Conventional wisdom


Reporters, officials offer advice on covering the nominating conventions





Inside, American flags will drape over the walls while balloons float to the floor below. Music will keep the mood light and delegates on their feet. Outside, protesters will rattle chain-link fences and scream insults as riot police stand ready to squash violent protests.

The two scenes seem worlds apart but will happen side by side when the presidential conventions roll into Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul in late August and early September.

“I’m actually pretty nervous,” said Anna Ewart, a reporter with The Minnesota Daily, the University of Minnesota’s student newspaper. “I don’t really know what to expect.”

The two atmospheres of the presidential conventions, the pomp of the convention itself and the grit of the protests outside, are poles apart and present student journalists with the dynamic and sometimes daunting task of trying to cover it all.

Melissa Subbotin, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Convention, which will take place from Sept. 1-4 in St. Paul, said there are enough events going on during the convention to make even a seasoned reporter’s head spin.

This may seem like a dream assignment to some reporters, but serious consequences come with the task. As one student journalist found out, one wrong move and a reporter might be forced to take notes from inside a jail cell.

New York, 2004

“Everything was going really smoothly,” said Beth Rankin, a former reporter for Kent State University’s student newspaper, The Daily Kent Stater. “We were actually surprised how few arrests there were … until August 31.”

Rankin and two other Stater journalists had come to New York City in late August 2004 to cover the Republican National Convention. They were shadowing a group of activists from Kent State who had decided to take part in the protests going on throughout the city that week.

“We went to a street rally in Union Square to meet up with our sources,” Rankin said. “There was a lot of tension and riot cops were everywhere. A group of people started marching down this one city block, and I had two seconds to decide to stay where I was or follow my sources. I followed.”

Rankin said that as she walked with protesters, constantly scribbling time-coded notes, police blocked off the protesters’ route ‘ and then circled behind them.

“I had never seen such large riot cops before. A police officer yelled that everyone was going to be arrested and we better just sit there,” Rankin said.

According to press reports compiled by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York City Police Department arrested 1,187 protesters on Aug. 31. Rankin, a working reporter, was among the arrested. In total, the NYPD reported 1,827 arrests in relation to the convention.

After police had cordoned off the marchers, Rankin said she went up to a police officer and tried to avoid arrest by showing her Stater press pass.

“I tried to tell him that I was a member of the press. He didn’t listen, just zip tied my arms and sat me down on the corner,” Rankin said.

Rankin and the scores of protesters she was with were hauled off to Pier 57, the NYPD’s “Post Arrest Staging Site.” The conditions at the site caused a media firestorm.

“There was this stuff on the floor, it got everywhere. It made people break out in rashes,” Rankin said. “They were like giant dog kennels. There were a few hundred people milling around. My press pass had been thrown away and all my stuff had been taken. I tried to tell them I was a reporter, but they weren’t listening.”

In October 2004, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the City of New York for police actions during the Republican convention. The NYCLU claims NYPD mass-arrest tactics resulted in the unlawful arrests of bystanders and observers. The NYCLU also claims detainees were kept in “unhealthy and perhaps dangerous” conditions. The case still is pending.

In its answer to the NYCLU’s lawsuit, the NYPD said its actions did not violate any law or provision of the Constitution.

Eventually, Rankin managed to borrow a detained demonstrator’s smuggled cell phone and called her mother, fellow reporters and editors at The Stater. At that point, Rankin had been in custody for nearly 24 hours.

“The food was half rotten and my ribs were swollen,” Rankin said. Just a few weeks before coming to New York, Rankin had surgery on her right ribs. “They were still technically broken,” she said.

The zip ties Rankin was cuffed with had rubbed off much of the skin on her wrists. She was moved from one holding cell to another on the pier as the day went on. Eventually, Rankin was taken from Pier 57 and brought to a police precinct.

“Each time I moved I thought I was getting out, but they just took me to a different pen. It really messed with my head,” Rankin said.

After a few more hours sitting in the precinct, Rankin was released.

“They threw me out of the back door onto the street. I had no phone, no money, nothing. I didn’t even know where I was,” Rankin said. “It was something out of a movie.”

Rankin said that from the time she was first detained until the time she was forced out of the back door of the police precinct 30 hours had passed. Thirty hours in police custody, for covering a story.

