BTS: Weekend Political Rallies

Monday, March 12, 2012
(NOTE:  This is another new feature that I am calling 'Behind the Scenes' where I will provide some of the 'background' that goes on  with my reporting experiences.  I wanted to do this for the Gingrich event last month but, as usual, other things superseded it.  I can go through my notes and photos to post on another day but I want to get these more recent events out before I lose the initiative.)

Some of the scenery outside the recent Santorum event in Blue Ash (left) and the Romeny town hall in Beavercreek (right).

March 3rd was sort of a 'milestone' day for me as a journalist-in-training.  Over the course of the past several months, I've been gradually getting out into my local community to cover real-world events to help hone my skills and to get myself acquainted with the local (and sometimes national) media.  However, all the ones before this past weekend were 'solo' events--I only scheduled one at a time or one per day.  With the 'Super Tuesday' presidential primary bearing down on Ohio voters, this was going to be a very good weekend to get closer to my goal of covering all of the major candidates in the 2012 election cycle.  Unfortunately, Texas congressman Ron Paul decided to skip Ohio and focus his campaign on states where he thought he might have a chance of winning (Washington state, Alaska) so I doubt that I will have an opportunity to attend one of his rallies.  To counter that bad news, I learned late last week that former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum had added a morning Cincinnati-area appearance to his other scheduled stops in the state that weekend.  I had already RSVP'd for the announced town hall meeting by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney here in the Dayton area for the afternoon so it would be my first 'double' coverage day.


A young 'entrepreneur' selling campaign memorabilia at the Santorum rally.

Blue Ash is about an hour or so away from where I live so I was awake and on the road a lot earlier than my usual daily schedule.  After a quick stop at a McDonald's to grab a bite of breakfast, I proceeded down I-71 and transited to the Pffeifer Road exit and the Crowne Plaza Hotel.  The facility was nice but not very 'car-friendly'.  While having adequate parking spaces for hotel guests, it was woefully deficient to handle the near 1,000 people who would file into one of the facility's ballrooms.  Many planned on parking in a nearby strip mall lot but that was under the threat of towing by the property management staff.  I was fortunate to be there when that representative showed up and find an empty slot in the hotel's area and I'm not sure if anyone's car was removed (I don't think that would've been the kind of press that the Santorum campaign would want). 

One of the two 'branded' news trucks that was parked outside the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

As I walked to the hotel's entrance, I took notice of the recently pitched campaign signs along the sidewalk (other were being planted by campaign volunteers on Pfeiffer Road to attract attendees) as well as indicators of media coverage.  I only saw two 'branded' trucks (both for Cincinnati-market television outlets) but there were many others in the ballroom when I entered.  While making my way to the speaking location, I did pass the obligatory political 'entrepreneurs' selling shirts, buttons and other assorted items and I picked up a few for two of my coworkers.

The media riser was somehow placed in the opposite end of the hotel ballroom, making for some last-minute adjustments to give them a better sight-line to the speakers.

Upon entering the ballroom, the first thing I noticed was that it was very 'rectangular' (much longer than it was wide) and the riser for the video media was located almost at the farthest point in the room from the speaker's podium.  That would pose a problem when the room began to fill up with supporters because they would, unintentionally, be standing between the candidate and the cameras.  A plea was announced to create a empty 'swath' down the middle of the crowd but I'm guessing that would not provide the proper 'imagery' that is very important in the dissemination to a national audience.  A solution was found to correct this problem and a crew, to include the Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine, placed a higher riser under the podium to allow the candidate to be seen above the enthusiastic crowd.  I arrived later than I wanted to and could not secure a spot on the 'rope line' to get photos of the candidate shaking hands and signing campaign posters after his remarks.  I was able to get within the first three or four rows and eventually made my way against the wall.  Since I stand over 6 feet tall, I wanted to do that to give those standing behind me a better opportunity to actually see the candidate instead of my back (it also allow me the opportunity to lean back for support for some of the photos I took).

A picture from my final position along the ballroom wall.

While waiting for the event to start (political rallies are notoriously run behind schedule to maximize attendance and to get the crowd into the proper mood), I began to 'mingle' with the crowd and was able to talk with three people (all mentioned in my earlier posted piece on the rally).  Mr. Saeks was a surprise because, like me, he was not there out of his admiration of or support for the candidate.  We had a pleasant discussion and he was able to provide me with some information concerning my afternoon event that I wasn't aware of (more on that below).  Before I moved, Ms. Pieper was standing behind me and Mr. Anderson was to my right and were ready volunteers for my questions.

A view of the podium as the rally was starting.

