By: Mark Fitzgerald
NEWSPAPER journalists and their editors had much to cheer and complain about when comparing the Democratic National Convention to its earlier GOP counterpart in San Diego.
If turnabout is fair play, newspapers which went to both conventions got fair play in spades.
In San Diego, the problem was the convention hall seating for print reporters. Exiled well to the side of the podium, daily newspaper reporters found their views further blocked by columns. They also were out of view of the giant screens that projected podium action to the delegates. Some brought their own TV sets.
On the other hand, the logistics of setting up remote news bureaus went very smoothly in San Diego.
It was just the opposite in Chicago: great for newspaper reporters inside the convention hall ? and often chaotic for editors and support staff outside the United Center building.
Phones were put in late ? and then malfunctioned.
Convention facility managers missed their own deadlines for power and air conditioning for the five tent-like pavilions that housed print, wire service and online operations.
And then on Friday night, Aug. 23 ? less than 48 hours before the heavy convention eve news coverage was to start ? a typical Midwestern summer thunderstorm threw preparations into further chaos.
Water seeped ? and sometimes gushed ? from holes in the tent roofs, threatening computers and phone systems. An apparent lightening strike of a transformer cut power to several news organizations.
And the convention operators’ attempts to fix the power problem brought more inconveniences.
“We came back in at eight o’clock in the morning [after the power failure] and brought all our systems back up. Then, at about 9:30, they pulled the plug on us without notice. . . . We had to run an extension cord to the Chicago Tribune to get back on line,” said Bill Lenz, the communications executive, who along with Phil Emanuel directed convention logistics for the Associated Press.
For AP, the unannounced power interruption was just one more hassle in a string of snafus setting up in Chicago.
Right from the start, Lenz and Emanuel say, they knew Chicago would not be anything like San Diego. “We came in on the ninth [of Aug., 16 days before convention eve] and there was no power,” Lenz said.
Unfortunately, they arrived in the middle of a heat wave. Exhausted workers were ducking out of the pavilion frequently to cool off.
“It was actually hell,” Lenz said. “Temperatures inside were running about 100 degrees. Finally, we brought in a number of large, 30-inch fans to at least blow some air around.”
When AP asked for air conditioning, the convention operators said they could arrange for early installation ? at a price: $2,500 per day.
“I thought that was pretty expensive,” said Lenz, dryly. AP declined.
And when the air conditioning finally was turned on, it operated at first only from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. That created its own problems.
“We don’t like to take this equipment up and down, up and down, up and down like that,” Lenz said.
The strain on the equipment destroyed some computer boards, and forced AP to borrow equipment from the concluded San Diego convention.
“Originally, the Chicago equipment was to come from (AP’s Olympics site) in Atlanta. We hadn’t planned to send the San Diego equipment from Chicago ? but thank God we had it,” Lenz said.
While AP’s six technicians and five managers struggled with union help to install the computers and other systems, it was forced to spend increasing time on getting its phones installed.
Indeed, the most common complaint among newspapers and wire services in the Chicago media pavilions was about the performance of the phone contractor, Ameritech.
“When you arrived in San Diego, all the phone lines were already down on the floor. They only needed to know where you wanted them to go,” said Laurie Hackett, Washington office manager for Scripps Howard News Service. Phones in San Diego were handled by another Baby Bell, Bell South.
Newspapers complained that installation started late or slowly ? and that installers frequently simply disappeared.
“You had to hunt them down a lot,” AP’s Emanuel said.
“Once you got hold of an installer, you just didn’t let him go, because you never knew when you’d see him again,” Scripps Howard’s Hackett said.
The Chicago Tribune’s office manager “bird-dogged the process every step of the way,” said Mitchell Locin, the Tribune political reporter who was Democratic convention coordinator. One thing the manager had to stop: proposed separate ? and likely separately billed ? installations of telephone and ISDN lines, Locin said.
Even when installed, “the phones are not the best,” said Tribune deputy managing editor Jim O’Shea. “Half the time the call transfers don’t go through.”
For its part, Ameritech said most installation problems in the media pavilion were the result of last-minute layout changes or equipment orders.
In the case of the Tribune and AP, Ameritech spokeswoman Marybeth Johnson said, “Apparently
Journalists covering the political conventions say they had better logistics, poor seating at San Diego; great seats, iffy logistics in Chicago there were some difficulties . . . . because the locations [of phones] changed a number of times.”
Johnson said it was not clear whether the location changes were ordered by the convention organizers or the news organizations.
Wiring the media center was a massive undertaking. Ameritech said it laid a total of 8,000 lines for print and broadcast media. That total includes 200 ISDN lines, Johnson said.
Phones were not the only problem at the Tribune’s news site.
As it had in San Diego ? although on a much bigger scale because it was a hometown newspaper ? the Chicago Tribune was housed in so-called Tribune Media Centers, multimedia newsrooms allowing collaboration between the newspaper; its CLTV Chicago cable news operation; Tribune Co.-owned WGN radio and television stations; and the digital publishing operations Chicago Tribune Online and Internet Chicago Tribune.
