Republican Convention Day One: Everyone is fenced in (including David Koch)
Tropical storm warnings and grey skies still loomed over Tampa on Monday, and more than a few journalists braved the drive over the miles-long Howard Frankland Bridge from St. Petersburg in strong winds while the choppy waters of the bay slapped against the barriers and occasionally topped them. That ominous site soon faded when one reached downtown Tampa and saw several helicopters hovering between skyscrapers as though hung from the clouds.
The helicopters, like the police, were there for the March on the RNC protest, which organizers had vowed to hold rain or shine. Turns out, it did both — as these pictures from PBS News Hour and these from The Guardian show — and a few hundred people marched despite the weather. Despite all the police, only two were arrested — but organizers, including Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin, agreed that turnout was poor because of the weather, the warnings about the weather and the heavy, intimidating police presence.
Turnout at the protests by credentialed reporters was nearly as bad. Few seemed to know where the protest was (though they knew or suspected one was going on), but the humidity and elaborate security procedures to get into or out of the convention center (which houses the media work space) or the Tampa Bay Times Forum (where the convention itself will be held), the free coffee and the need to find something — anything — to cover seemed to hold the journalists in the building more than the miles of fencing that separated them from the protesters.
Everyone agreed there was nothing to do and hardly anything to write about, milling amongst themselves and cornering any politician who walked by. Following his pasting by Chris Matthews on Morning Joe, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus (whose staff promised he would say nothing) found himself surroundied by a phalanx of audio- and video-recorder wielding reporters in the media filing center, while Newt Gringrich meandered about talking to whomever asked. Breitbartian and CNN contributer Dana Loesch conferred outside with what looked like fellow conservatives while author and comedian Baratunde Thurston interviewed Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) walked by surrounded by staffers on all sides as DC- and NY-based reporters (including me) greeted one another in the hallway and swapped stories of what they found — or didn’t find — to write about.
The press filing center for the unwashed reporter masses (or those who didn’t pay for private space) is a dark room of long tables and power strips separated by high blue curtains where voices raised above a mumble garner dirty looks as reporters attempt to transcribe their interviews or write their pieces. It’s next to the Google lounge, which is decorated with blinding spotlights, primary colors, empty coffee cups, constant photographers and Google staff standing around looking as though they want to talk to reporters but don’t quite know what to say. On-camera interviews — Google+ hangouts, one assumes — are held in a glass box with coffee-swilling reporters as the backdrop. Upstairs, the cavernous ceilings muffle the noises from those reporters at organizations with assigned spaces, with only maps and the occasional paper sign pointing the way to any organization’s unlabeled space down makeshift hallways made of black drapes. Reporters from The Blaze, for instance, film their spots next to the HuffPo filing center, where reporters for whom the HuffPo Oasis is too relaxing hunch over computers file.
One thing that is even harder to find in the convention center, unless you can get into the “CNN Grill” — which is not a metaphor for Soledad O’Brien’s show — is food, and so, with no convention activities to cover and all our stories filed for the day, several reporters headed to SideBerns at Dave Weigel’s suggestion (he admitted he got the idea from Yelp) to eat on the sole night we wouldn’t all be covering speeches. There we found “media innovator” and Washington socialite Tammy Haddad holding court with Mark Ambinder in a private, albeit glassed-in, room. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson (R), the tea partier who beat Russ Feingold in 2010, walked by our table… but it wasn’t until Weigel got up at the end of the meal that he spooted Johnson’s companions, including conservative billionaire and liberal boogeyman David Koch, sequestered in the back room. Freelance reporter Matt Laslo snapped the above picture, putting it on Twitter and Instagram, prompting a woman who said she did PR for Koch and Bill O’Reilly to approach him and radio reporter Todd Zwillich to try and demand that they not Tweet anything that might attract “your Occupy friends” to the restaurant.
As they assured Koch’s PR woman that none of their photos were geotagged and that we were actually reporters, restaurant staff pulled the curtains over the door to the backroom, penning the Republicans in there, us reporters just outside — with the liberal Washington elite in their own room with everyone looking in.