Jewish World Review Dec. 4, 2003 / 9 Kislev, 5764
On the screens is the current debate among the Democratic presidential candidates. There was one in Iowa last week and there will be one in New Hampshire next week.
The debaters go into a hall and perform in front of a live audience, while the reporters watch from the press room.
Why reporters fly hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles to watch a debate on TV when they could stay home and watch the same debate on TV is somewhat of a mystery. But it might have something to do with expense account dinners and amassing frequent flyer miles.
In any case, the care and feeding of the press is a full-time concern to debate organizers. In Iowa, the debate hall was 12,000 square feet. The press room was 27,000 square feet.
This had to accommodate not only the press, but the "spin alley," which is now present at every debate.
Spin has changed. In years past, spin consisted of campaign managers or other surrogates trying to sell the notion that their candidate had won the debate.
The late Republican National Chairman, Lee Atwater, claimed to have invented the term, if not the strategy. In 1984, after Ronald Reagan had a disastrous first debate against Walter Mondale, Atwater told all the other Reagan surrogates to go out to the press room and "spin" that Reagan had won.
But spin quickly became so synonymous with "lying", that few media outlets were willing to quote the spinners. So, today, the candidates themselves do the spinning after the debate and sometimes they get quoted. True, they also may be lying, but they are doing so while running for president, which makes it more quotable somehow.
Jenny Backus, a Democratic strategist who works for state parties, interest groups and the Democratic National Committee, set up the press room in Des Moines last week and will set up the one in Durham, N.H. next week.
Backus' biggest concern is passing the "Fournier Test," named after Ron Fournier, the chief political writer for the Associated Press.
"My No. 1 standard for a successful filing center is can Ron Fournier file his story?" Backus said. "Can Ron Fournier get a story on the wire during the debate and seconds after it ends? Can he get to the people he needs? Can he make the phone calls that he needs? Is there a television monitor he can see?"
Backus tells her clients that whether they like the press or not, a good filing center is not a luxury but a necessity.
"You can't underestimate the importance of taking care of the press corps at a debate," Backus said. "One of primary audiences for candidates and the party is the press. If it takes a reporter three hours to find a filing center, three hours to get through security and an hour to find a seat and repeat it all to get coffee, then you have failed Debate 101.
"The quality of questions and the answers during the debate shape the facts of reporters' stories. But the tone of the stories is subtlety shaped by the atmosphere in the press room. If it's freezing cold the room and reporters can't hear the sound, that makes a difference."
Reporters would probably deny this. They would like to think their stories are unaffected by their treatment or working conditions (the sound in the press room at several of these debates has been horrible), but it is nice to know that somebody is worried about whether there are things like telephones or wireless connections for our laptops (both of which we pay for.)
Besides Fournier, two of Backus' main concerns are keeping Adam Nagourney, chief political correspondent for the New York Times, and Dan Balz, chief political correspondent for the Washington Post, happy. Fortunately for her, the three are friendly and easy-going types, the opposite of some of the famous prima donnas in past press corps.
Though when streams of people kept walking too close to where Adam Nagourney was trying to listen to the debate and take notes in the Des Moines press room, Backus immediately set up stanchions and blue velvet ropes around him to keep the people farther away.
In general, I think the press is (mildly) happier with all these debates than the candidates are. For the candidates, who are limited to one-minute and 30-second replies, the debates take up a lot of their time for very little pay-off.
John Kerry, who, in October called the debates "very superficial," now believes they have some value. "It is a great opportunity for people to get a sense of who you are and a good sense of our comparative ability," Kerry told me. "It isn't an unhelpful process, but we could go further. Longer answers would help, a smaller field would help. Gimme a real debate and I'm a happy guy."
DNC Chief Terry McAuliffe thinks the candidates also have had some impact because of the debates. "Bush's poll numbers are way down and you've got to give some credit to these debates," McAuliffe said. "The public has seen our candidates and it is making a difference."
Debate formats probably will change next year. (ABC wants to solve the problem of the too-crowded field by having smaller, rotating groups of candidates debate each other.) But longer answers probably will not happen.
"A minute on television is a lifetime," one Democratic official told me. "You know what the candidates really want? They each don't want the other eight on stage. They each want reporters asking nothing but softball questions. And they each want to get to respond for as long as they want. Well, that is not going to happen. This has to be about television. Because if it isn't, what good does it do for people to be clicking off?"
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in Washington and in the media consider "must reading." Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
Comment on JWR contributor Roger Simon's column by clicking here.