After five days tracking media types during the Republican National Convention in Tampa last week, there was just one question that seemed to consistently puzzle the journalists and media figures.
What did we 15,000 media people learn after spending millions to cover the RNC?
"Ummm … how hot it is in Tampa, Florida?" cracked Kyra Phillips, former CNN anchor covering the RNC for sister network HLN. After noting how well the RNC had assembled a diversity of speakers to tout Romney's candidacy, Phillips came up with a conclusion echoed by many journalists: "It's all about the optics."
Conservative radio commentator Michael Medved said he learned that some conservatives' complaints about media bias had a point in blaming mainstream media outlets for ignoring or playing down the GOP's success in bringing a parade of ethnically diverse, high-level government officials to tout the Republican party and nominee Mitt Romney.
"It's not as if the various people of Latino heritage or African-American people or Asian-American people standing up are assistant deputy associate national committeemen," he said. "We're talking about governors of major states. This is not a KKK gathering."
What I learned was that three days of carefully scripted, camera-ready image building can be undone by one eccentric superstar surprising us all by arguing with an empty chair. Thanks for keeping us on our toes, Mr. Eastwood.
And even the legendary wits at The Daily Show have trouble coming up with anything to say about Tampa beyond jokes about heat, humidity and our ubiquitous strip clubs.
At times, the convention seemed both a shrine to partisan politics and partisan media, with conservative-centered Fox News Channel at the top of the heap — sparking envy from other media outlets for its spacious digs at the Tampa Bay History Center and access to the GOP's biggest stars.
At the scale's other end, liberal-oriented MSNBC turned Channelside into its own high-profile headquarters, placing a huge video screen in the entertainment complex's parking lot and airing shows from a covered stage in its center.
Forget about the days, just four years ago, when critics wondered whether politically skewed commentators should be covering political conventions and elections. Now, news consumers have chosen some news outlets in the same way they've chosen who gets their vote, with convention coverage distilling those differences sharply.
The other thing we media types learned — after several prominent news organizations pointed out misleading and untrue statements in RNC speeches by former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan — is that the impact of fact-checking may be limited if party supporters don't heed it.
BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith noted this in a report from a forum Tuesday hosted by ABC and Yahoo! News, in which a pollster for Mitt Romney shrugged off criticism of GOP campaigns ads and rhetoric claiming President Obama "gutted" work requirements for welfare when he hasn't. "Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers," Smith quoted pollster Neil Newhouse saying, an indication that they are more likely to attack fact checks they don't like than change successful, if untrue, ads.
In a sign of social media's growing power, the biggest media story from the RNC — about a black, female CNN technician pelted with peanuts and an insult on the convention floor — first hit the public sphere courtesy of a Tuesday tweet from Current TV anchor David Shuster. 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 news channel was talking about everything at the RNC but the news story it was involved in directly.
Online 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 President Obama's stance on loosening welfare work requirements.
Jammed together in an unruly mob of reporters, talking heads and hangers-on who get together only once every four years, the 15,000 journalists assembled for the RNC seemed stuck in a serious bubble. They were hemmed in by the heat, stringent security arrangements and pressing crowds to stay as close to the convention site as possible.
(Could that be why New York Times columnist Gail Collins reduced her description of Tampa to "what would happen if you put the city of Des Moines in an asparagus steamer"? Sounds like somebody who never traveled north of the road to Tampa International Airport.)
By the week's end, as CNN anchor John King handed me a beer from behind a bar that 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.