Not for the first time, I'm going to agree with MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow on this one.
Watching Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood debate an empty chair before 50,000 devoted fans at the Republican National Convention was not just the weirdest major public event I'd ever seen before. It may be the weirdest public event I will ever see in my life, equal parts is-this-happening? absurdity and slow-motion train wreck inevitability.
And besides serving as a strange example of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's odd way of tripping over himself when he should be basking in success (remember his campaign's "I don't care about the poor" and etch-a-sketch gaffes?), Eastwood's debate with an imaginary, transparent Barack Obama showed just how quickly new media has changed the response to a gaffe.
Before the last cowboy hat-wearing fan could leave the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the Obama campaign had posted its own retort to Eastwood's taunt; a picture of the seated chief executive from behind, his trademark ears and a plaque reading "The president" visible, with the message, "This seat's taken." Talk about rapid response.
Around the same time, someone created the Twitter page @InvisibleObama, kicking off with a message reading "Someone should tell Marco Rubio he's standing on my foot right now." The page was apparently suspended for a while this morning, returning with the message "Sorry about that.
Twitter took the invisible thing a little too literally."
For a convention shortened by weather and limited by its scripted inevitability, the RNC found media-fed dustups provided its only unpredictable spice, fed by social media chatter like gasoline poured on fire.
The biggest media story, about the black CNN camerawoman who was pelted with peanuts and slur on the convention floor, first hit the public sphere courtesy of a Tuesday tweet from Current TV anchor David Shuster, who had heard about the incident from a friend. By Wednesday, a reluctant CNN had confirmed the details to the Talking Points Memo website, eventually reporting it on air as critics filled the Twitterverse wondering why the cable newschannel wasn't reporting this news.
On Thursday, the camerawoman Patricia Carroll appeared in her only interview, with the online column Journal-isms, giving her account of the incident and warning people "we haven't come as far as we think." This story rose up and flowered in the digital space, as more conventional news outlets were consumed with chasing down Ron Paul and figuring out who Thursday's mystery speaker would be.
Social media may not have ruled the news coverage as so many expected, but it was an important megaphone, from spreading word of MSNBC host Chris Matthews allegations of race baiting by the GOP to Daily Show host Jon Stewart using the Tampa Bay Times' own PolitiFact fact checking site to push Herman Cain into admitting he had misrepresented Obama's stance on loosening welfare work requirements.
As actor Jon Voight cemented his reputation as an offscreen oddball by insisting Obama is a Marxist, Fox News contributor Geraldo Rivera insisted the conservative channel treats him like the "crazy liberal uncle" they love and loathe at once. At times, the RNC's media/celebrity contingent provided more news and entertainment than much of the convention itself.
Jammed together in an unruly mob of talking heads, reporters and hangers-on who only get together once every four years, the 15,000 journalists assembled for the RNC seemed stuck in a serious bubble; hemmed in by the heat, stringent security arrangements and pressing crowds to stay as close to the convention site as possible, immersed in a cavalcade of spinning, insincere political figures.
But social media was a great way to skip around inside that bubble, getting a taste of what the Kid Rock concert at Liberty Park was like and who showed up to the Google reception at the Glaser Children's Museum without actually going there.
Still, by the week's end, as CNN anchor John King handed me a beer from behind a bar the cable channel built on the first floor of the South Regional Parking Garage, I couldn't help wondering if all this expense and effort had really been worth it.
Suddenly, the thought of all this money, time and resources expended to send 15,000 journalists to watch an Oscar winner debate an empty chair seemed like an apt metaphor.
Maybe ol' Clint knew what he was doing better than we thought.
The CNN camerawoman pelted with peanuts and called an "animal" while covering the Republican National convention has spoken out, saying she wasn't surprised by the incident because "people think we've gone further than we have."
CNN has confirmed that two people at the RNC threw peanuts at Carroll, telling her "this is how we feed animals"; after the incident, the pair was ejected by police, but neither the cable news channel nor the convention organizers have said if the people were alternates, delegates or guests of someone else.
"This is Florida, and I'm from the Deep South," she told Journal-isms. "You come to places like this, you can count the black people on your hand. They see us doing things they don't think I should do."
