Volume 74, Number 19 | September 02 - 09 , 2004

The big story: Inside the media machine at the R.N.C.

By David H. Ellis

It was usually the first news I told to college friends calling long distance or to family members wanting to catch up. I’ll admit it, I was excited. I was going to be working at the Republican National Convention as a clerk for a major news organization.

But since I live in New York, a predominantly Democratic town, I knew there would be some cynics who would question my motives.

More often than not, the typical response was a sidelong gaze, a look of skepticism and the query — “You’re not a Republican, are you?” After a while, I found myself anticipating this reaction and trying to quickly defuse a potentially contentious discussion by explaining my involvement before, during and after the four-day event.

Even after my rebuttal, I could still sense suspicion in listener’s voices at times. Yet, for me this was a rare opportunity — a chance to see some of the top political reporters at work and a political machine in action. More important and all party preferences aside, this was a chance to view — up close — quite possibly the biggest news story of 2004.

Still an outsider looking in, but with a much better view than most of the American public, the activity behind the scenes has proven to be possibly more engrossing than the scripted pep rally that will monopolize the broadcast networks’ prime time schedule this week.

Climbing the stairs at the southeastern subway exit at 33rd St. and Eighth Ave., I could feel the surrealistic nature of the event overwhelm me just by looking at the rows of camera trucks with their carefully angled satellite dishes parked along Eighth Ave. and the freshly painted advertisements on the sides of office buildings intended to occupy the sightlines of delegates. With police stationed at every corner, I could not anticipate how many more adjustments would be made before former Mayor Rudy Guiliani addressed G.O.P. delegates on the opening night of the convention.

Inside the Farley Post Office, the media command center during the G.O.P.’s visit, the sight was equally impressive. Every major news organization, from the Albany Times-Union to the Dallas Morning News, was there. Potential scoops were guarded by red-white-and-blue curtains. Tucked in the back was a copy center and a makeshift, but overpriced cafe sponsored by Fairway. An arrow pointed up a flight of stairs with the word “Spa” written below. But the reporters seemed to have little time for workouts or facials.

My first opportunity to go inside Madison Sq. Garden came on Friday afternoon and I have to believe that Knick fans and even the most staunch anti-Bush organizers would have been wowed. Tech guys zagged across the squishy red convention floor carpet, as dozens of ballons were netted together before being hoisted to the ceiling. Every skybox in the arena was tagged with a network emblem ranging from FOX News to Al-Jazeera, while below I took a commemorative picture for a CNN camera operator in front of the stage. Nearby, her co-worker and lead network anchor Wolf Blitzer sat quietly studying his notes before interviewing President Bush’s campaign manager, Ken Mehlman. For now, the atmosphere was subdued and preparation was the M.O. I could only imagine the atmosphere Thursday night when President Bush accepted his nomination.

After a building sweep by the Secret Service on Friday, security on Sunday had been ratcheted up several notches as metal detectors were in place as well as German shepherd-mix bomb-sniffing dogs. This was the day, however, when it became apparent that the 15,000 members of the media that were expect to descend upon the city had arrived. Everyone from the camera operators, to clerical staff to seasoned veterans were there. Jim McNeil of the “McNeil/Lehrer News Hour” waited patiently in the security line next to me with his staff, while Peter Jennings and George Stephanopoulos were accompanied by entourages as they visited the convention floor. The attention of the media was on the United for Peace and Justice march. It was not possible to escape the echo of C-SPAN’s coverage, which could be heard everywhere in the Post Office.

The first day of the big show had arrived. Reporters in my newsroom were hunched over their laptops, phones cradles between their shoulders and ears. Even my responsibilities had grown more demanding. I was to run photos from the photographers on the convention floor to a digital darkroom located several floors below. When I got to my new assignment, I realized I had reached the nerve center for the network channels. Since they shared space with photographers from most of the major news syndicates, I should have realized that I might see Ted Koppel, Senator Elizabeth Dole or “Air America” ’s Al Franken stroll through the hallway.

As the convention began to pick up pace, the mood in the photographer area waffled between upbeat and panic, as they grumbled about poor lighting conditions. On my first run to the camera stand on the floor, I snaked my way through a series of security checkpoints, flashing my credentials almost every few steps. Inside, grinning delegates in pinstripe suits, patriotic hats and even one in an Abraham Lincoln outfit roared to applause or cheers every few minutes. Vice President Dick Cheney sat in his familiar pose, with his head cocked to one side, while across the arena Michael Moore sat quietly before being booed by the crowd. Yet my favorite image of the evening had to be following Giuliani’s speech when Frank Sinatra belted out “New York, New York” on the Jumbotron. Just in front of the stage, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki swayed back and forth with other party officials with their arms around each other’s shoulders, both barely managing to elicit a grin as photographers snapped away.

I was exhausted at the end of the shift. And this was only day one.


Villager photos by Ramin Talaie
Rudy Giuliani’s speech highlighted day one of the convention.

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