Journalist for a Day: A Student's Experience at the Debate

Photo: Gil Talbot

A garden sprung up on the grass outside Stoutenburgh Gymnasium, with big satellite flowers on stalks of wire and cable. The major networks, camped around the campus in big white microwave trucks, weren’t the only ones covering the debate; the Carr Center was bustling with over 700 news media reporters, journalists, photographers, cameramen, and other team members from all over the world.

Credentialed by ABC News, I was invited to report on the event for the Saint Anselm Crier. I sat in the front row in the press filing room, watched the debate with a room full of experienced journalism teams, and spoke to governors, U.S. representatives and senators, and directors and secretaries of federal offices who endorsed the Republican candidates for the Presidency. It was an amazing, new, and fulfilling experience for me to sit next to representatives from BBC News, to hear the stories of Occupy protesters and the supporters of the Republican candidates, and to communicate in broken Italian with a trio from a news media in Italy.

The 700 reporters were assigned seats along lines of tables set up in front of giant projector screens. In the hours before the debate, Occupy protesters marched on campus, setting up camp in the St. Joan of Arc parking lot. They carried signs and vigil candles, a coffin hoisted on the shoulders of six men, and beat on drums to lament the death of the American Dream. Vermin Supreme, a satirical performance artist who campaigns for the presidency on the platform of zombie awareness and tooth-brushing, joined the ranks of the Occupy Manchester/Saint Anselm movement. Republican supporters who shared the same space as the Occupiers had shouting matches over their favorite presidential candidate. Just like the garden of satellites, the supporters and protesters created a lush and colorful garden of picket signs. Everyone had a story to tell, including a group of Orthodox Jews from overseas protesting Zionism and an advocacy group for programs and services for children.

During the debate, the reporters focused on typing notes; during commercial breaks, discussions on new media outlets, such as Twitter and microblogging, were ubiquitous. Whenever a candidate would offer up an inspiring quote, the reporters gave a satisfied sigh; whenever there was an effective tack or a scathing side-comment, the reporters would laugh and groan. We were an audience beyond those in the seats in the Dana Center’s Koonz Theatre, and we were bringing this news to the rest of the world. It was fascinating, hearing the responses of the news teams as they prepared to write their stories and condense the information for the viewers and readers of their morning news. When the debate ended at eleven, there was a mad rush to the building next door, where we heard and recorded the words of government officials who reacted to the debate and gave support to the Republican candidates; the candidates themselves also joined the spin room, trying to get the press to hear more of their story.

From the moment the giant screens in our press room began airing the debate, I could feel a sense of pride and joy that my school, my little school in quiet New Hampshire, was at the eye of the world of politics. Saint Anselm College was praised by many for being a welcoming host; the spirit of the Benedictine tradition was definitely in the air during the whole debate process. Every journalist, every reporter, had a story to tell that night. In Manchester New Hampshire—at Saint Anselm College—history was made, and I was there to see it.

View all of the videos from the debates:

Video: The Daily Show and John Oliver Have the Last Word on the Debate

The Daily Show sent correspondent John Oliver to cover the New Hampshire Republican Presidential Debate broadcast live on CNN from the college on June 13. And as always, The Daily Show had the last word on the Republican debate — the performance of the candidates, CNN's broadcast, and the candidates' "spin."

When the college's communications and marketing staff heard that CNN had granted media credentials to John Oliver for covering the debate, we were both elated and a little apprehensive about it. There are several big fans of The Daily Show in our office, so getting to meet John Oliver and see him work would be a real treat.

But, was he going to make the college look bad or one of our staff or faculty political experts? One of the first reports we received was that John Oliver was chasing two young girls in white dresses across the quad with a bloody axe (an homage to The Shining, and footage that didn't make it into the final The Daily Show piece). Redrum anyone?

Reporters indeed appeared to be accustomed to having The Daily Show correspondent in their midst. The 300 journalists watching the debate from monitors in the Carr Center’s media filing center paid no attention as he quietly wandered the room with his crew, planning shots, reviewing his script. At one point, Oliver lay on the floor between rows of makeshift desks and began rocking in feigned agony. No one looked up.

Professor Elizabeth Ossoff was in the “spin room” where candidates meet with journalists after the debate, offering political observations for the camera, when a commotion broke out just behind her. It was John Oliver screaming into the face of a Ron Paul campaign worker. “Why am I screaming?” he yelled.

John Oliver was last seen in the “spin room” literally spinning. He had grabbed the lens of his photographer’s video camera and was spinning the man and camera in circle until Oliver nearly fell. “Why do they keep giving that man media credentials?” asked one reporter as she walked by.

In the video, you'll likely notice several familiar locations at the college, the Carr Center gym and men's bathroom sign. The parts with the little girls was filmed on the quad in front of the CNN Election Express.

And it turns out we weren't the only "fans" as several Saint Anselm faculty were planning to converge on John Oliver in the debate's spin room to have their photo taken with him (see the photo of Prof. Masur and John Oliver taken on the quad).

The Day After – Live at the NHIOP

Debate participants wave to the crowd before the debate

Debate participants wave to the crowd before the debate.

