A Witness to History

Equinox reporter on-hand for first presidential debate of 2016

By Theresa King

(HEMPSTEAD, N.Y.) – Latino food staff workers for the media reception of the first presidential debate at Hofstra University on Sept. 26 looked up at a large television screen displaying Sen. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

“Our jobs are fleeing the country,” Trump said. “They are going to Mexico.”

The workers shook their heads and whispered to each other, their faces reflecting dismay. They were working just a few yards from the debate stage.

Earlier in the day, the feeling in the air was charged at Hofstra University. The campus was a frenzy of students, media and politicians. But this was nothing new for Hofstra.

Hofstra is the only university to ever host three consecutive debates, and is known for its political courses and majors. In 2015, Hofstra opened the Kalikow School of Government, Public Policy and International Affairs. Its focus on politics makes it the perfect place for a debate between the presidential nominees. And for the members of the campus community, it’s an absolute blast.

“It’s like a carnival,” sophomore Hofstra student Bethany Foster said. “We never get free stuff like this!”

Hofstra’s student center has many places to eat, similar to a mall food court, and on debate day it was filled to the brim with students, radio network personnel and anyone looking for the center of all the campus action (aside from the debate hall).

Outside the student center it was bustling, too. Every major news organization set up there. Some gave away free novelties, while others were interviewing students.

“I just got interviewed by CNN!” screamed one student as he ran to his friends in a crowd gathered in front of the FOX News stage.

Wearing “Hofstra 2016 Debate” T-shirts, students went around to advertise debate watch-parties going on that night, with “tons of free food,” as one student emphasized.

Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein stopped to greet students on campus and take selfies with them, leaving shortly after.

It was time for me to get to work.

With only a campus credential, allowing its possessor to go anywhere “outside the debate perimeter,” I had to find out how far I could push the limits of access.

Heading away from the student festivities to the north, the parking lot was blocked off by barriers, with the exception of a white tent. Underneath it was something like an airport security point, guarded by the Secret Service, complete with baggage check and metal detectors.

A student volunteer held a scanner, normally seen in supermarkets, to scan the barcode on media passes to allow entry. However, my campus credential did not have a barcode, an indicator of the limited access it afforded me. As a result, it only made sense to do the most logical thing: act as if I belonged there.

There was another white tent at the end of the tunnel, filled with a bountiful lunch display, complete with sandwiches, wraps, reusable water bottles, chips, soup and even beer. After watching it for a minute or two, I realized that this food was for media personnel, who were scattered across the elegantly decorated picnic tables enjoying their free time before the real fun began.

I had a quick cup of soup and then resumed my exploration. I followed a crowd of people heading into the David S. Mack Fitness Center. It looked much like a high school gymnasium, and had been plastered with signs reading, “Hofstra Debate 2016” everywhere. A closer look and some helpful signs, however, revealed that this was the designated “Media Filing Center,” otherwise known as Spin Alley.

News networks had set up various cubicle-like areas surrounding the outskirts of the large room, while long call center-type tables rested in the middle, complete with power strips and ethernet plugs for reporters to catch up on work. Each row had TV’s mounted displaying FOX News, CNN, FOX Business and MSNBC all day. With plenty of time left before the debate, members of the news organizations utilized it to record segments, type up stories and charge their phones.

At one point, a small crowd formed behind CNN’s tiny makeshift stage. On it sat Wolf Blitzer, reporting live and chatting with an on-air guest. The television monitors close by showed him talking, and by glancing back and forth from live Blitzer and real-life Blitzer, the seconds difference in live TV was noticeable.

Soon thereafter, an even larger crowd formed at another makeshift stage. With a closer look and some eavesdropping, it dawned on me that the white-haired man sitting in one of two chairs being interviewed and protected by Secret Service was Trump’s running mate, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana. Reporters stood waiting for the chance to get a quote from him after he was finished.

By this time my excruciatingly painful yet professional-looking high heels were killing me as I traveled back and forth between the food tent and Spin Alley. I received some curious looks, perhaps due in part to the fact that I appeared to be one of the only media personnel under 25, and maybe because my shoes had me walking like a baby bird.

This was my reality until dinner in the food tent at 5 p.m. The menu for the buffet-style dinner was salad, bread, garlic knots, stuffed peppers, lasagna and brownies. Sitting in a room of many well-known and professional journalists is extremely humbling, and a reminder that they’re all just normal people, and that they also like to eat.

I decided to make one more attempt to enter the debate hall, flashing my dainty media lanyard as if I were a famous journalist. Unsurprisingly, the attempt failed because of the missing barcode. At this point, the only thing left to do was report, charge devices and talk to people.

While walking back to Spin Alley, a group of men watched my high-heeled drama.

“We’ve all been saying that looks very painful,” one in a blue shirt said. “You’ve been walking around all day, and you’re a tough reporter. I give you props.”

After a brief chat, he introduced himself as Cameron Blattner, director of operations for StarCom Communications Services, who worked on the debate hall.

He offered me his pass to enter the debate hall, however he realized that upon scanning the barcode a picture pops up on the scanner of the pass holder, so this would not work.

Blattner and his colleagues stood outside Spin Alley for hours, chatting, smoking electronic cigarettes and discussing the candidates.

The start of the debate was approaching, and since the TVs in Spin Alley had no volume, I decided to view the debate from the media food tent. This proved difficult, though, as every journalist who did not make their way into the debate hall also came here to watch the event unfold. As a result, seats were limited, and the picnic tables became packed with reporters eager for the debate to start.

Food was still out for consumption at the time the debate started. The staff, with matching T-shirts, gladly scooped lasagna onto the plates of those hungry for more. Reporters occasionally walked up to the table with brownies, eyes still glued to TV mounted on the tent and ears perked for the start of the long-awaited event.

Once Lester Holt walked on stage, the room fell silent, and it remained so throughout the debate, with the exception of a few boos or claps from several tables. While the journalists in the room were generally professional in their demeanor, their responses to the candidates’ statements said otherwise. With several of Trump’s responses, one look around the room showed responses including giggles, sighs and head-shakes from reporters.

During Trump’s statements on Mexico and China, the staff watched intently. Some turned away from the TV, focusing their attention on cleaning up tables, rather than his comments.

Blattner appeared toward the end of the debate, wielding a beer and brownie, to sit and discuss the candidates.

“I tend to lean more toward the Republican side,” he said, “but I was really feelin’ Bernie.”

After a brief time chatting and watching the debate, Blattner exited the tent for the night.

“I’m looking forward to seeing you on TV someday,” he said as he grabbed his beer and left.

As the debate went on, some reporters went back to Spin Alley, some stayed in the tent – frantically typing quotes as they were spoken on the TV, reporting history in the making – and others simply went home. After the debate’s conclusion, a steady wave of reporters moved back toward the student center, where the media shuttle would pick them up and return them to their vehicles. The buzz had ended, and lugging camera equipment, bags and notebooks, the reporters left in anticipation of the next news day.