TAMPA -- I missed this when I originally watched the Daily Show's extended interview with Herman Cain broadcast Wednesday, but Jon Stewart wound up using the Tampa Bay Times' own factchecking site PolitiFact to correct the former GOP presidential candidate when he insisted President Obama relaxed work requirements for welfare.
As Cain kept insisting that changes instituted by the administration lessened such mandates for work for those on public assistance, Stewart grabbed a iPhone displaying PolitiFact's ruling on the claim, which the site rated a "pants on fire" -- its worst rating for factual inaccuracies.
"I don't know what that means...but clearly, that would be uncomfortable," quipped Stewart, before joking about a truth tour Cain had promised to start to hold the Obama administration accountable. "Ladies and gentlemen, the truth tour begins tonight!"
Cain later blamed the confusion on semantics, saying a Romney ad's use of the word "gutted" to describe changes was inaccurate. But Stewart persisted, telling Cain his use of the word "lessened" seems inaccurate, as well.
"I am sorry!" Cain eventually said. "So shoot me!"
It was a good example of the value fact-checking websites can bring to public debate. But it was also a disturbing example of how people can believe what they choose, regardless of what any fact checkers tell them.
Elsewhere, I'm still waiting for that homecoming bit where he visits the renowned Mons Venus strip club and other Tampa landmarks, but hometown guy Aasif Mandvi made his debut on the Daily Show's broadcasts from the Straz Center Wednesday.
Clad in a raincoat and lots of attitude, Mandvi delivered a "report" from the Republican National Convention floor while drenched in what he called "mostly spit and beer...these people really don't like the Daily Show."
Check it out, along with Cain's extended interview below; click to the middle of the last excerpt to see where PolitiFact shows up:
While everyone else here talks politics and weather, Pelley is focused on how to introduce a sliver of an interview with that author – a talk planned as a major exclusive for 60 Minutes next month that the anchor will reveal a bit of tonight, in part because the Associated Press has broken a story on the book’s content.
The only thing he can say with certainty about the story at this point, is that he won't be revealing the author's real name on air, despite the fact others have already done so. “It is the height of journalistic irresponsibility to reveal his name," said Pelley, who will call the author by the pseudonym "Mark Owen" in his piece. "There really is no reason the public needs to know his identity...He’s now a marked man for the rest of his life – like Osama bin Laden, ironically."
The night before, media outlets mixed coverage of Isaac with dissecting the RNC’s speeches -- a balancing act which has continued throughout the week. (at left, an image from Pelley's interview Tuesday with former Alabama congressman and Obama critic Artur Davis.)
“The thing I’m learning about this managing editor job, is you have to get used to juggling multiple stories at once,” said Pelley, taking a bite out a salad before rushing off to record promotional spots for Tampa CBS affiliate WTSP-Ch. 10 and his own network before planning coverage for the 6:30 p.m. broadcast. "We probably won't decide what goes into the show for sure until 30 minutes before the broadcast."
Viewers likely didn’t notice while watching CBS’ primetime coverage of the RNC Tuesday, but that night marked Pelley’s first time covering a political convention as a news anchor.
Pelley, 55, hadn’t ever worked as a news anchor when he took over the top job at CBS, replacing Katie Couric as lead anchor and managing editor of the program. That means every regular event for news anchors -- start of a legislative season, start of presidential campaigns, and presidential elections -- is a first for Pelley, until he gets through all the regularly-occurring news stories anchors are expected to tackle.
On Tuesday, he led a tight broadcast, with little time for analysis alongside co-anchor/wingman Bob Schieffer, as headliner speakers Ann Romney and Chris Christie filled most of the 10 p.m. hour with their speeches, coordinated with the kind of onstage precision most rock bands would envy.
“What struck me was how little time we had to do the things we aspired to do,” Pelley said a day later. “We had been working for weeks, (taping) interviews with people who lost their homes, interviews with people who lost their jobs…to take the audience outside the convention and listen to the voices of average Americans. But Mrs. Romney and Mr. Christie filled up all the time".