Once the event started, it was a steady stream of preliminary speakers.  Unfortunately, I somehow turned my DVR off while taking photos (I was holding it in the same hand as my camera and I might have accidently turned the power off) and didn't turn it back on until the end of Mr. Perkins' remarks.  I was able to record all of the candidate's portion and I did a transcription on Sunday night and Monday morning (when my temporary illness allowed) to prepare my article for posting that afternoon.  I made a mental note to find a method of securing the recorder to my press lanyard (or a separate one) to reduce the chances of repeating this mistake in the future.  I was close enough to get some photos of the candidate meeting the crowd after the speech but I'm still not very adept at using my camera yet and was disappointed with their quality (using 'automatic' mode puts all of the setting decisions up to the camera's processor and we frequently don't agree on the results).

Former US senator Rick Santorum , his wife Karen (right) and daughter Sarah Maria (behind) greet well-wishers at the end of the rally.

Since the crowd seemed to disperse quickly after the conclusion of the rally, I didn't seek out any other people to interview or to ask the previous folks if Santorum's words improved or degraded their support for the candidate.  I did speak to a representative of the coal lobby's action group attending the event and had a 3-4 minute session on their activities (they try to attend every candidate rally and were going to be in Beavercreek later that day for the Romney town hall) but chose not to include it in my final piece.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine talks with media members prior to the start of the Santorum rally.

I was surprised by the lack of security at the venue.  I wasn't asked to sign in anywhere and none of my belongings were searched prior to entering the ballroom.  Since the candidate had just been provided 24/7 Secret Service protection the previous Tuesday, I assumed that there would be some overt protective presence other than one Blue Ash officer standing near the hotel's restaurant and others in and around the exterior areas.  When I walked into the main room, Mike DeWine, the state's attorney general, was standing amid a few reporters and camera personnel giving interviews and I did not see anyone who might be 'shadowing' the state's chief legal officer for his protection.  I went through a more vigorous security process when I attended the Herman Cain appearance in Dayton back in November.

One of the many vehicles in the hotel parking lot sporting conservative/Tea Party signage.

I exited the hotel around 11AM and went out to find a copy of the Cincinnati Enquirer for my 'guest paper' feature before heading north for the afternoon event.  The convenience store adjacent to the rally was sold out of them (the clerk told me that there was a heavy demand for them due to the storms occurring the previous day) and I finally found one at a Speedway station just off the "Cincinnati By-Pass."  With the paper and some not-so-healthy refreshments, I got back on I-71 and drove back to the Dayton area.


Local law enforcement personnel provided traffic control and exterior security for the Romney town hall event in Beavercreek.

I did not arrive at the US Aeroteam venue until right around 2PM.  With a little time between my 'assignments', I was originally going to find a quiet spot to start drafting the Santorum piece but my time management skills failed me.  I had the wrong address in for a public library and wasted about 15 to 20 minutes trying to find it before heading to one closer to my final destination.  I stopped off for lunch and visited a local office supply store to find a lanyard as well as a device that would fit through the eyelet on the bottom corner of my DVR to allow for 'hands-free' operations.  I was able to buy the former but I had to scrounge through my car's glove compartment to locate a small coil from a cheap flashlight to work as the latter.  These delays eliminated any extra time I thought I had and I decided to try and be early instead of 'just-in-time' like I was for the earlier event.

A look down the long service road attendees had to hike to get to the USAeroteam building.

As I got near the location, I could see the traffic starting to slow down and come to a complete stop.  I had to RSVP with the campaign to attend and I'm not sure if they realized just how many people would be showing up.  I ended up parking about a block away from the facility's main entrance along Grange Hall Road and walking the extended distance (which grew even longer when seeing that there was an additional 1/4- to 1/3 mile service road between the main one and the facility).  The weather was rather cool (although not as cold as early March usually is in this area) but the wind made this extra time outdoors even more unpleasant.  It was during this walk that I interviewed Mr. Alexander and you can hear both of us breathing a little heavily on the digital recording.

The USAeroteam logo on the outside of their facility.

As I approached the building, the media vehicles that were allowed to park in the company's spaces came into view.  All three local television outlets had their mobile teams there and two satellite trucks were arranged with a clear view of the southern sky to uplink coverage back to their distant production facilities.  There was a charter bus already on scene (I'm assuming it was for the embedded media) but the candidate's coach was a 'no-show' at approximately 2:15 p.m.  After a quick rest stop at the provided 'porta-potties', I entered the facility and reported to the event organizer's check-in desk.  Since local volunteers are tasked to run such functions, I experienced the confusion I expected and found out that my name was not on the list.  I provided them my information and then proceeded on to the meeting area.

Security was much more evident inside the Romney event.  The yellow police tape designated areas for the general public (to the left of the tape) and for the media (to the right).  All bags and equipment required canine approval.

