DANVILLE, Ky. — On a large indoor college basketball court, several hundred reporters sit row by row, staring at Apple laptops, sometimes typing furiously but mostly hitting refresh on their Twitter feeds. They’ve all traveled to this Kentucky town for the site of the the 2012 Vice Presidential Debate is being held. The debate itself is a 90-minute affair that takes place elsewhere, somewhere, on Centre College’s campus. But it may as well be taking place 90 miles away.
There is basically nothing to do in the college gymnasium before the debate starts at 9 p.m., but almost everyone is there anyway. Zoned-out eyes glaze over Twitter. I see a few people with Excel sheets open. I wonder about them. There’s some passable free food — chicken in a strange cream sauce, not fried, what the hell, I thought we were in Kentucky. Also, the longest and skinniest potatoes I’ve ever seen. Not bad. There’s also beer — the whole little area is loudly sponsored by Budweiser. It’s somewhere between the high school awards banquet and the college library.
“I come because they tell me to,” says Allison Kingery, a staff reporter for Tokyo Chumchi-Shimbun, when I ask what she’s doing here. She’s already covered the Denver debate last week for the Japanese paper, and as of now she’s not sure if she’ll go to the next two before the election. “I’ll go if they tell me to.”
“If nothing else, it’s good to get out of D.C.,” Sam Youngman, a campaign correspondent for Reuters, tells me, when I ask him to rationalize this media circus of sorts. “Nothing good happens there.”
“You can sense an atmosphere,” Wen Xian, a reporter for China’s People’s Daily, says. He doesn’t elaborate on what kind of atmosphere exactly. I also meet a guy filming video for Swedish TV. People from all over the world are here to cover the general scene, but only a handful of pool reporters will be allowed in the debate hall itself themselves for a marginally different perspective, 20 seconds ahead of the televised tape delay.
A sea of khakis and blue button down shirts mingles, shakes hands, and talks about what they’ve all just tweeted.
Entirely unsure of what I’m supposed to do at this point — it’s only 7 p.m. — I accept a local friend of a friend’s offer to show me around the college campus. On my way out, I overhear a discussion of whether a particular D.C. reporter is “a bro” or not. He’s not, definitely not, it is decided. Outside, it looks like a small town music festival. A terrible band is playing (“kind of a crappy version of Jethro Tull,” my guide announces) in front of a screen where thousands of students and families will watch the debate later. Elizabeth Bressler, who graduated from Centre College in May, and now lives in nearby Lexington, Kentucky, is back with friends to watch her alma mater play debate host. “It’s an uplifting feeling,” she says. The mood is just that. No protesters are to be found.
I part ways with my guide, who offers two liters of Bourbon (it is Kentucky, after all) as a parting gift. One’s called “Blue State” and the other “Red State,” chosen especially as a debate gimmick. He says they taste exactly the same. There is some political joke to be made here, but it doesn’t come together quickly enough.
On the way back, I walk past MSNBC’s outdoor setup, where Chris Matthews is asking onlookers which candidate they support. “I’m a mother, and Romney is everything I don’t want to teach my children!” one woman shouts. Watching from the side are Pam and Paul Ledden, diehard 62-year-old Democrats who’ve traveled an hour and a half from Hebron, Kentucky, a heavily Republican area where they say putting an Obama sign in your yard is almost unthinkable. “It can be hard to talk about politics with friends from Church. Even with family,” Mrs. Ledden says. They’re pleased to see a good number of Democrats out and about around here.
On the way back in to the press center, a dog sniffs my bag (for bombs, or something, I suppose) and slobbers all over it. Remember, there are two liters of hard liquor in my purse, which the security guards have absolutely no concerns about. Danville was a dry town without any bars until 2010, so I suppose carrying booze in your pocketbook isn’t anything too rare around these parts.
Back in the press center, everyone is still doing basically nothing. Reporters passing our table eye the Bourbon, looking impressed. “Gonna have to borrow some of that!” multiple people say. No one actually does. There’s a nostalgic reverence for the old newspaperman with the bottle of whiskey in his desk, but with the pace of things these days, you can’t exactly afford to be wasted.
As the debate starts, quiet takes over and pressure sets in. It reminds me of waiting to take the SATs. Halfway through the debate, you hear the reporter behind you has almost exactly the same angle for a story, and you get competitive. You start typing faster — you want to be smart, but you also want to be first. You make strange decisions, like opting to drink an entire can of Diet Mountain Dew. It’s going to be a late night. Bottles of Five Hour Energy, a drink I always thought was something you would sort of shamefully chug down in private — are everywhere, proudly on display.
The main reason most reporters are here, they say, is for the “spin room.” I imagine something out of Alice In Wonderland, a dizzying, spinning alternate reality.
Turns out it’s actually just another gym, but with a very bright red carpet. After the debate finishes, top aides and advisors, governors, senators, and strategists make themselves available in the so-called “spin alley,” where they’ll try to defend their respective candidates to the press. I’ve heard the term before in political writing, but I always assumed it was reporter slang. I had been wrong — people have ID badges that say “Spin Alley.”
Slate’s political writer, Dave Weigel, sitting right behind me, explains that Spin Alley is pretty much the whole point of coming, a good opportunity for reporters to get quotes from people who can be tough to get on the phone. “You get access to a lot of very high level people, and you only get that in a few instances,” he says. Of course, not everyone will get good quotes. “Some of it’s just the thrill of being here.”
Inside, well-groomed political hotshots mill about, identified by long, thin placards that their staffers hoist high in the air. So you can see that David Axelrod is over on the left side of the room. Democrats have blue placards, Republicans’ are red. The placard holders are mostly young women, many look like sorority girls. A lot of them look kind of bored.
A colleague and I note, perhaps too loudly, that we don’t see too many blue placards. An Obama For America staffer overhears us, chases us down, and tries to convince us that they’re here, but are just off doing TV spots for a few minutes. “Okay,” we say.
“Important people” — governors and so on — are inviting questions, which is a kind of shock to me. I’m used to interviewing celebrities and entertainers, who often rebuff questions and act annoyed. Then again, the place is unironically called “Spin Alley.” It’s a slightly, yet not terribly disturbing, glimpse into how reliant the media and politicians are on one another. Then again, everyone’s just doing their jobs.
It also reminds me of a professional networking event: totally forced and kind of awkward, but also pretty useful.
Satisified with their quotes, reporters leave the glitzy, suit-filled spin room and head back down to the unglamorous gym, where there is more Mountain Dew and a rush to file stories. It all happens shockingly fast. Stories are typed, posted, and everyone hopes they didn’t get it wrong. It reminds me of cramming for a Math exam in a college library — it all feels like the biggest deal in the world, like everyone will fail and die if you get it wrong. But everyone will be fine, of course.
Finally, we walk outside, where there’s a big football stadium that looks right out of Friday Night Lights. And a gas station full of pick up trucks, where the cigarettes are half the price they are in New York. Suddenly, you remember you’re in a small, fairly rural town in Kentucky. It was pretty easy to forget.