Politics

08.28.12

Tropical Storm Isaac Sidelines Media Elite at the Republican Convention

With no actual convention to cover Monday, the journalists in Tampa had to get creative—or at least look busy. Lauren Ashburn reports on the tricks of the trade.

A tropical storm may have upended the Republican convention in Tampa, but it takes a lot more than that to drown out hordes of journalists.

To be sure, they didn’t have much to cover on Monday, not with the convention delayed at least a day and Isaac largely a no-show, with the sun filling the Florida sky at times. Outside the CNN Grill, a lone iguana even found time for sunbathing.

But the 15,000 journalists assembled here from around the world have found themselves without a real story. Unless they want to “report” on the amazing number of hookah bars and strip clubs lining the roads north of Tampa, it’s slim pickings.

Media people, always on perpetual deadline, can adapt even to the most arid surroundings. A stroll through the cavernous complex found journalists tweeting, Tout-ing, and preparing to go on camera—not necessarily for television, but for the latest career-making cameos, live-streaming online. 

Not that there weren’t plenty of trivial pursuits. Howard Fineman, looking camera-ready as usual, wandered the convention hall looking for swag. The Huffington Post editorial director was proudly displaying his treasures: a free NBC baseball cap, hand sanitizer, and computer-screen cleaner that attaches to the back of your phone. He passed on a massage at Arianna’s Oasis, but came away with the scoop that the convention spa was decorated by Chelsea Clinton’s wedding planner.

Freed from the distraction of covering the actual convention, he marveled at the accommodations: “Our workspace here is bigger than our entire D.C. office.” Maybe, he mused, they should move to Tampa.

Amy Walter, ABC’s political director, appeared busy despite the fact that the day’s only official proceeding was a brief prayer. “On the floor today, there were more reporters than delegates,” she said. But she found tracking the chaos inflicted by the storm to be worthwhile, proving that journalists can make a story out of just about anything.

“We’re going to make it worth our money we have spent to come here.”— CNN’s Candy Crowley

The networks have invested vast sums to transport anchors, correspondents, technicians, bookers, publicists, and social-media mavens to the conventions. No way they’re going to let that go to waste. CNN’s Candy Crowley admitted as much.

“We’re going to make it worth our money we have spent to come here,” she told me.

Besides, says Crowley, who hosted State of the Union from a skybox, why be bound by actual events, or the lack thereof?

“You don’t have to talk about the convention,” she says. “Politics is an all-purpose dateline.” Looking at a digital display atop the Tampa Bay Times Forum, she observed: “Nothing says party like a debt clock.”

Crowley is known for closing the door and taking short breaks, even on the most hectic days, to center herself. But she drew the line in Tampa: “I’m not going to be meditating in here. It’s too scary.”

But there is a bigger picture here than how journalists fill in the blanks of the suddenly incomplete convention puzzle. Bob Schieffer, host of CBS’s Face the Nation, says the fact that reporters are less than fully focused on Mitt Romney and his message has created a political dilemma. “This really is kind of a problem for the Republicans,” he said. “They want to be dancing and partying,” but the storm has muddied the plot line.

“What they’ve got to do some way or another is shift to the conversation they want to be talking about. They need to introduce Mitt Romney to the country,” Schieffer says.

Not that some journalists are taking their eye off the political calendar. “Every second that goes by is one second closer to the election,” Walter says. “I’m sick to my stomach.”

In The New York Times workspace at the convention center, all seemed to be proceeding normally. But there was a certain lack of urgency. Jeff Zeleny, the paper’s chief political correspondent, says he would ordinarily be listening with one ear to the speeches, filing stories, and making videos for the website—all at the same time. Instead, he says, “it’s just a vamping day.” 

But the show, of course, must go on. “We have to justify our existence,” Zeleny said with a smile, his boss over his right shoulder.

Was he managing to have any fun? Well, Zeleny said, the night before he was out late with colleagues for a team-building exercise. When pressed, he confessed: “We were drinking.”