The first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was a made-for-TV event, like the Super Bowl or an episode of The Jerry Springer Show. There was a live audience—who broke decorum several times during the course of the night to cheer or laugh—but everyone was playing to the cameras. And just like the Super Bowl, the analysis and hype drowned out the contest itself. If you saw it on TV, you might have gotten the impression you were witnessing history. But if you were there to cover it as a member of the press, like I was, you witnessed history getting made—the difference being the difference between going to a barbecue, and watching a cow get hit with a bolt between the eyes.
After arriving on campus in a bus packed with restless reporters, I felt as if we had stumbled on some sort of polarized and politically charged pep rally. A literal media circus—NBC had a huge balloon—had taken over the parking lot in front of the student center, where CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News had set up outdoor stages for their MTV Spring Break–like live broadcasts. Clinton fans crowded the cameras with "I'm with Her" signs in front of the MSNBC stage, while Trump fans chanted "MEGYN KELLY!" like they were at a Hofstra football game (go Pride!), as the FOX News anchor took her seat across the lot.
It was jock politics in action: If Clinton fans ventured into enemy territory, they were eyed with suspicion, and vice versa. Chants were overtaken by other chants. And while a group of young Trump and Clinton supporters tensely debated the definition of "immigrant," one guy gleefully showed off his sign to news cameras. It simply read, "Everybody Sucks 2016."
On the line for media credentials, one reporter pointed out to me a reality that would later be confirmed: The WiFi logins here cost $200. "In 2012, it was $175," he added. "Inflation, man."
To compensate, journalists were given a goodie bag of Debate 2016 swag, including a white T-shirt, a pin, and an on-the-go thermos for all the coffee you'll need to get you through the rest of this mad panic of an election. Once past the Secret Service security checkpoint, a tent awaited with an overwhelming amount of free food, free beer, and free mugs. (No Trump Steaks, though.) And from the Budweiser-emblazoned benches, you could almost hear the protesters marching in the "free speech zone" nearby, but their chants were drowned out by sound bites of pre-debate punditry.
As the feeding hour drew closer, everyone began to move into the media center, which was located inside of a large sports arena. Here was where we would be watching the debate on TV, just like everyone else. The room was cluttered with rows of long tables, and flat screens in every direction, all playing different networks' coverage. The B actors of the political world, like Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and Coach Bobby Knight, strutted through the crowd, seemingly just to be seen by someone, while live broadcast stalls occupied spaces around the perimeter. And since a lot of people didn't want to pay for the bourgeois WiFi, most were stuck staring at their phones—luckily, for theirs and ours sake, every seat had very clear and precise instructions on how to properly Facebook Live the event. Thank you.
I took a seat in the back, and when the debate started, all the reporters rifling around came to a standstill. A hush broke out in the room. The media instantly became like the rest of the country, transfixed on the endless number of screens, watching the debate's start intensely, and silently—until Trump addressed Clinton as "Secretary Clinton," and then added, smiling, that he wanted her to be "happy." That broke the ice, and reporters chuckled and shook their heads throughout the night, a sentiment that gradually acquired an edge of schadenfreude as Trump's rejoinders became more and more muddled.
The biggest laugh lines in the room included Trump's claim that betting on the housing collapse was "business, by the way," his interruptions of Clinton, his speculation that a "400-pound" hacker was responsible for the cyberattack on the DNC, his repeated denials about the unconstitutionality of stop-and-frisk, and the entire tax return exchange, which resulted in Trump saying something that sounded like an admission that he didn't pay a federal income tax. Reporters laughed, too, when Trump said he had better temperament than Clinton, as did the audience—not a great sign for the mogul.
As the debate dragged on, particularly by the time Trump had trouble explaining cybersecurity in complete sentences, I noticed that many reporters had begun packing up their things, or prepping for the post-debate work they had to do. This, too, is a common sight at sporting events—to file on deadline, journalists need to start typing as soon as the result is obvious, which comes long before the final whistle. If anyone needed quotes, they could be found in "Spin Alley."
I'm not sure where the tradition of a spin room came from, but it's a strange sight, watching celebrities and politicians parade through gaggles of journalists to recap what everyone had just spent an hour and a half watching. Trump spokesman Jason Miller said his guy had won, Clinton spokesman Robby Mook said the opposite—at least at the Super Bowl, there's a winner and a loser. After the debate, there's just… more debate. (It's worth noting that by Tuesday morning, most pundits, including even some vaguely in the pro-Trump camp, thought Trump embarrassed himself.)
Naturally, Trump broke precedent, wandering into the spin room—you really can't keep him away from a microphone—and said something about holding back from bringing up Bill's "indiscretions" because Chelsea was in the crowd. But that rather rude remark will probably get lost in the shuffle; less than 12 hours after that, Trump would be making more headlines for essentially calling a Miss Universe winner fat. In any case, I couldn't spend much more time in spin alley. I had to go find some free WiFi.
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