‘We’re the media’: Storytellers in Spin Alley
A student journalist finds herself at the center of debate media
While viewers watched two of the most talked-about Americans strategize across the stage, I watched the people watching—the very people whose voices are now being cast throughout the world (think NBC, Buzzfeed, Al Jazeera, etc). I watched them process every second, exchanging glances, smirks and shakes of the head.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump did not shake hands at the start of the second presidential debate. We didn’t exactly know why, but we noticed. That’s when the fun began.
Let’s rewind. After mingling with some of the most die-hard political junkies in the country for the past two days, I was quite positive nothing could shock them. Hundreds of them—reporters, broadcast journalists, anchors and their crew—filled in the rows beside me in the media filing center just a few feet away from the debate hall. The circus following the circus, if you will.
Though people began setting up as early as Friday, it wasn’t until about 7:30 p.m. on Sunday that the giant room was actually packed to the capacity it had been designed for. The room was entirely hectic, until Kenneth Sng, our Student Union president, began to speak. We settled into almost absolute silence.
And the silence continued. It was a tense few minutes between the moderator’s introductions and the candidate’s entrance. I glanced behind me and saw, more than anything, the tops of people’s heads.
It’s 8:03 p.m. All heads now pointed up at the monitors above us. The very first interaction between the candidates (the handshake, or lack thereof) elicited a loud reaction from the room. Some men towards the front pumped their fists in the air and whooped. The women next to me sat back in their chairs, mouths folding into amused grins that rarely wavered.
There were plenty of moments like this. They didn’t miss a beat. And reflective of the discourse shaping this election, what they reacted to most weren’t the details of the candidate’s policies and plans. It was the reality TV moments: the interruptions, the zingers, the accusations.
By 9:15, before the last audience question had even been asked, the once-full media center had lost most of its inhabitants to Spin Alley. This is where journalists flock after debates to chase after surrogates for their sound bites, and it’s directly adjacent to the filing center. But I waited until the debate had totally ended before heading over there, and I was met with a crazed cluster of giant cameras, microphones and more. I pushed my way into the middle of the crowd and saw there was a barrier guarded by security that forced media to the outside perimeter of the room, leaving a large square of floor space in the middle.
People were annoyed. The layout of the barriers forming the perimeter was unfamiliar to the reporters who had been to Spin Alley at Hofstra University and most likely debates from previous elections.
“Take down the barriers!” one man yelled. “We’re the media!”
From what I gathered, nobody knew who or what was about to come out, and based on the last debate, people were hoping Trump would make his own Spin Alley appearance.
“We saw him get into his car on the TV,” one reporter told me. “I know he’s not coming out here, but if somehow he did and I missed it, my editor would kill me.”
A security officer barreled through the mess. “STOP PUSHING ME!” someone yelled.
Among the first people to emerge into the center of the square were Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey, two of the women included in Trump’s pre-debate press conference regarding Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual assaults. They were absolutely hounded, but the perimeter kept them separate from the masses. Soon after, Chancellor Mark Wrighton and his wife Risa Zwerling Wrighton appeared, though to much less commotion.
When Broaddrick and Willey were gone, the perimeter was taken down and the crews flooded the space. It was a free-for-all, and now, students who clearly had not been credentialed were entering the space. One held a giant Israeli flag and looked genuinely surprised he had been allowed inside.
Reporters and camera crews bounced from representatives, shoving microphones in their faces and interrupting each other often. Some questions I heard included:
“Why should women vote for Trump?”
“Should the Hollywood studio in possession of ‘Apprentice’ outtakes release them?”
“Did Trump go far enough in apologizing?”
“How have this week’s events impacted female voters?”
I found myself face-to-face with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a senior advisor for Trump’s campaign. I didn’t catch the question, but I tuned in just in time to here why she was sure Trump would come out on top.
“What Trump has come to represent: It’s all of America, middle-class America, and those are the people that are supporting him. That’s the reason he’s going to win,” she said.
Most of the questions I observed focused on Trump, even the ones posed to the Democratic representatives. I was able to briefly grab the attention Claire McCaskill, a U.S. senator who represents Missouri, who was absolutely surrounded. I asked her what she thought of the discourse we saw tonight.
“It’s frustrating because Donald Trump doesn’t do policy—he does bombast and bluster. He does ‘I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m great, you’re ugly,’” McCaskill said. “It’s hard because Hillary Clinton keeps trying to go there, but she goes there by herself, and he just goes back to the jargon that got him to this point. I think the American people should demand more of him than that. Hopefully, they will.”
To be quite honest, I didn’t know what to do with myself at this point. I went back to the media center; about half of the seats were filled by journalists hard at work tweeting and writing. The mood in this room—focused and serious—was markedly different than that of Spin Alley just a few feet away—social and frantic. I walked down the aisle, said goodnight to my friends from Alhurra and left the building. I walked to the Student Life office and was met by literal applause from my colleagues.
“You’ve got the front page. You have an hour and a half. Impress me,” my editor-in-chief, Noa Yadidi, said. It’s been a long day.