Some journalism experts have said that was exactly the point; to stage-manage the primetime speeches so tightly, that TV newscasts journalists have little time to interpret or analyze one message before the next one comes along.
“That is clever on their part, but it doesn’t change the basic focus of our jobs; to tell the folks at home what happened,” said the anchor, who has brought a sharper hard news focus to CBS' news broadcasts. "People are tuning into the convention because they want to know what happened at the convention.”
But for the broadcast TV networks this week, so much of that coverage happened in another venue: online.
Like their rivals, CBS is only broadcasting three hours of RNC coverage in prime time – one hour each night. But Pelley and his crew actually begin their coverage at 8:30 p.m., streaming the footage of CBS.com before and after the prime time window. (on Tuesday, they finished up just after 11:30 p.m.)
For viewers of a certain age, Tuesday's broadcasts looked like the convention coverage of years earlier, with Pelley juggling reports from the Tampa Bay Times Forum floor and interviews inside the news division's impossibly cramped broadcast booth high above the action. But most of that material unfolded online, which Pelley insists doesn't bother him at all.
“You can just have hours of great material and the heartbreaking thing about journalism are the things you have leave out,” he said. “The thing about the Internet is that a lot of that great content, which would have been shipped off that would have been shipped off the a warehouse in new Jersey, is now actually getting out in public…We take all the great stuff that we can’t get on television and we put it out there.”
TAMPA - Let the, um, simpler folk party with Kid Rock outside.
The cool kids -- and by that I mean news geeks like me who mostly live online -- gathered at the Florida Aquarium Wednesday night for a party thrown by BuzzFeed, the viral news aggregator which has been making a serious run at original political reporting, hiring its editor from POLITICO, opening a Washington bureau and sending a guerilla team of nearly a dozen to the Republican National Convention.
If you judge a party by the bigwigs who show up, BuzzFeed did pretty well. By midnight, NBC's Chuck Todd, CNN's Jim Acosta, Huffington Post' Howard Fineman and author Dave Weigel were all in the house, touring the winding ramps inside the Aquarium.
But the real stars were the penguins, plopped inside a couple of carts in pairs, wheeled around the party for pictures (but no touching). The tuxedoed duos drew flocks of partygoers well-trained to document every moment of the RNC on Instagram and Twitter.
Better still were the conversations, like this one:
"I would love to have one of thse at home," exclaimed one, um, overly enthusiastic partygoer.
"No you wouldn't," laughed one of the handlers. "At a certain point, they eat all the time and go to the bathroom every 10 or 15 minutes. They make the worst pets in a home."
"yeah," replaied the guy, looking at all the pretty women taking pictures, "But if I had one of these, think of how much I could get laid."
TAMPA -- Sitting in CBS' skybox inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum Tuesday night, watching Ann Romney and Chris Christie deliver important speeches during the Republican National Convention, I was struck by one thing.
I didn't see many chocolate chips in the cookie they were baking.
In other words, as images were projected on massive video screens behind both speakers, I didn't recall seeing many people of color. They probably were there, but in the hour I watched, they didn't seem to come up much.
That might not matter, except the GOP seems intent on using this convention to push its inclusiveness. A Hispanic clergyman stepped onstage after Christie's speech Tuesday to close the day with a benediction, for instance, and Cuban-American Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has been an inescapable presence across the convention and in media coverage.
As I sat in the booth, in walked former Alabama congressman Artur Davis, whose status as a black Democratic politician who left the party amid disillusion with Obama has made him a star here -- resisting anchor Bob Schieffer's insistence that he was "going after" Barack Obama in his own convention speech.
The RNC insists they can be a racially inclusive party, so the struggle over the appearance of inclusion is important here.
Which is why two cable TV newschannels, MSNBC and CNN, have found themselves drawn into the war, as parties on all sides fight over the RNC picture delivered to the world by media. (ABC/Yahoo landed in hot water as well, firing Yahoo News! Washington bureau chief David Chalian after he was accidentally caught on an open microphone saying of the GOP convention "they're happy to have a party while black people drown.")