As I got closer, I noticed that there was a separate 'lane' for media personnel and, since I stated my desire to cover the event as a journalist in my email, headed in that direction.  Along the way, I was stopped and my equipment was searched (assuming for explosives) by a dog.  Once I was given the OK, I gathered up my dispersed items and walked to the designated media area.  Once there, I met a Secret Service agent who asked me who I worked for.  I learned from my very first assignment last September that I should always have some sort of press-related identification with me for just such occasions and produced a 'press badge' (the logo and QR code for this blog along with my actual name).  That didn't meet his initial criteria for entry but he was able to direct me to a campaign representative who I could plead my case to.  After a short chat, he did give me approval and once I showed a photo ID card, I walked inside.

A look down the riser and work tables in the media area.  Mark Allen, seated on the far right, would interview Romney after the conclusion of the meeting.

No chorus of angels accompanied this moment but I did feel a jolt of excitement to rub shoulders with those in the field.  Unfortunately, with the use of 'embeds' for each campaign, I hardly recognized anyone.  Most of the folks perched on folding metal chairs in front of their illuminated laptop screens were probably half my age, highlighting a stark reality that I will face if I want to pursue this in a more serious manner--entry-level journalism is definitely a young person's game.  I did see Mark Allen, weekday anchor for the local NBC affiliate, WDTN.  He was sitting behind the riser and regularly checking his smartphone and I later found out he conducted a short interview with the candidate after the event and did a live report from the site for the station's 6 p.m. newscast.  I also shook hands with Jonathan Martin, a senior political reporter for who was following the candidate through the state.  When I first saw him, I knew he looked awfully familiar but I couldn't place from where.  Once he told me his name, I instantly blushed because being an MSNBC viewer has given me plenty of chances to see him over the past several years.

One man took advantage of every available opportunity to get the best shot.

While the media area was nearly the farthest area from the activities up front, the fenced-off area was mostly vacant and looped around behind the seated audience over to a much closer spot to the right of the speakers.  I made my way over there about five minutes after Romney started speaking and was able to get much better photographs due to the proximity and the lessened chance of having someone standing up when I wanted to take my shots.  Unlike the morning event, the advance team had set up an array of lighting to properly illuminate the candidate for both still and video capture.  There was one photographer who went literally 'above and beyond' when he 'borrowed' a 15-foot stepladder to take pictures from an even better vantage point.  He started using it near the rear of the area and eventually brought it to the closer spot for even better results.  I thought about using it myself but I didn't want to bring any undue attention to myself if I lost my balance.

Some of the lingering crowd got the chance to be photographed with NFL lineman Nick Mangold (wearing baseball cap) outside the town hall meeting.

Once the event ended, I made my way out of the building while keeping an eye for a potential interviewee to give me at least two for my story.  After several unsuccessful attempts, I was able to secure Ms. Wilkes' approval for me to record her responses.  She was a very informed Romney supporter and we shared a long discussion about the campaigns as well as general political topics that I did not include in my posting.  I enjoy having an honest discussion about politics and the current events that involve our country and the larger international community and she was a delightful participant. 

ZDF correspondent Heike Slansky and her video crew sizing up departing attendees for potential interviews outside the Romney town hall event.

After our chat, I decided to wait for the campaign bus to depart (and had the chance to talk with a German television crew) but when told there would be a 45-minute delay, I packed up my equipment and, passing by the remaining news trucks,  started my long trek back to my car.  It was at this time that I made a discovery that dampened my entire day.  In my haste to complete a 'nature call' before the town hall meeting (and having over $500 worth of electronic gear on straps around my neck dangling precariously over a gaping latrine hole), I apparently forgot to 'secure' a vital element of my main lower outergarment in the 'upright and locked' position before stepping outside and walked around for almost two hours with my fly open.  I was wearing a jacket with a low waist so I'm not sure just how noticeable this was to the attendees but I was made aware of this faux pas when I started detecting breezes in an area that should've been airtight.  At that point, I was too cold and too tired to care who saw me and quickly secure the jeans without breaking stride.  I made it back to my car and relished in its somewhat comfortable seating while running the engine for eventual warmth.

All three Dayton-area television news organizations were covering the event.

All things considered, it was a pretty interesting and rewarding day.  Unfortunately, I started coming down with something late that evening that had me feeling totally drained for nearly the next two days with lingering symptoms into a third so my postings were not as 'immediate' as I hoped that they would be.  I am already seeing that meeting deadlines will be my biggest obstacle to producing real-time news articles and, perhaps, this awareness will vector me in the direction of narrative journalism.  Only time--and more practice--will eventually tell and my next assignment might turn out to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

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