse Merkel, Danielle Schlanger, Mark Kogan, and Edward Williams. Jesse, Danielle, and Mark attended the second presidential debate in Hofstra, New York, while Edward attended the third and final debate, in Boca Raton, Florida.

I asked them what it was like covering a presidential debate live from the press room. Feel free to ask them followup questions below!

Jake Horowitz (JH): What was it like covering the debate in person? What is the coolest story from the night?

Jesse Merkel (JM): For me it was really a dream come true. I've always wanted to take the first step towards a real journalistic assignment, and this was the opportunity of a lifetime. The atmosphere was electric and everyone seemed really excited to be there. The biggest story of the night for me was talking with several pundits and politicians (Katie Pavlich, Bay Buchanan, Peter King) about the unfolding Libya debacle, and how the president did not provide any explanation at whatsoever when asked about it during the debate. 

Danielle Schlanger (DS): Covering the debate live was an unbelievable experience. The energy in the room was palpable. The second debate was especially important because of President Obama’s underwhelming performance during the candidates’ first matchup, and there was a lot of pre-debate speculation about how he was going to fare this go-around. Though there were many memorable stories from the second debate, Governor Romney’s “binders full of women” gaffe has already cemented its place in debate history. When the Governor talked about the binders/this hiring process, there wasn’t much of an initial reaction from the press pool. But when President Obama said, “I don’t look at my pension, it’s not as big as yours,” the Spin Room exploded with laughter.

Mark Kogan (MK): It was like I had died and gone to heaven. Imagine being a huge movie buff and being put on the red carpet for the Academy Awards with free reign to meet and greet all of your favorite celebrities. That's what the Hofstra debate was like for me. Seeing the campaign surrogates and the press interact gave me an unparalleled level of insight, detail, and context for how election narratives and campaign coverage actually comes together. We read about it, we complain about it, and some of us (like myself) actively participate in it, but it’s a totally different story from the inside. Seeing the massive media and political apparatus in action was a sight to behold. 

Edward Williams (EW): Covering the debate in person was awesome. The buzz of the media room and camraderie among the various media sources was great. It was really cool to meet some of the media personalities that I watch regularly like Jessica Yellin.

What people were you hoping to meet, and who did you ultimately get to meet? 

JM: I got to meet one of my favorite Sirius XM radio talk show hosts, David Webb, which was awesome. As far as media personalities, I met and spoke with Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier, Brit Hume and Alan Colmes of Fox News. I also got to speak to columnist and author Katie Pavlich. I also got to meet and talk to former Treasury Secretary Bay Buchanan, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Gov. George Pataki, Gov. Bob McDonnell, Rep. Peter King, GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, Romney consultant Eric Fehrnstrom, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Gov. John Sununu and RNC communications director Sean Spicer.  

DS: Going into the debate, I wasn’t sure what to expect in the Spin Room. I didn’t put much thought into whom I wanted to interview before arriving at Hofstra, mostly because I thought access would be very limited. It turned out that we could interview virtually anyone on the floor, space and time permitting. Lesson learned for the next debate: come in with a clear idea of which party leaders you want to target and have questions prepared in advance. In the Spin Room, it’s critical for a journalist to know his or her objectives. One could spend all night interviewing elected officials and party leaders, or blogging, tweeting, and writing his or her own material. I tried to strike a balance between producing original content and speaking to those on both sides of the aisle. I had the pleasure of meeting Governor Howard Dean, Representative Peter King, Senator Chuck Schumer, Governor Bobby Jindal, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, among others. The access to politicians in the Spin Room is unmatched. 

MK: I was hoping to get a chance to just see the media and political surrogates at work - I never dreamed how accessible they all would be. I got to interview (with the PM team) Howard Dean and Reince Preibus. I met a handful of other surrogates and was in the huddle for the pros giving their speeches, including Senators John Kerry and Chuck Shumer, and Governors Bobby Jindal and Bob McDonnell. I also found my way onto live TV behind Sean Hannity interviewing Bobby Jindal, or so my parents tell me. Fun personal highlight was meeting Fox's Megyn Kelly in person.

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EW: I was looking forward to meeting the campaign surrogates for both campaigns. I had the opportunity to meet Senators McCain, Durbin, Kerry, and Ayotte, as well as Obama Campaign Deputy Director Stephanie Cutter, who was gracious enough to do a full interview with me. 

What is the media "spin zone"? Describe what it's like and whether you liked it.

JM: The media "spin zone” is more than just a place where reporters do their job. After the debates, all of the campaign surrogates and officials meet and give their 'spin' on how they think things went. They answer questions the best they can from reporters all over the world. I was a little overwhelmed at first, but after about a half an hour I found my footing and got into the swing of it. It was an awesome experience, and showed me more than ever that this is the kind of work I want to do in the long run.

DS: The Spin Room is the designated area for the press during the presidential debate, and is where elected officials gather to give pre-and post-debate commentary to journalists. Imagine a gym with a perimeter lined with television cameras and filled with rows of tables. This is what the space looked like at Hofstra. I loved being in the Spin Room. It takes a certain amount of stamina because it can be chaotic, especially when party leaders arrive to be interviewed. When John Kerry walked in, there were no fewer than 30 journalists swarming around him. But it just adds to the excitement, and is a reminder that you are a part of something historic.