Liberal friendly MSNBC kicked off the issue Monday morning, as Hardball host Chris Matthews challenged RNC chair Reince Priebus on the Morning Joe show over party rhetoric about Obama pushing a "European-style" health care plan and presidential nominee Mitt Romney's joke about no one asking to see his birth certificate.
"They're playing the race card," Matthews fumed after his segment, which co-host Mika Brzezinski later criticized publicly, saying "we hit a pothole" by letting the discussion get nasty. But that's what often happens in these discussions around such volatile topics, and Matthews' pushback against Priebus' denial seemed an accurate distillation of the image war at hand.
Their statement: "CNN can confirm there was an incident directed at an employee inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum earlier this afternoon. CNN worked with convention officials to address this matter and will have no further comment.”
But with no details on who the people were, why the altercation started or whether this cameraman had had any other problems, it's tough to know the full scope of this story (I can say that I haven't had that kind of problem at the RNC and haven't spoken to any other black folks who have.)
Wonder if CNN would accept that kind of answer from any subjects of their stories?
Matthew's MSNBC segment on race at the RNC is below:
TAMPA -- There is no feeling quite like standing in the Church of Jon Stewart.
Normally, that house of worship sits in a tiny studio space on 11th Avenue in a neighborhood once called Hell's Kitchen. But this week, Stewart's Daily Show has come to Tampa, intent on parodying the biggest story in politics, the Republican National Convention, tricking out the stage in Ferguson Hall at the Straz Center into a supercharged vision of the show's typical New York set.
And on Tuesday during a taping that started late and ran long, the comic and his crew took aim at the biggest, fattest target available: the city of Tampa itself.
Perhaps because Monday’s RNC events were canceled by the passing of not-yet Hurricane Isaac, the first five minutes of Tuesday’s show ignored politics for a rat-ta-tat spray of Florida jokes, from the strippers to the humidity to bugs big enough to cart off a grown woman.
“Isaac has passed, returning this city back to its normal atmospheric conditions..somewhere between (a) steam room and a subway platform in Haiti,” correspondent John Oliver intoned, footage of ruins displayed behind him as a stand in for Tampa's Grant Park neighborhood. “There is no place you’d rather be, particularly if you’re an insect from an Indiana Jones film."
Or if you’re a rabid fan of the Daily Show, which drew such a devoted audience Tuesday, some people camped out early as 7:30 a.m. to make sure they earned a ticket to the show.
In all, 626 faithful crowded into the space after signing up online, showing up early to get numbered tickets and returning later to wait in the heat for access to the show (even a few people without tickets got in through the show's "standby" line; organizers say you can show up and stand around even if you don't have tickets, with the knowledge that you might not get in.)
The congregation was mostly college age and middle age - bright-eyed liberals who might be the only lefties stuck in town who weren't protesting at the actual RNC down the street.
He even drew in a few conservatives, like 41-year-old veteran and devout Christian Lisa Berg from Hudson, who laughed nervously that her conservative father would be "turning over in his grave" to see her laughing at the travails of the GOP with a comic who calls Florida's Republican governor Rick Scott an "emaciated Mr. Clean."
"All this stuff can get pretty emotional," said Berg, who had trouble articulating exactly why she considered herself a conservative, beyond her faith and her military service. "I figure, if you can add some humor to it all, let's hear it."
(At right, correspondent Samantha Bee conducts an interview at the Tampa Bay Times Forum; Daily Show correspondent spotting has become a sport of sorts at the RNC)
Of course, no one is quicker to disavow the near-religious devotion of fans than Stewart himself, who spent a few minutes chatting up the audience just before taping started (Those weird, seemingly out-of-context jokes he often cracks at the show’s start? Those are usually shout-outs to stuff he says in these moments.)
The comic took questions from the crowd, including one from a journalist wondering if he had reached out to Gov. Scott to get him as a guest, despite months of lampooning him on air.
“Yes…I wrote him a personal letter, I don’t know why he didn’t reply,” answered Stewart. “Well, I shouldn’t say write. I cut some letters out of a magazine. We’ll see what happens.”
He also took questions about whether he’d visit the area’s strip clubs (nope), whether he thinks the country could survive electing a Republican president (“Uh yeah…I don’t know if you remember, we survived a civil war.”) and if he would go party at the University of Tampa.