After a few hours of sleep, the networks were back at it setting up live shots for the morning news shows, in order to discuss the winners and losers of last night’s GOP debate. Starting at 5:30 a.m., the New Hampshire Institute of Politics TV studio was bustling as producers, makeup artists and staffers arrived to prep for Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s interviews with CBS, CNN and Fox News.

During his live shot on CBS’ “The Early Show” Governor Pawlenty said, “I had an opportunity last night to present my vision for America, which is to reduce taxes and regulation and get investment and jobs growing again in this country. And a big part of the debate was focused on my plan to do that, and I was grateful for that opportunity. But we're united in trying to defeat Barack Obama. There will be some differences amongst Republicans as well. But last night the focus was on the president."

Following his television shots, Governor Pawlenty reiterated that sentiment during several radio interviews from the NHIOP’s green room.

Video: The Daily Show's John Oliver on Losing his Soul

Tonight during a break in debate action, Saint Anselm student Ahmed Saeed '13 interviewed The Daily Show's John Oliver. Asked about the spin room and speaking with candidates and the media following the debate, John Oliver said, "I've been in three or four spin rooms while on The Daily Show and I lose a piece of my soul whenever I go. I don't even know how many I've got left, I may lose the last piece tonight." Oliver continued by saying they make him feel "hollow" and affect his "belief in humanity and democracy."

Upon interviewing Oliver, Ahmed Saeed, an international relations major from Manchester, N.H., admitted he was nervous. "It was a very Nixon-Frost sort of ordeal, if you know what I mean?"

Yes, Ahmed, we know exactly what you mean.



Video: CNN Senior VP and Chief Innovation Officer David Bohrman on Picking the Perfect Modern Debate Venue

CNN's David Bohrman

David Borhman talks about the debate venue during the media walk through hours before the GOP Debate.

If you're a fan of CNN's "magic wall" so aptly used by John King in reporting election results late into the evening or the set design of the network's modern debate venue, then having the opportunity to speak with the mastermind behind these innovations is a real treat. During the media walk through this afternoon, we had the chance to catch up with David Bohrman, senior vice president and chief innovation officer for CNN. It was Bohrman who knew back in 2007 that Saint Anselm College and Sullivan Arena would be the perfect place for him to unveil his vision for a modern debate venue. As Bohrman put it, before CNN's 2007 debate, the typical debate had become "sort of boring and tedious" and he was looking to bring it into the modern age.

Video: Saint Anselm Students Stay Calm in the Middle of the Storm

Saint Anselm College students who worked this week for CNN as runners give some insight into their experience and the whirlwind that is involved with staging a nationally televised debate. Students from many different majors participated during the past week with debate preparations, networked with CNN on-air talent, and finally saw the sun come out capping a perfect day for holding a nationally televised debate. Great work everyone!

Heard Today on Campus

John King on stage

John King on stage before the debates began

Sam Feist, CNN Washington Bureau Chief and Debate Producer, on stage: "We feel like we're family now. Every four years we come here to do debates. It's like coming home."

John King: "There's another event going on tonight but that's why God made TiVo."

Kevin Ward '12, welcoming audience: "I stand here in awe. As a communication major, I never thought I'd be standing on the same stage where seven presidential candidates were going to debate."

Liz Kulig '13, picked up Wolf Blitzer from the airport: "He liked the Simon and Garfunkel music I picked out. I wasn't going to subject him to Lady Gaga."

Liz Ossoff, professor on Sirius Radio: "New Hampshire isn't just a place to go skiing."

Neil Levesque, NHIOP Executive Director: "My favorite part is seeing our students up on stage standing in for the candidates, because some day one of them might be up there for real."

Father Jonathan, O.S.B, president of Saint Anselm College, on stage: "Pardon my voice but it was alumni weekend and I spent too much time under the tent."

William "Burke" Bero, politics major: "This is what I've been waiting for for three and a half years."

David Bohrman, Senior VP CNN: "YouTube seems so four years ago, doesn't it?"

Quotes collected by Laurie Morrissey

What About the Media?

The Media Filing Center

The Media Filing Center

The doors of Sullivan Arena, home of tonight’s CNN debates, have finally opened to its 700 attendees. But on the other side of campus, the Carr Center has its own line as media from around the world settle into the media filing center to watch the debate.

More than 300 accredited journalists are expected to cover the debates from campus including the New York Times and the NHK Broadcasting Corporation from Japan. The media will watch the debates and then file their stories.

Following the debate, the reporters will move to the spin room to talk with candidates (or candidates' surrogates).

Video: Kevin Ward '12 on Making the Most of Opportunities

In this video, Saint Anselm College Communications Major Kevin Ward '12 talks about his work with CNN in preparing for the New Hampshire Republican Presidential Debate at the college. Ward also had a unique opportunity to interview CNN's Wolf Blitzer and get a little career advice.

Video: Prof. Elizabeth Ossoff Provides Some Pre-Debate Analysis

We caught up with Psychology Professor Elizabeth Ossoff, Ph.D. as CNN's Wolf Blitzer was broadcasting live from the Saint Anselm College Quad. Professor Ossoff had just finished a live appearance on SiriusXM Satellite Radio's StandUP with Pete Dominick on the POTUS Channel (Politics of the United States). In this video, Professor Ossoff provides some pre-debate analysis prior to the New Hampshire Republican Presidential Debate.