The Hunt for News Under the Big Tents


For the 25,000 journalists covering the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, life is full of challenges.

The most obvious one is how to explain to the public that the big story here is there isn't a big story. Then there's the problem of contrasting this to the Republican convention in San Diego, where nothing happened either.

But that's just the beginning. Behind the scenes at the United Center's sprawling media village, journalists must struggle to master the subtler arts of convention coverage. These include eating a Polish sausage without spilling sauerkraut on your notebook, operating a cellular phone without wandering into the path of a forklift, and spelling "Stephanopoulos" at 4 in the morning.

Beyond that, there are security guards to elude, corporate gift bags to chase down, and logistical problems to gripe about.

Consider Rebecca Quirk's story. For two days, the Washington Week in Review production manager has been trying to find a parking pass for her company van. Her first stop was the Radio and TV press gallery on the seventh floor of the Chicago Marriott. They told her to go to the convention's media logistics center, where she was told to try the transportation office next door, which referred her back to media logistics. This time, they sent her to the transportation office at the Hyatt Hotel, which suggested she try the seventh floor of the Marriott where her journey began.

"This convention reminds me of that famous Will Rogers quote," Ms. Quirk says: "I'm not a member of an organized political party. I'm a Democrat."

In the parking lots of the United Center, where the television networks have set up camp in a sea of trailers, there was even more exasperation. Chris Connelly, a political reporter for MTV, said his camera crew was having a hard time finding anything interesting on the convention floor to photograph, other than a Mississippi delegate in a turban and a Nebraska woman with a giant stuffed donkey.

To top it off, Mr. Connelly says, he wasn't able to get Louisiana Sen. John Breaux to say anything unusual in a lengthy interview. "I tried to upset his apple cart a little bit," he jokes, "but every time I asked a question, it was like setting it up on a tee for him to hit it with a bat."

Other members of the press corps say they've been struggling to justify all the electronic beepers, headsets, and phones they're toting around. A reporter from a North Carolina newspaper said he was visiting a bank of port-a-johns when his pager went off. Picking up his cell phone, he dialed the number and discovered that the colleague who paged him was in the unit next door.

Al Franken, a humorist who's covering the convention for the Comedy Central cable channel, sums it up this way: "There's more communications in one spot than there ever was in the history of mankind, but nobody can find each other."

Jim Pluta, a reporter for a small newspaper chain in Chicago's western suburbs, finds the whole spectacle a bit confusing. "It seems like there's a lot of duplication of effort going on," he says. "We're all covering the convention for different parts of the country, but most of us are walking around in a daze." His suggestion: "Maybe we should all interview each other."

Still, the chaos in the cavernous press tents doesn't seem to have dampened the media's appetite for free stuff. Alma Dayawon, a clerk at the Dallas Morning News, has been going from one press tent to the next, collecting commemorative pins for her editor. "He told me not to come back empty handed," she says.

Over in Tent 4, a mass of journalists stands shoulder to shoulder, munching free food. "The journalists have been pretty polite," says Paul Michels of Gold Coast Hot Dogs. "But I'm starting to get a little worried. Some of these people have been hanging around here all night."

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