“I would totally like to be the creepy old guy at UT,” said Stewart, who is actually just 49 years old. “I’m onstage right now, wearing makeup, wearing a suit. You might think, ‘That guy doesn’t have osteoporosis,’ but I do! I’m an old man.”
Still, in the middle of the laughs, as usual, Stewart offered a serious point; asking his audience to make sure they were tolerant of ideas they didn’t agree with. “Sometimes (our) guests mirror your viewpoints exactly…other guests they challenge it,” he said, drawing chuckles. “Some audience members might feel the need to go ‘booo’..but not Daily Show audience members, because they enjoy the interplay.”
That resolve was tested during an interview with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio which ran so long, the show put most of it online after their five-minute spot on the TV show ended.
After a wide-ranging, 20-minute discussion that vaulted from talk about a battery plant in Jacksonville to political repression in China and North Korea -- even Stewart exclaimed "what the hell are we talking about?" by the end -- the host had one piece of advice left for Rubio.
“I think you should leave the Senate…You should take over for the Rick Scott,” he said Tuesday, tossing a barb at Florida’s current chief executive. “Florida deserves a governor with hair.”
Fans know, that’s just how they roll at the Daily Show, where well-researched satire about media and politics mingles with pot jokes and bits centered on liberal use of the word “vagina.”
Expect more of the same as the shows continue from the Straz, with a "homecoming" bit still to come from Tampa-raised correspondent Aasif Mandvi and guests Herman Cain tonight and Michael Steele Thursday.
TAMPA -- By 2:30 p.m., fans were already showing up for the first taping of the Daily Show at the Straz Center in Tampa, scheduled for 6 p.m. each night until Friday.
It's a little bit of local media history, and Jon Stewart and his crew bring an upclose- hometown-based dose of satire centered on the Republican National Convention.
The show announced its guests for this week: Florida-based U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio tonight, former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain on Wednesday and ex-RNC chair Michael Steele -- the guy taking flak for the decision to book the convention in Florida during hurricane season -- on Thursday.
Since the convention ends Friday, they're not booking a guest on the final day.
Already, social media has been filled with pictures of correspondents John Oliver, Al Madrigal and Aasif Mandvi running around the convention, trying hard to interview people without bystanders jumping into the shot and angling for their own brief bit of fame.
Now, a lifetime later and host of a show where his humor and willingness to talk, talk, talk and talk some more has found success -- MSNBC's A.M. political salon Morning Joe -- Scarborough came to St. Petersburg today to bask in the success of an approach only he thought might work for a while.
"Like Jeb Bush, I used to be considered conservative," said Scarborough, who served in Congress in the mid-'90s from the Florida Panhandle, as part of a rush of Republicans elected under Newt Gingrich's plan to bring GOP dominance to the U.S. House. "Now a lot of people saying Jeb’s too moderate. People call me a RINO – Republican In Name Only."
My colleague Colette Bancroft will write a much more comprehensive report on Scarborough's appearance today at the Hilton in Carillon Park, which was arranged as part of a fundraiser for the Poynter Institute (which owns my employer, the Tampa Bay Times). But I just wanted to catch up with Scarborough, who was only beginning to sense in 2003 the kind of show he's eventually hosting now.
And he said being the GOP guy at a liberal cable channel visiting the Republican National Convention is fun for one reason.
Now people realize he was right.
"Over the past few years. I was very critical of the Bush administration," he said. "It’s always difficult when you’re a Republican -- or a Democrat -- criticizing a president who is in your party. The things I was criticizing George Bush about six or seven years ago, were big deficits and out of control foreign policy, passing a big drug benefit without paying for it. That was considered treasonous six or seven years ago. Now everybody’s starting to say it. They’ve gotten far enough away from Bush that I’m not the enemy for saying back then, what they’re all saying now. So we got a real warm reception on the floor this year.”
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.”
TAMPA -- No matter how early, Chris Matthews has no problem getting fired up when he steps in front of a camera.
