The Democratic Debate Media Room: Through the Lens of a Naive Journalism Student


Here I am, a sophomore in college, covering my first big event and I’m surrounded by some of the biggest media names in the state and country. Journalists from CNN, CBS, AP, NPR, Washington Post, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel to name a handful. Most of these journalists have done this already in the past week much less countless amount of times before and here I am for the first time.

The Workspace:

I arrived with a security guard opening the door for me being gratified that my press credential was around my neck. I made sure that I arrived early, approximately 2 p.m., to get the best space out of the hundreds of tables and chairs neatly rowed throughout the Union Ballroom. On my table, which is being shared by two other fellow journalists, is a power strip, Facebook sponsored note and mouse pad, PBS sponsored pen and the fabled WIFI password which is nonexistent. My chair was a folding one of flimsy plastic material that doesn’t house a backpack or jacket well on the back as it constantly tipped over for each time I stood up.


The Lounge or “Bernie Sanders Room of Free Stuff:”

Facebook and Democrat cookies. Photo by Ean Holtz.

Facebook and Democrat cookies. Photo by Ean Holtz.

This was easily the most interesting and bizarre hamlet of the afternoon. I first became aware of the lounge when I saw people carrying plates of food back to their chairs. Hungry and curious I made my way to this mythical room. Passing a mini bar that served smoothies and hot beverages, I emerged and found it to have Facebook branded everything from furniture to food. Mostly snack food, the early foods of notability were patriotic colored M&Ms, and sugar cookies with Facebook and Democratic Party logo frosting. The best part and why journalists were referring to the lounge as the “Bernie Sanders Room of Free Stuff” was the large and strange variety of Facebook branded objects. Some of the objects included were Rubik’s cubes, rock candy, pens, satchel bags, yo-yos, small pillows and card holders that stick to the back of phones. Dinner, which was much later, consisted of brats, a Wisconsin trademark, to either the delight or chagrin of journalists who are not from Wisconsin. As I was getting food, I saw my boss and realized my work was catering for the event. I laughed because I was supposed to work the night of the debate.

Waiting, Waiting, Waiting…:

Because I got there six hours before the debate, most of my time consisted mingling with other journalists, exploring the Bernie Sanders room of free stuff and trying to find Kanye’s new album on the internet. The last one was the most difficult because The Life of Pablo was released that day and as more and more journalists got set up, the passwordless UWM sponsored WIFI that hundreds of people were using began to crash. Some of the people I interacted with included John Nichols, who is a writer for the Nation, co-founder of Free Press and he has a strong Twitter game. After he circled the aisle multiple times ranting on his phone about Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio, I shook his hand to introduce myself, and he responded, “Greetings comrade!” The other notable person I interacted with but less positively was Wisconsin Lt. Governor and token Republican at the debate Rebecca Kleefisch. She wore a bright all-red business suit and as she walked by I offered her my Democratic Party logoed cookie and she responded, “No.”

The Outdoors!

The floating octopus. Media Milwaukee staff.

The floating octopus. Media Milwaukee staff.

It’s about 90 minutes before the debate, and I and my fellow colleagues decide to go outside to check out the variety of protests that are going on. Before I exited the media room, I noticed the amount of curious people who were taking pictures through the glass doors, and it finally hit me “I’m on the inside.” When I got outside, I noticed over a dozen different protests, ranging from pro/anti Hillary/Bernie, Libertarians, Black Lives Matter, Fight for 15, Palestine, and anti-Enbridge Pipeline, which consisted of a black tarp and octopus balloon. There was also a lone Communist who explained to me the battle of the proletariat and bourgeoisie. It was only 16 degrees outside, but it was easily one of the most heated settings I’ve been in the middle of. As I made my way back into the union, there was a large crowd in front of the media room, and I realized the Fight for 15 protesters stormed it.

The Debate:

Surprisingly, the debate was the least eventful thing of the night. Many were silent as they typed away and watched. Two notable things happened with reaction, with the first being PBS went to a commercial break immediately after the opening statements that made many confused and/or frustrated. The second was both Clinton and Sanders were constantly coughing throughout the debate, which caused some chuckles from the media. Overall, it was the fastest two hours of my life, and I felt like it just started when closing statements were announced.

The Spin Room:

Barrett talking to Media Milwaukee reporter Darien Yeager in the spin room. Photo by Media Milwaukee staff.

Barrett talking to Media Milwaukee reporter Darien Yeager in the spin room. Photo by Media Milwaukee staff.

The spin room is an area in which reporters can speak with candidates and/or their representatives after a debate. It was the empty other half of the ballroom in the center of a ring of small stages where many news outlets set up their cameras. As soon as the debate ended, the media migrated to the spin room and soon after, representatives from both the Sanders and Clinton campaigns arrived to answer questions. The heavy rumor of the night was neither candidate was going to make it because it was across the street from where the debate was, but that later evolved that Sanders might show up. Notable people who were accepting questions were DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whom I almost bumped into and knocked over since she’s half my size. Two others were Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and United States Senator Tammy Baldwin, whom I managed to both ask questions to. I asked Mayor Barrett of his thoughts on PBS mentioning that Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the country.

Barrett said, “I appreciated that because it’s a good thing that an issue like that is put into the spotlight, and it’s something I’ve been working on since being elected mayor.”

I asked Senator Baldwin her thoughts on Bernie Sanders and if his support is going to divide the Democratic Party.

Baldwin said, “I’m not afraid of primaries because they bring people into Democratic voting and regardless of who wins the nominee, they will unite the party for the general election and their presidency.”

Going into asking both questions, I was nervous as anyone could ever be. Coming out, it felt like the biggest step a human being can ever take.

My Gains:

Before the night of the debate, I was becoming burnt-out from not only school but journalism, as I had instances in the preceding weeks of having almost zero motivation to write. Having the opportunity of not only being in the media room but to actually interact with national media members and politicians, lit a fire in me that I think will burn for a very long time. Not only did I gain my motivation to write again, but observing professionals work in a national event was a great learning experience for me mechanically and socially. Having a presidential debate come to my college campus and being able to obtain a press credential for it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me, and I am fortunate to experience it.


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