Watching the Press at the RNC and DNC

I’m covering the 2016  Republican and Democratic National Conventions for Columbia Journalism Review.

Below is an excerpt from my first report.

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 9.57.08 PMIn 1969, the photographer Garry Winogrand set out across the United States to document  “the effect of media” on events. His work, funded by a Guggenheim fellowship, was published as the book Public Relations. With a wide-angle lens, he documented in black and white an emerging culture dependent on the act of being seen.

“For Winogrand these events all shared the fact that they were public occasions, and that they had been called to order as much for the benefit of the media that recorded them as for the direct pleasure or ritual relief of those participating in them,” wrote Tod Papageorge in the opening essay.

Winogrand’s work feels particularly relevant as 15,000 credentialed press and many more freelance journalists descend on Cleveland for the Republican National Convention.

Covering a political convention is an assignment journalists love to hate. It’s like being an animal trapped in a red, white, and blue cage, constantly prowling for the juicy morsel that will make the entire spectacle worth enduring.

As journalists seek the unexpected and unscripted, convention organizers aim for the predictable. There should be no news but official news, conveyed through elaborate stagecraft designed to mesmerize the media and embolden the electorate.

At this year’s RNC, the ratio of credentialed journalists to delegates is 6 to 1. Filing is a round-the-clock affair. Members of the press must now tweet, post, live stream, Facebook, and Periscope, all the while scrambling for coveted floor passes. Competition is not just with each other, but with the delegates, protesters, and assorted onlookers tweeting, posting, and streaming from their phones and other devices. Perhaps sensing an opportunity for humor amid this swirling circus, late-night comedy hosts will also be broadcasting from the convention this year. Yes, Seth Myers, Stephen Colbert, and even Bill Maher are among the credentialed press.

Indeed, given Trump’s hostility to the press, which he has characterized as “scum,” the biggest story out of Cleveland may not be the protests or the speeches—notwithstanding the charisma of soap opera star Antonio Sabato Jr. and Melania Trump—but how many journalists end up being yanked from Trump’s showbiz cage. To capture this spectacle, CJR will be photographing the dynamics of press coverage at the RNC, from the convention floor to the street protests and everything in between.

Apart from Instagramming the delegate with the silliest hat, there are some priceless ironies to contemplate. Fifty million dollars in federal money will be spent on security. But since Ohio is an open carry state, gun owners will be permitted to carry rifles and handguns, while someone with a metal- tipped umbrella, tape more than six inches long, or even a tennis ball can be subject to arrest within the event zone. A prohibition on gas masks has prompted concerns from news organizations that journalists could risk arrest simply by trying to protect themselves during demonstrations. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press will be staffing a 24-hour-a-day hotline for journalists in need of legal help.

Photographers covering demonstrations face the possibility that their images of impassioned protesters may actually be pictures of undercover cops posing as outraged citizens. Tampa police in charge of security measures at the 2012 RNC have bragged about their success at infiltrating protest groups, including taking over leadership positions.

This will also be the first year since 1976 when the conventions willnot receive federal funds (excepting the DOJ security grant), signaling a near-complete dismantling of post-Watergate era campaign finance reforms. And Cleveland will be the first convention since 1996 to deny credentials to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), also known asOpenSecrets.org, which reports on campaign finance and corporate influence on politics. CRP has provided a fascinating list of off-site activities not found on the RNC website, including an NRA-organized Stars and Stripes Shootout at a hunting club outside Cleveland and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame party with Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).