The MSNBC anchor and Hardball host proved that this morning, tearing into Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus during a roundtable discussion on the channel's Morning Joe program, accusing the party of tolerating race baiting in tactics in the way candidate Mitt Romney has talked about Barack Obama.
A crowd of about 100 people had packed into Howl at the Moon restaurant in Channelside on this rainy morning, surprising the crew who had expected tales of high winds and rain from Tropical Storm Isaac to keep spectators away.
Instead, they cheered as Matthews lit into Priebus with semi-retired NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski looking on, saying that Romney's recent joke that no one has ever asked about his birth certificate was a direct reference to so-called "birther" theories that Obama somehow was not an American citizen. (at right, Matthews with the Morning Joe hosts and other guests for the "what did we learn today" closing segment)
While Brzezinski suggested Romney was just an "awkward joker," Matthews wasn't buying it. "It just seems funny that the only joke he ever told in his life was about Obama's birth certificate," he said.
After the segment ended, Matthews kept fuming, insisting GOP attack about Obama being a "food stamp" president or saying he wants to implement a "European-style" health care system, is just another, covert way of presenting Obama as somehow not American.
"That's the card...they're playing the (race) card," the host insisted, after a brief exchange with Priebus as he left the restaurant, off camera. "If you think that birth certificate thing is funny, you're deaf."
Priebus, visiting the Tampa Bay Times workspace inside the Tampa Convention Center later criticized Matthews for serving as a surrogate for the Obama campaign. "He was intent on grabbing the flag as the biggest jerk in the room," the chair added. "If he had more than 10 viewers, I would care."
MSNBC, like many other news outlets here were adjusting to two news stories on Monday: Tropical Storm Isaac and the RNC, which had canceled events for today, but still had politicians and analysts speak in front of cameras. Set outside the zone immediately around the Tampa Bay Times Forum where credentials are required to access, MSNBC's Channelside location is welcoming the public to stop by and watch their morning shows broadcast.
Today, Morning Joe had a packed house despite the rain, bringing over Meet the Press host David Gregory, Brokaw, GOP strategist Mike Murphy and many others for the show's salon-style discussions of politics.
But few guests made as much noise as Matthews, who expressed no qualms about challenging the GOP on a liberal-friendly cable TV newschannel from the heart of its convention.
"Our primary goal is to let the Republicans make their pitch and analyze it," he said. "They don't seem willing to promote their platform; I think I'd like to promote their platform. Let everybody know what's in there."
TAMPA -- Imagine the frenzy of jittery, pre-event chaos a few hours before a big wedding, and you have a sense of the scene around the Tampa Bay Times Forum this morning as TV news crews, other journalists and politicos began amassing for the Republican National Convention -- an supremely-scripted event now facing the biggest unscripted moment possible.
I came to the site at about 9 a.m., wedged into an unmarked van with several other, more famous journalists for an appearance on CNN's Reliable Sources this morning. Police were still unsure about where cars and vans could stop, as technicians, anchors, reporters and support staff filed in and out of Gate C.
A line of a dozen or so camouflaged backpacks sat ominously against the fencing surrounding entrances to the Forum, as a mixture of soldiers, police officers and Forum security scrambled to cope with the growing incursion of smartphone-toting media professionals come to dissect the city, its politics and, of course, the threatening weather.
Inside the Forum, CNN staffers seemed surprisingly relaxed, given that Tropical Storm Isaac had already prompted cancellation of Monday's events, and everyone from Joe Biden to Donald Trump had blown off plans to visit the city for the RNC.
Like back in 2008, when Hurricane Gustav forced TV cable newschannels to pivot between weather coverage and the GOP convention, there remained lots of uncertainty about which story everyone would be covering once he sun rose in Tampa Monday.
One person noted, if Romney doesn't get the post-convention bump he needs in a close election, Florida could actually help decide another presidential contest by circumstance. Small wonder former RNC chair-turned-MSNBC analyst Michael Steele has been pushing back against criticism of the wisdom in picking Florida for a major convention during hurricane season, telling POLITICO "they (critics) just need to stop that shit."
