Talking politics with Chris Matthews, Sam Donaldson and Geraldo: My media adventures at the RNC
TAMPA -- It’s probably a slow news day when one of the more exciting media stories from a day of political convention coverage is a fight between MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews and Republican party chairman Reince Priebus.
But that’s kinda what happened today, as the storm-inspired cancellation of events on the first day of the Republican National Convention led delegates to mostly stay away, prompting media to turn their spotlight on politicos still roaming the grounds, including Matthews’ challenge to Priebus over a recent joke by GOP nominee Mitt Romney noting no one ever asked him for his birth certificate.
"It just seems funny that the only joke he ever told in his life was about Obama's birth certificate," said the MSNBC anchor during the channel's Morning Joe show, broadcasting from the Howl at the Moon restaurant in Channelside before an audience of about 100 people.
"That's the card...they're playing the (race) card," the host fumed, after the segment ended. "If you think that birth certificate thing is funny, you're deaf." (Priebus, who visited the Tampa Bay Times workspace in the Tampa Convention Center later in the day, accused Matthews of grabbing the spotlight by “being the biggest jerk in the room....If he had more than 10 viewers, I would actually care.”)
These kinds of “I’m rubber, you’re glue” moments seemed a little more likely on a day like today, where the lack of business and spurts of rain made the day feel like a not-so-dry run for when people actually fill the Tampa Bay Forum Tuesday (at right, comic Andy Kindler taped a segment with Morning Joe's stars for David Letterman's CBS talk show).
Many of the big TV outlets were judging how to respond to Tropical Storm Isaac while staying in place for the RNC. CNN sent anchors Anderson Cooper and Soledad O’Brien to New Orleans for storm coverage; NBC sent Lester Holt and MSNBC anchor Tamron Hall to Louisiana, while ABC had Nightline anchor Bill Weir travel to the area for storm coverage.
At PBS, NewsHour executive producer Linda Winslow was secure in their plans to stick with covering the convention; edging up the start of their continuous coverage to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in line wth the RNC's changed plans.
For Winslow, the toughest part of readjusting to the canceled events Monday was getting all PBS stations to sign off on the expanded hours, living up to PBS' promise of gavel-to-gavel coverage.
"I was never planning to stand Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill next to a light pole in a storm," Winslow quipped, noting they would focus on the RNC as Isaac drama played out elsewhere. "We'll cover whatever is happening here."
Though Isaac mostly brought rain to Tampa Monday, a media-centered danger remained for RNC organizers. If the storm brings major damage to New Orleans or the Gulf Coast – especially on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina – news outlets would shift to the greater catastrophe, limiting the convention’s impact in the same way Hurricane Gustav coverage affected the RNC in 2008.
“You cover the news that is the most pressing, the most dramatic and to most Americans, the most important,” said longtime political journalist Sam Donaldson, who was working at the RNC with ABC News Radio. “If that becomes storm coverage, don’t blame the news media. Blame God.”
The real media celebrity action was often centered on radio row, the area in the middle of the Tampa Convention Center where about 100 different program hosts sit, equipped to lead their shows from the spot, as notable conservative stars walk from pod to pod, delivering their message.
Newt Gingrich sat with Artur Davis, a black man, ex-Alabama Congressman and former Obama supporter who switched to the GOP and will speak at the RNC Tuesday. Mercurial actor Jon Voight sat one space over, talking up his “cheerleading” for Romney, while former Northern Exposure star Janine Turner expounded on her own conservative values, while pushing a book by her 14-year-old daughter on the U.S. Constitution.
Here is where politics met promotion, as conservatives spoke through radio directly to an audience receptive to their message.
“We are lonely (as conservatives in Hollywood),” said Turner, handing out a flyer for her daughter’s book, called Our Constitution Rocks! “There’s a little bit of coming out here..Many conservatives think, if they go public, they could lose jobs.
The facilities provided for media to schmooze and unwind here was impressive. Inside the convention center, where most journalists are based, a lounge sponsored by Google featured a free coffee bar, charging stations for electronics, recliner seats, a photo booth and a way-cool modern theme reminiscent of, say, an Apple Genius bar.
CNN also opened its CNN Grill (at right) to reporters, turning the first floor of the South Regional Parking Garage into a gigantic bar and restaurant, complete with faux-wood floors, a giant touch screen computer display featuring its homepage, a long bar and lots of free food and drink.
At times, it could be a surreal scene; NBC News anchor Brian Williams heading into the Forum by one entrance, while the Daily Show’s fake news correspondents Al Madrigal and John Oliver walked in through another – both clad in trademark dark suits and ties.
Even the mightiest moustache in media, Fox News contributor and newly-minted national radio host Geraldo Rivera, was energized by the exchanges, interviewing former GOP presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann while keeping an eye on the storm’s progress.
“We’ve already seen the replay of Gustav; we don’t want to see a replay of Katrina,” said Rivera, who found time to visit his mother in Sarasota before joining the multitudes in radio row. “And I agree…there has not been as striking a contrast between the two parties is in recent memory. It’s a big deal.”