Consider, for a moment, six hours of unadulterated free time. You’re entitled to a folding chair, an electrical outlet, about three square feet of table space to call your own, and an LG plasma screen TV feeding you footage of two empty chairs in a makeshift town hall.
You’ve spent weeks predicting what would happen when those two chairs are finally occupied. They are literally a stone’s throw away in a neighboring building. But thanks to grimacing Secret Service agents and helicopters humming overhead, the chairs might as well be in Siberia.
So, what would you do for six hours?
There’s free food and beer at a Budweiser-sponsored tent outside, and it feels sort of shameful to chow down. But you do. There’s a youthful buzz only the Long Island college campus can produce, but the undergrads are slowly going from exuberant to antsy. They’ll eventually become tired. And bored.
Like you. It’s the second of three presidential debates, this time at Hofstra University. The one the political chattering class claims could cost either candidate the election. It’s a big deal… Right?
Yeah, right. Big deal. It wasn’t, at least not to most of the press present that Tuesday.
Because here’s the deal: some reporters were so bored, frankly jaded despite the beer, campus and all the free time, they decided to write the first draft of history before it even occurred.
Welcome to life as a member of the roving press corps following President Barack Obama and/or Mitt Romney. One of the two men will be the next President on Election Day. But until then, the banality of daily life covering the campaign leads some to create excitement and productivity in little doses. How? Turn the campaign into a guessing game.
Sorry to ruin Oz by pulling back the curtain, but this pre-reporting has existed as long as deadlines and headlines. Especially in the era of mobile news updates and social networking chatter. Being first is often more important than being right — or at least it’s more profitable.
The resulting media frenzy has created a self-fulfilling narrative. So when Obama dismissed Romney by saying, “I don’t look at my pension, it’s not as big as yours,” some reporters stopped typing.
Nothing to add or fix when the guess you made two hours ago was correct. Just lay that quote into the story and send it off to the virtual presses.
“Why would you quote a reporter about any of this?” one said in response to a question about the practice.
The candidates played to the predictions, swinging hard as daily polling numbers showed a dead heat in the states where votes count most. The result? Admittedly one of the most acrimonious debates ever televised. At various points, Obama and Romney were reduced to vying for attention like two antsy Chihuahuas. But boy was it entertaining. Right?
Not if you were a member of the predicta-press, which groaned at times because “rude and feisty” wasn’t in the magic crystal ball that dictated their stories. Others started amping-up their stories with adverbs and bang-zoom-pow descriptors.
Stories were amended and filed. Then came the heady warp zone of “spin alley.”
To understand “spin alley,” imagine politicos of local and national fame floating around like lava lamp orbs in an area about the size of a basketball court while reporters swarm to the most recognizable name.
With Obama by all accounts “winning,” his former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, his political guru David Axelrod and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer entered — a whole 15 minutes before the debate ended.
Turns out politics and media share one attribute: you only truly win if you declare victory first. And so Obama's surrogates came prepped with talking points, which were probably written before the debate started.
“I think voters saw tonight that the president is a champion of the middle class and Mitt Romney isn’t,” Schumer said.
Enter Rep. Peter King (R-Nassau) 15 minutes after the debate was over, espousing the same line but with Romney on top. Ditto former New York Gov. George Pataki, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Axelrod, former Republican Congressman Rick Lazio. Their man won over the middle class.
As for the acrimony and bickering? Well, that’s New York for ya!
“People wanted to see strength and direction and I think the president delivered,” Schumer said.
“I have no problem with it,” King said. “I thought they were adopting a New York style.”
Talking to the politicians, it all becomes understandable: the boredom, the desperate grasp for a story to tell. It still doesn’t excuse guiding the electorate in the wrong direction.
But it sure beats sitting at a table with nothing to do for six hours.