This early, anchors and staffers were still dissecting the news delivered this morning by the Tampa Bay Times that former GOP member and ex-Florida Gov. Charlie Christ had endorsed Democratic President Barack Obama in a column written for today's newspaper. some seemed surprised at the widespread speculation locally that this was a signal Crist planned to challenge current Gov. Rick Scott, either as an independent or a Democrat, prompting anchor Wolf Blitzer to see if he could get Crist and Obama-supporter-turned-Romney backer Artur Davis in the same segment.
For those of us who have been on Howie Kurtz's Reliable Sources show before, this was a chance to meet people in person we had often sparred with by satellite TV. the hidden element of this for media is the schmooze factor -- I taught conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt how to use the smartphone app Bump, allowing us to trade contact information just by clicking our iPhones together.
These are the kinds of contacts which can get phone calls returned when you're working more serious stories, as we all tried to make sense of the rushing onslaught of politicking, glad-handing and media spin coming our way. (in the photo at right, I'm geeking out with Blitzer, Rachel Sklar and Lauren Ashburn).
By the time we left after our segments were over, passing by a significant-yet-still-sedate protest in the middle of Tampa's downtown, it was obvious that the sprinkling rain was heralding the start of something we couldn't yet size up -- a collision of politics, weather, media and history that we will all feel privileged to witness, however it all pans out.
For CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, the promise of social media’s impact on coverage of the Republican National Convention is simple: It can turn reporting the news into a conversation.
“Very often, I’ll get a tweet from somebody who (notes a mistake)...and I’ll correct it right away,” said Blitzer, who wasn’t even on Twitter during the 2008 RNC and now has 540,000 followers. “I know it will change our coverage in Tampa.”
That’s the kind of interaction a host of technology companies, media outlets and even convention organizers expect at the RNC; leveraging a host of social media platforms to place huge chunks of what happens here online.
Yahoo! has teamed with ABC News on live convention coverage streamed online. Facebook has a team roaming the convention to help people upload content, releasing a voting app developed with CNN. CNN and Time magazine also have an app"covnetion floor pass" app expected to release significant poll results ahead of other platforms on Monday.
As the official social media platform for the RNC, Google will livestream all podium speeches in prime time and organize “hangouts” on its Google+ service where analysts, politicians and journalist can talk to the public.
And every media outlet here has their own array of platforms, raising the question: How will the first political convention of the social media age be different than what came before?
“It’s just not sufficient for most users to passively take in material anymore,” said David Chalian, Washington bureau chief for Yahoo! News. “They want to participate.”
The RNC itself set the tone, dubbing its gathering a “convention without walls,” using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Linkedin, Foursquare and more to bring well-managed content outside of the event halls, receptions and panel discussions.
But for a political party bent on delivering a single, powerful message, it could be a nightmare; 50,000 attendees and 15,000 journalists each carrying as megaphone in a smartphone, ready for the slightest gaffe.
“In the Olympics, we saw the #NBCfail hashtag created right after the opening ceremonies,” said Lou Ferrara, managing editor at the Associated Press.
Could there be an #RNCfail created here? “Probably not...but we can’t predict what the masses will say,” Ferrara said. In an RNC first, convention organizers have created a social media “war room” of sorts staffed by 16 people in the Tampa Convention Center, examining social media platforms and providing content.
There’s also a digital media “green room” planned near the convention stage, where speakers can post to Twitter or Facebook, conduct interviews on Skype, take photos or conduct Google hangouts before, during or after speeches.
“We wanted to leverage the technologies so every American anywhere could be a part of this,” said James Davis, director of communications for the RNC. “We’re building a community online that allows us to amplify the convention.”
It also speeds up the political process; allowing RNC speakers to create a virtual media “spin room” before, during and after any appearance on the stage.
Still, despite the risks, some experts say the GOP will remain firmly in control of their message. “I think we’ll hear a lot about certain moments that light up the social media space,” Yahoo!’s Chalian said. “But I don’t think it will alter the news of the convention, unless something seriously goes awry….like a hurricane.”
And both CNN and BuzzFeed have done extensive pieces on the strip club scene.
This, dear readers, is the picture of Tampa some journalists are spreading to the world just before the Republican National Convention gets underway. And it's kind of irritating.
