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Jewish World Review August 8, 2003 / 10 Menachem-Av, 5763

Roger Simon

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A journo's eye view | CHICAGO -- I decided to do something really different at the recent Democratic debate sponsored by the AFL-CIO here: I decided to actually watch the debate in person.

This has fallen so far out of fashion that, at many debates, it is no longer possible. Reporters, who fly hundreds or thousands of miles to get to the event, go into little press rooms and watch the debates on TV monitors. The picture they see is the same picture that people see at home.

Often, there are no seats for the press in the debate hall, and frankly, few reporters want them. The press room has become our electronic womb. It has everything we need: power lines, phone lines and (sometimes) food.

We hook up our laptops, and we settle back in front of the tube.

In fairness, to a reporter on a tight deadline, staying in the press room is a great advantage.

But most reporters stay in the press room even when they don't have to. In fact, some of them fly thousands of miles and never leave their hotel rooms.

Because as long as you can see the same picture of the debate on any TV, what really is the advantage of the press room? Phone companies charge rapacious fees for phone lines in most press rooms, so why not just stay in your hotel room and pay the semi-rapacious phone fees there?

In fact, why fly to the event at all? Why not just stay home? Several reasons: If you stay home, you can't put a dateline on your story (unless you are Jayson Blair, in which case you can claim you watched the debate from Saturn). If you stay home, you don't get airline frequent flyer miles, hotel frequent guest miles or expense account meals.

But most of all, if you stay home you miss the entire summer camp atmosphere that is a presidential campaign.

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OK, so we've established you've actually got to go to the event. But why shlep out to the press room? Why not stay in your nice mixed-nuts-are-only-$18-from-the-minibar hotel room?

The death factor. The following conversation actually took place next to me in Chicago, as two reporters argued as to whether it was necessary to actually go out to the Navy Pier to watch the debate.

First Reporter: "I'm not paying $250 for a phone line from the press room, and I hear the press room is going to be really crowded anyway."

Second Reporter: "What if somebody shoots one of them?"

First Reporter: (shocked) "What?"

Second Reporter: "If one of them gets shot, what are you going to tell your desk?"

This is not a post-Sept. 11 phenomenon. Reporters have worried about this forever. I know a reporter who, in 1968, left Robert Kennedy's last rally early so he could get some sleep. He was awakened in his hotel room by a frantic editor saying the wires were moving stories about Kennedy being shot, and where was his story?

So we tend to show up at the events. But do we need to actually see them in the flesh, or can we cover them in vitro, under the glass of the TV screen?

As it turns out, the AFL-CIO made it easy to see the debate in real life. There were press seats in the hall, and the hall was only a few yards from the press room. So I watched some of the debate live and some on TV.

What were the differences? Audience reaction is one big difference. Live, in the hall, you can hear and see the boos, cheers, hisses and applause. On TV, since the audience does not have microphones in it, the reaction is muted or absent. Is this important? Well, the candidates are in the hall, too, and they react to the audience, so it can make a difference.

Second big difference: Your eye is a much better camera than a TV lens. It can take in much more. (Your eyes are also on a convenient swiveling device called a head.) You can take in all the candidates at once, instead of being at the mercy of the person in the control room selecting shots. This is especially valuable when watching one candidate react to another, which is often absent from TV.

By watching in the hall, I learned for instance that Howard Dean does not watch the other candidates while they are speaking. He is very busy with his own notes, preparing for his turn to speak.

I also learned the John Kerry's voice problems are continuing. His voice was very weak at the South Carolina debate, and it hurt him. In Chicago, I was in the hall and could barely hear him. I figured it might just be bad sound in the hall. So I went back to the press room, and it was hard to hear him on TV, too. Kerry really is going to have to rest his voice before these big debates: It is hard to sound forceful if your voice is weak.

My key observation came after TV had gone off the air, however. I wondered if Dean would seek out Joe Lieberman, who had spent this last week questioning Dean's judgment, resolve and patriotism.

Dean did so immediately. He very swiftly and very deliberately walked the length of the stage to Lieberman and shook Lieberman's hand forcefully as if to say, "When I'm president, Joe, I'll consider you for ambassador to Liechtenstein."

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