Covering it from the outside

Rankin’s experience is a dramatic example of what a student journalist covering the conventions could face. This year, in both Denver and St. Paul, protests and demonstration routes are planned throughout the cities. Ewart, a reporter with The Minnesota Daily, said she was unaware of Rankin’s story.

“The thought of getting arrested didn’t even cross my mind. We haven’t even started planning for it,” Ewart said.

Officials at the St. Paul Police Department do not expect a repeat of the 2004 Republican convention. Peter Panos, a public information officer for the department, said if a protest were to get out of hand, reporters should get themselves out of the situation.

“Reporters are grown adults and know what they’re doing. They have to take responsibility for themselves,” Panos said. “If you get in the middle of protests, you’re not going to get special treatment.”

Jessica Sundin, a spokeswoman for a coalition of protest groups in St. Paul, said a standoff with police is possible during the Republican convention. In July, protest groups lost a lawsuit against the city that would extend the hours they were permitted to march beyond the noon to 4 p.m. window the city had allowed. In a July 16 report, Sundin told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that current protest hours aren’t long enough.

“I think there’s a chance of a confrontation with police when it’s 2 or 3 o’clock and there are still tens of thousands of people trying to get to the Xcel [Energy Center],” Sundin said.

Panos added that if journalists were to get caught up in a mass arrest, they should comply with police orders until they are able to identify themselves as part of the media.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a non-profit group, has set up a 24-hour hotline for journalists who get into trouble at the conventions this year and need to speak to a lawyer. Ashley Kissinger, a partner at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Levine, Sullivan, Koch & Schultz LLP, will be assisting journalists at the Democratic convention in Denver.

Kissinger said if a journalist chooses to follow protesters into restricted areas, they are just as liable to be arrested as the protesters are.

“Reporters don’t have any rights beyond citizens to violate security rules and regulations. A reporter can’t just cross a police line,” Kissinger said. “They may find that the story is worth getting arrested, but that’s up for the reporter to decide.”

The better option, Kissinger said, is to ask a police officer if they could follow protesters. If the officer says no, “go ask another one. They may say yes,” Kissinger suggested.

Randy Furst, a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, said if he were faced with the decision, he would heed police warnings.

“Your job is to get the story, be the eyes and ears,” Furst said. “Not to make things crazier. You can’t report if you’re locked up.”

Aaron Montoya, editor in chief of the Rocky Mountain Collegian, Colorado State University’s student newspaper, said his first priority is reporters’ well-being.

“Keep safe above everything else. If you can stick around for the coverage, do that,” Montoya said. “Our advisers are telling us we should get to a high point and stay above the action.”

The St. Paul and Denver police departments will be assisted by dozens of other local and federal police agencies during the conventions. Although the St. Paul police may have a good working relationship with local media, the problem, said attorney Bill Tilton, is getting all of these agencies to work together.

In Denver, a $50 million federal grant has funded the city’s effort to keep the streets safe for the 50,000 visitors, not including protesters, that city officials expect to flood Denver in late August. The city has nearly 600 outside officers committed to assisting the Denver police during the democratic convention.

The police department for Aurora, a city just east of Denver, will send more than 300 officers to Denver for the convention, nearly half its force. Police Chief Dan Oates told the Denver Post in July that his officers were receiving crowd control training. Denver police have been tight-lipped about the actual security plan they will use during the convention. A police spokesman told the Associated Press that they have talked with local protest groups to “clear up any misunderstandings and rumors that are out there.”

Tilton will be working for the RCFP’s hotline for journalists covering the Republican convention.

“The most awkward situation would be if a journalist were to get arrested and no one had any record of them being part of the media,” Tilton said.

Panos echoed that worry. He said there would be a “media center” in the city where journalists can register for city-issued press credentials to help identify themselves as reporters in the case of a mass arrest.

“We want to help reporters, not kick them out,” Panos said.

Kissinger suggested reporters make themselves clearly identifiable to police. She said reporters should wear hats or helmets that say “Press” and wear their credentials around their necks at all times.

“If you get caught up in a mass arrest, tell the police right then that you’re a member of the press,” Kissinger said. “Be courteous and respectful to the officers, but tell them you’re a journalist before you get arrested.”