Not just because it's unfair and overly simplified, but because it is the kind of stereotype you'd expect journalists to avoid, given that they're in town, able to report firsthand on the glorious mess that is our metropolitan area and our state.
For example, while Salon called "the GOP vision of the country the Tampification of America," the writer didn't note that Tampa's mayor, Bob Buckhorn, is a longtime Democrat, despite serving in a non-partisan job. Or that every members of the city council is a Democrat. Or that the police chief is an out and proud gay woman.
And the Village Voice story on the post-governmental wasteland didn't note that "left-leaning" Tampa serves as the county seat for Hillsborough County, not "nearby."
The fact is, the Tampa Bay area has always been a little tough to pidgeonhole, even for those of us who have lived here awhile. How can the same area smart enough to hire and support a Jane Castor have a mass transit system so bollixed up we have one of the most dangerous cities for pedestrians in the nation?
For a more serious, nuanced take on how Florida is America's future, check out my colleague Adam Smith's piece from today's Tampa Bay Times. As he notes, Florida's sheer size is easy to overlook: two time zones, 10 TV markets, 19 million people. He writes: "Floridians are Southerners, Midwesterners, Northeasterners. They're also Cubans, Brazilians, Indians and Germans. Nearly two-thirds came from another state, and one in five was born outside the United States."
The hardcore Republicans who run our state government are a bit different than the leaders running the cities in the Tampa Bay area (though we do have a county which has banned fluoride in the water, 'tis true). And the relationship between the Tampa Bay area and the rest of the state has always been unpredictable; at times, a mirror, other times a polar opposite.
We do have a tea party movement favorite of a governor who was elected after running a company which agreed to the largest Medicare fraud settlement in history. But Rick Scott got elected by spending millions blanketing the state running ads making his case to a public which hardly seemed to be paying attention. Sounds a little familiar.
I'm not expecting puff pieces to spark tourism. But one thing I do know, it's easy to fly into town, talk to the mayor, some protesters and a few other people, pile on the stereotypes and produce a tart column about the rubes who couldn't even get the 2000 election right.
I hope some of the estimated 15,000 credentialed journalists in town for the RNC take some time from the convention and weather coverage to get to know this area a little better.
We're more than jokes about mosquitoes and strippers. But we just might be America's future, and it would be good if a few journalists took a little time to get to know us a bit better.
Several of the big Sunday politics shows will air from Tampa on Sunday, giving viewers a preview of what to expect from here during the Republican National Convention.
I'll be among those joining the parade, appearing on Howie Kurtz's Reliable Sources show Sunday to talk about non-political TV stuff such as Jimmy Kimmel's ascension at ABC and how media will cover the RNC in the week to come.
The big gets are former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on NBC's Meet the Press, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on CBS' Face the Nation, and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney on Fox News Sunday, in an interview recorded in advance.
Here’s a list of Sunday morning political TV shows airing from Tampa to preview the Republican National Convention:
CBS Face the Nation, 10 a.m., WTSP-Ch. 10: Host Bob Schieffer will interview Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, RNC chairman Reince Priebus, U.S. Rep Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, and a reporter’s roundtable featuring Dan Balz of the Washington Post, Rich Lowry of TIME magazine, Fox News contributor Peggy Noonan, CBS News contributor John Dickerson and CBS This Morning Norah O’Donnell.
CNN: State of the Union at 10 a.m. and noon: Host Candy Crowley presents Reince Priebus; U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
CNN: Reliable Sources, 11 a.m.: Host Howard Kurtz presents Roger Simon from Politico, Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, Nia-Malika Henderson from The Washington Post; Keli Goff of TheRoot.com; Hugh Hewitt of The Hugh Hewitt Show, Eric Deggans of the Tampa Bay Times.
Fox News Sunday, 9 a.m., WTVT-Ch. 13: Host Chris Wallace appears in Tampa, with interviews recorded in advance with presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney and his wife Ann Romney.
NBC Meet the Press, 9 a.m., WFLA-Ch. 8: Host David Gregory welcomes ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former 2008 presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Democratic National Committee chair and Florida U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Republican strategist Mike Murphy and NBC News political director and Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd.
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