Monday, January 19, 2009

Inauguration Represents 'State Of Emergency' For News Media...

Media Execs Prep For 'News Emergency'

Michael Calderone of POLITICO

Media executives must have been paying attention last week when President Bush declared a state of emergency for Tuesday's inaugural.

CNN's Washington bureau chief David Bohrman, for one, issued a "news emergency" of his own.

While Bush freed up federal funds, Bohrman made available satellite phones in the event of rolling cell phone blackouts. There will be cots and air mattresses for staffers camping out in the newsroom on Monday night, along with shower arrangements at a nearby health club. Staffers will be treated to a pancake breakfast prior to braving the bitter cold and bulging crowds.

"It's the biggest event any of us have ever had to cover," Bohrman said.

While there have been several massive Obama events this past year — Berlin, Denver, and Chicago's Grant Park — the inaugural is proving to be the most complicated. Covering it requires dealing with a vast number of moving parts, among them the challenges for camera crews of literally moving around to cover the sprawling event. Much of Washington will resemble an occupied city, complete with closed streets, checkpoints, and a 40,000-plus security force.

Crowd size is the biggest variable for news executives, since coverage limitations increase as the number of onlookers grows: one million attendees present a certain set of challenges; two million, another. Those directing coverage will be watching in the days leading up for indications of how many people might show up, and start planning accordingly. An extra million people on Tuesday significantly increases gridlock and cuts down on the ability to move television correspondents, camera operators, newspaper reporters, photographers and bloggers.

Even seasoned professionals, accustomed to the crowds and pomp and circumstance of inaugurals past, express disbelief at the sheer crush of attention surrounding the moment Barack Obama plants his right hand on the Bible.

Joe Keenan, director of the Senate Daily Press Gallery, said that credentials have now been issued to print reporters in just about every nation, from Slovenia to Nigeria, Lebanon to Gabon.

"I talked to several European reporters at the conventions, and Obama is a bigger deal there than here," Keenan said, noting that the entire continent will be represented, down to the daily "Luxemburger Wort."

So in addition to pushing through the crowd, U.S. TV outlets will have to out-flank their foreign colleagues for ideal viewing positions. Being an inaugural, which is tailor-made for hours of television coverage, it's essential to be in the right place at the right time.

Chris Isham, CBS's Washington bureau chief, said that Inauguration Day is "a much broader, multi-range circus," than Obama's large campaign events in '08, given the sheer number of positions to stake out.

Staff will obviously be needed around the Capitol, National Mall, parade route, at official balls and after-parties, but also in other places where people gather, from U Street bars to neighborhood churches.

"The general strategy is to get our people in position early in the day, and leave them there," Isham said. "We're trying to move people around as little as possible."

Phil Alongi, executive producer of specials for NBC News, has a similar concern. Alongi, by his account, told one NBC correspondent upset at only being assigned to a single location "to go with the flow" on this very unpredictable Tuesday.

"If you want to move them from point A to point B, it's the kind of day where you have to stop and ask if that's going to happen," Alongi said.

Richard Wolffe, who covered the Obama campaign for Newsweek and attended all three of his enormous campaign events, said he'll be limiting movement to mostly around the Capitol for his role as an MSNBC analyst.

"You never know with these things how difficult it's going to be until you're there," said Wolffe, who noted that covering Obama's victory speech in Chicago turned out to be less difficult than some feared in the days leading up to it.

New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney, who covered both the Bush and Clinton inaugurals, said that the Obama event is more complicated than either January 2001 or 1993. Nagourney said he's still trying to figure out the best way to get from his home, near American University, to the Times Washington bureau. One possibility: jog to the office, and change into a suit once there.

"We're having a pajama party," said Lynn Medford, the Washington Post's metro editor.

Medford said she plans to sleep in her office on Monday night, but expects a number of Post staffers to bring in cots and air mattresses, camping out in conference rooms or where there's space in the newsroom.

So covering the inaugural is shaping up to be either a giant slumber party or entering a war zone. Or a little bit of both.

ABC political director David Chalian, mentioning that the inaugural will be "an all-hands-on-deck kind of event," spoke a bit more ominously about staff heading out of the bureau on Tuesday morning.

"You're literally going out into the wilderness to some degree," Chalian said. "There will be no home base."


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