Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Media Preps For McCain-Obama Debate at Hofstra

University holds walking tour for press

By Joseph Kellard

There was talk of cable feeds and satellite truck parking, telephone and computer capacity, television camera positioning and space requirements — not to mention the Secret Service — at Hofstra University last week.

Joani Wardwell and Marty Slutzsky of the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonpartisan organization that has sponsored and produced all of the presidential and vice-presidential debates since 1988, took press personnel on a site tour of Hofstra June 5, detailing plans for the third debate between presumptive presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama in October. Some 20 representatives of various media organizations, including ABC and NBC, learned about the commission’s logistics, production and rules for the debate. They toured the site, the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex on the north campus, and the adjacent Physical Fitness Center, which will serve as the media center and where hundreds of journalists from around the world will gather.

With their voices echoing inside the empty 5,000-plus sports arena, Wardwell and Slutzsky told the media that sections of the upper-level seats will go unused in order to keep the audience close to the candidates and create a more intimate atmosphere at the Oct. 15 debate.

One journalist asked how members of the audience, who will be let into the arena 90 minutes before the debate, will be selected. Slutzsky said this issue is still being bounced around. “There is never, ever enough seating at the debates,” he said, “and it becomes a somewhat contentious issue.” He explained, “A certain percentage of the seats go to each candidate’s party. A certain percentage goes to the commission, and the commission’s segments of the seats are shared with the school.”

The arena doors will be open to local media in the days leading up to the debate, on Oct. 13 and 14, but as the hours tick down that access will become more restricted, and the only media allowed inside for the debate will be the White House press pool and six networks: ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN and C-SPAN. “There will be no cabling — it will have to be done with hand held-cameras,” Wardwell said, listing one of several Secret Service rules.

“We’re all going to want to have our anchors out here from our morning shows — this is a huge thing for everyone,” said a representative of WCBS-TV. “We just went though the pope’s visit and the Secret Service was telling us all about where we couldn’t stand or shoot our cameras.”

Wardwell assured the local media, such as News 12, that they would still have opportunities at multiple locations around the debate hall, including the media center and surrounding parking lots. “So you should not think there will be a lack of space, but it’s going to be a challenge,” she said. Since the final debate traditionally gets the most media coverage, and because it will be held in New York, Wardwell noted, “We expect to draw a lot of attention, so the ‘local’ definition has been expanded.”

Both she and Slutzsky reiterated that in order to earn a spot on the Hofstra grounds during the three days of coverage, press outlets must file for and get credentials through the commission’s Web site. “Get your credentials in by August 15,” Slutzsky stressed, “which might be problematic for some people, but these are the rules laid down to us by the Secret Service, and we have to go with that. Anyone who needs to be at the debate site has to be in the system.”

In the parking lots outside the debate hall, Wardwell and Slutzsky provided the media with a host of other information: selections for exterior stations will be made by lottery; different lights and banners will be used on the arena’s fa├žade to give it a particular “feel”; trees will be uprooted and temporarily relocated; frequent shuttles will be available to transport media personnel to and from the site; and news organizations must complete their cabling by 4 p.m. the day of the debate or risk being shut out entirely.

For about two hours after the debate, the media center at the Physical Fitness Center will be open for press to conduct interviews, Slutzsky said.

Arrate Reich, a senior producer for WNJU Telemundo, a Spanish- language NBC affiliate based in Fort Lee, N.J., said she was glad the walk-through was conducted early in the process. “Because it takes a long time to set up for an event of this magnitude,” she said. “So I think it’s helpful to know from the get-go exactly where we need to be.”

When Pope Benedict XVI visited the U.S. in April, Reich planned the events for her station, including the pontiff’s visit to Washington D.C., ground zero, a seminary in Yonkers and Yankee Stadium. “Of course, there were a lot of issues to cover with security for those events,” she said.

Last November, Hofstra was selected to host the 90-minute presidential debate, whose topic is foreign policy. Wardwell said the commission surveyed 19 sites, and reacted positively to Hofstra since it showed “an attitude of enthusiasm that we were particularly excited about,” she said.

Hofstra President Stuart Rabinowitz, who accompanied Wardwell and Slutzsky on the tour, welcomed the responsibility of hosting the debate, primarily to get students more involved in the political process, and, secondarily, to bring attention to the university and the surrounding suburbs, he said.

This spring, Hofstra began hosting a year-long series of programs, lectures, conferences and exhibitions, dubbed Election ’08, offering its students, as well as some area high school students, lessons in the major issues of the debate, presidential politics and history. The programs included talks by political consultants Mary Matalin, James Carville and David Gergen and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. This fall, John Edwards, “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert and former White House press secretaries Dee Dee Myers and Ari Fleisher are scheduled to speak.

“We believe that our university has an ethical obligation to try to encourage our students to engage in the democratic process,” Rabinowitz said. “They need to pay attention to it, they need to vote, they need to know that they can be active participants in the democratic process ... It’s for them that we decided to host the debate.”

Joseph Kellard is a journalist and columnist living in New York.Please post comments about this article.

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