MK: "Spin Alley" is an interesting place. It is misleadingly named in that it’s not just where the campaign surrogates go to spin and stump, it is also the media's home base. The press does not get to see the debate in person - that occurs in another building completely distinct from where the media live during the debate. "Spin Alley" is where the media and campaign camps merge into one big reporting and spin room. 2/3 of the space is dedicated to press tables, set up with internet, computers, and TV monitors. The remaining 1/3 of the space is left open for campaign surrogates to give interviews and broadcast networks to setup filming booths and take on-camera interviews. It's basically one big operations center for the media, and the campaigns send in people to deliver the message before and after the debate.

Food and drink are also provided, free of charge, for the press. We had lasagna, stuffed peppers, grilled vegetables and brownies. Beer and soft drinks were available and the media room was stocked with chips, vegetables, and granola bars and coffee for the press. All in all the press are treated very well but that is to be expected as everybody wants to ensure a favorable story.

EW: After the debate is over, both campaigns send in dozens of campaign surrogates to provide "spin" on the debate performance of their candidate. The Romney campaign sent in their surrogates at least 10 minutes before the debate was over. Interviews were already happening with Romney surrogates while the candidates were still on stage. Some of my media colleagues seemed frustrated with what was happening. The access to high profile campaign surrogates was unprecedented. Campaigns wanted to get their message out and campaign handlers were literally forcing interviews onto media personnel. 

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How much access does the media really get at these debates? 

JM: The media got pretty good access. Sometimes an elected official would be whisked away to do an interview and would have to cut their time with the reporters short until afterwards, (Governors Bobby Jindal and Bob McDonnell were buzzing around like flies all night!) but most people were very easy to talk to. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Sec. Buchanan and Gov. George Pataki were especially courteous and gave people plenty of time if they wanted it.

DS: A lot. I found the access to be unbelievable. You can, quite literally, walk up to any elected official in the Spin Room and conduct an interview. You may have to vie for a spot, but they’re there and ready to tell you what President Obama did wrong in his first term or how Governor Romney’s stance on [insert any hot button issue] is bad for the country.   

MK: To the candidates? None. To the campaign surrogates? Almost unlimited access. The big networks clearly get their pick of the litter in terms of requesting interviews. The rest of the press has to push a little bit for the higher end surrogates (Senators and Governors) but campaign staff, party staff, and Congressmen are readily accessible. Some Congressmen like Rep. Peter King (R-NY) were out on the floor for hours giving interviews and supporting their respective candidates. Securing an interview was as simple as walking up to them and starting to ask questions. The level of access was way beyond what I expected as a first-time attendee.

EW: The media gets amazing access to the persons that the campaigns trust to deliver the message, but very limited access to the actual debate hall. 

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How many journalists were using new media, Twitter, GIFs, etc. that you saw? What were the other journalists up to that you met?

JM: A lot of the journalists that were sitting at the desks were rapidly working on their computers. Those that I passed by were either uploading stuff to a website like we were, or they were using some kind of social media tool. More than a few on the floor had a smart phone, and I think it's safe to presume that a lot of them were tweeting.

DS: Most of the journalists I saw were using Twitter. I think that by now, the media world knows they need to utilize this medium to stay relevant. I didn’t see any use of GIFs. The other journalists I spoke with were either doing research and preparation for the debate or conducting interviews with party leaders. The journalists in front of us were doing a broadcast in Arabic, underscoring that these debates truly have a global audience.

MK: It was an interesting balance. Many of the more "senior" or "intellectual" journalists (Atlantic, New Republic, Daily Beast, etc) were playing a dual role. On the one hand, they were writing longer, more thoughtful pieces for publication post-debate. On the other, they were live-tweeting commentary and pictures from Spin Alley. Similarly, big name broadcast pundits like Megyn Kelly, Lawrence O'Donnell, Sean Hannity, etc. were tweeting in between interviews and trying to stay up on the social media aspect of the debate by providing live commentary. Multimedia (gifs, etc) saw less use but it was definitely more prevalent - reporters were sharing GIFs and funny comments with one another as the debate went on. 

EW: Most of the journalist were not live-blogging. So, they watched the debate, prepared questions for surrogates, and prepared stories to be released once the debate was over. Because I was also live-blogging the debate, I did a lot more multi-tasking than many of the other journalists in the room. 

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What was the most raucous moment of the debate when media people reacted/booed/reacted? 

JM: When Obama made a comment about his pension not being as large as Romney's, almost everyone in the spin room reporting seemed to laugh or cheer for Obama. It was a little surprising, but not really.

DS: There were a few moments where Governor Romney interrupted President Obama and Moderator Candy Crowley (e.g. “You’ll get your chance in a moment. I’m still speaking”), where the media reacted pretty strongly. I was expecting to see more coverage on how this happened throughout the night, but the binders really stole the show.  

MK: The biggest laugh definitely came during Obama's comment on the size of Romney's pension. There were several other laughs and groans but that was definitely the biggest crowd-wide reaction. The big event from the second debate that got the most press (Candy Crowley's real time fact check of Gov. Romney's Libya comments) went under the radar in Spin Alley. There was certainly some murmuring but no big reaction, which was very different from what we saw the next day, particularly from the conservative press.

EW: The media only really reacted at one particular point in the debate during President Obama's "horses and bayonets" response to Romney's pressing on military spending.

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