One problem Rankin, the Kent State journalist, ran into was that she did not know what to do with her notes when she was being arrested.

“I had heard from someone that the police would take my notes,” Rankin said. “So, I started ripping pages out of my notebook and shoving them into my bra and pants. Really, anyplace I thought they wouldn’t be taken from me.”

This was not a unique situation. There have been occasions where police officers have confiscated a reporter’s notes or videotape while making an arrest. However, the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 provides strong protections for a reporter’s notes and other documents.

The law says a government agency, including police, may not “search for or seize any work product materials possessed by a person reasonably believed to have a purpose to disseminate to the public a newspaper, book, broadcast, or other similar form of public communication.”

There are some exceptions to this law. But, Kissinger said, they are limited.

Police may confiscate a reporter’s equipment if the reporter is suspected of committing a crime by using that equipment. For instance, if a reporter were to start taking pictures within a courtroom that has banned all photos, that reporter’s camera could, under this act, be legally confiscated.

The law also says a reporter’s notes could be taken if “there is reason to believe that the immediate seizure of such materials is necessary to prevent the death of, or serious bodily injury to, a human being.”

Covering it from the inside

In addition to the protests going on in the streets, there are still the conventions themselves to cover.“I think people forget that a lot of business actually gets done during these things,” Natalie Wyeth, a Democratic convention spokeswoman, said. “All of the caucuses meet and we select the official party platform for the upcoming election.”

Wyeth said the convention will start at 7 a.m. with prime-time programming wrapping up around 9 p.m. That’s 14 hours of meetings, speeches, rallies and discussions to cover.

Adam Nagourney, a political reporter for The New York Times, said it is impossible for one reporter to cover everything that happens at a convention

“You’re dealing with an incredible amount of information and data. It’s hard to filter it all,” Nagourney said. “Reporters should focus on a particular story or storyline and go with that.”

Richard Valenty, a reporter for Colorado Daily, a professional newspaper focused on the University of Colorado, said he is reading everything he can in anticipation for the Democratic convention.“I’m preparing to spend time both inside and outside on the street,” he said. “The inside stuff might be as interesting as the outside stuff. We’ll have to wait and see.”

Subbotin, a Republican convention spokesperson, said lists of each day’s events will be available online.

For the most part, political conventions are scripted events; surprises or scoops for journalists to jump on are few and far between. Nagourney said to look for the themes that will begin to present themselves as the events unfold.

“Everything big happens at night, so the deadlines are intense … intense,” Nagourney said.To actually enter the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul or the Pepsi Center in Denver, reporters must have filed for and received press credentials from the respective convention administrators.

Montoya said the Rocky Mountain Collegian received six press credentials to the Democratic convention with varying degrees of access.

“There are some that give us access to the area outside the arena but not actually in the Pepsi Center,” Montoya said. “There are other credentials that get us into the hallway and a rotating floor pass that will allow us to talk to delegates.”

Although security is usually tight at these events, Wyeth said, a press pass will not be required for all aspects of the convention.

On July 7, Barack Obama announced he would accept the Democratic presidential nomination at Invesco Field at Mile High, the Denver Broncos’ football stadium, not at the Pepsi Center where most of the convention’s activities will take place. The stadium holds 76,000 people, compared to the Pepsi Center’s 20,000.

The details of how to gain access to the speech have not yet been set. However, Wyeth said officials are working on a “community credentialing” plan that would allow thousands of people, including non-credentialed journalists, into the event.

In addition to Obama’s acceptance speech, other events at the Democratic convention will be open to the public for journalists who were not able to secure media credentials.

“Between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. there will be caucus meetings in the Colorado Convention Center. They’ll be open to the public,” Wyeth said.

Officials expect nearly 15,000 members of the news media to attend the Democratic convention.

“There will be a lot of big-time media there,” Ewart said. “It feels good to be working with the professionals.“Wyeth said student journalists, who may be covering something of this magnitude for the first time, should follow the professionals and ask questions if they are confused about where to go or proper etiquette.

“Trust your own judgment,” Nagourney advised. “Don’t let people spin you. If you think someone did a good job on a speech, go with it.”


Fall 2008, reports