Yet, convention organizers at first provided power at “significantly” lower levels than requested, Locin said.
The Tribune was also one of the news organizations hit worst by the thunderstorm. Its newsroom floor was turned into a sodden mess, forcing the paper to bring in dryers. Some machinery was damaged, and for the remainder of the convention, the newspaper had rolls of tarp on hand in case it rained again.
Phones worked fine at the Wall Street Journal newsroom, but a series of power outages Aug. 21 were irksome, said Bob McGilvray, the paper’s Washington bureau news editor.
Worse, though, were the working conditions for editors and technicians before air conditioning was installed, he said.
“I come from Washington and I’m used to Washington heat and humidity, but this was really torrid,” McGilvray said.
And even official Washington had not prepared McGilvray and other journalists for the extraordinarily long lines into the convention caused by a painfully slow security process.
“I have never seen security so intent not on seeing whether a credential was genuine ? but seemingly intent on proving that it was a counterfeit,” McGilvray said. “In San Diego, security worked very smoothly,” said Dan K. Thomasson, vice president/news of Scripps Howard Newspapers. “Security there worked without a hitch ? and there was a more civil tone than here,” he added.
Convention passes were scanned by portable devices, and several security officials, especially opening night of the convention, scanned the same pass repeatedly before approving it. Further slowing the security process: There were very few airport-style X-ray scanners for purses and briefcases so almost all bags were searched ? slowly ? by hand.
Lines moved much faster after the first night once more scanners were installed.
Journalists inside the media pavilion had some compliments, also.
“I’ll tell you who was very helpful: those volunteers. They were fabulous,” Scripps Howard’s Hackett said, referring to the huge number of local residents organized by the city government’s Chicago ’96 organization.
Ameritech, too, won journalists’ gratitude with a well-appointed press filing area, a telephone center inside the convention hall ? and a media hospitality area providing substantial food, soft drinks and beer.
Ameritech’s hospitality efforts also contrasted with the approach taken by another regional Bell operating company, BellSouth, at the last Democratic convention four years ago in New York City.
At that time, BellSouth struck some journalists as being a bit heavy-handed as it combined a traditional press lounge in the convention center with product demonstrations ? and open lobbying against then-pending legislation that would have barred RBOCs from operating certain services.
In 1992, the BellSouth media lounge was located right inside the Madison Square Garden convention site, and product demonstrations were conducted as journalists availed themselves of the free sandwiches, soft drinks, beer and desserts.
This year, Ameritech is offering a more varied menu ? with Chicago restaurants offering local specialties, such as deep-dish pizza ? but a far more low-key approach to its products. There are booths at its hospitality center and at its press filing area, but the focus is on food and filing rather than products. Also Ameritech’s media hospitality center is in a media pavilion located just outside the United Center convention hall.
Ameritech is operating a lounge more similar to the 1992 BellSouth offering at a downtown building near the Tribune Tower. The Tech-Town Diner offers food and drink and product demonstrations, but no overt lobbying about specific legislation.
Once inside the convention, there appeared to be few journalists’ complaints about seating arrangements, sight lines or floor access.
“Our reporters have a great [sight line],” Scripps Howard’s Thomasson said, “It’s far better than what the Republicans gave us in San Diego.”
talk show “Beyond the Beltway.” Big media outlets tend to be staffed and run by people who have nearly lock step ? and liberal ? views of most issues.
“The greatest affirmative action that the national media could do is bring in some of these other kinds of people,” Dumont said. “The audience for your product is not buying.”
Tim Russert, the political analyst and moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” acknowledged that in his own newsroom he is struck by a certain sameness of personnel.
“How many people know people in the military?” he asked. “How many know anyone on welfare?”
But journalists Russert, Seigenthaler and Fuller said they did not see that bias creeping into reporting.
“There is no conspiracy to recruit left-leaning graduates of journalism schools,” Seigenthaler said. “I just know Jack Fuller, when he is recruiting, does not ask any question about politics. And no other editor does, either.”
“We talk about this very issue all the time,” Fuller himself said, referring to bias. “We have editors who have the course to say to someone, ‘This thing is slanted. We’re not going to tolerate this.’ “
Nevertheless, Seigenthaler and Fuller agreed that the cultural values of journalists may work against third party candidate Ross Perot.
“I have some question about whether the media will be fair to Ross Perot,” Seigenthaler said. “I have a feeling that if there is a cultural bias to Bill Clinton, there is a cultural alienation for Ross Perot.”
Former Boston Globe political writer John Mashek, a professional in residence at the First Amendment Center, argued that the bias will be a much simpler one.
“We all have that subconscious desire,” he said. “We all love a horse race.”
?(Media accomodations at the Democratic convention in Chicago were great for newspaper reporters inside the convention hall-and often chaotic for editors and support staff outside the United Center building.) [Caption]