By John Torrisi
Like many students in The School of Media and Public Affairs, I grew up immersed in the 24-hour news cycle. From newspapers to cable news, I consumed anything and everything that was remotely related to politics. Soon after arriving at GW, I realized that my true calling was political reporting instead of political communication.
I am a big believer in experiential learning and SMPA’s location in the heart of Washington, D.C. has given me plenty of opportunities to learn from veteran journalists. Recently, I had the privilege of covering the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) with Kevin Frey (JMC ’15) and Jonathan Csapo (JMC ’12) for GWTV, our student-run television station. We manned the conference from start to finish. While Kevin live-tweeted, Jonathan and I recorded the various speeches and also ventured out into the Occupy protests. Together, Jonathan and I filmed over 350 gigabytes of video over a three-day span, and we were immersed in at least three major protests.
This was my second year covering the three-day conference, which brings over 12,000 conservative activists to Washington every February. CPAC always is an interesting event to cover, not only because of its political importance, but also the unusual cast of characters it attracts. It is not uncommon to see tea partiers in full regalia or prominent politicians roaming CPAC’s hallways and interacting with attendees. The conference attracts a who’s who of conservative politicians and commentators, from Herman Cain to Ann Coulter. From 9am to 5pm each day, politicians take the main stage trying to sell the crowd on their policies and unique brand of conservatism.
My classmate and I based our operations out of the expansive media-filing center, which was located behind the main stage. Throughout the conference, we had the chance to interact with journalists from around the world, including reporters and producers from NHK (Japan), The New York Times, CNN, Fox News, The Hill, and The Daily Mail (UK). It was fascinating to hear and participate in the pressroom debates over the facts of a story and potential storylines.
Our main camera position in the main ballroom was located in a second floor balcony, where CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC had their live positions. About 20 feet to our left was Dana Bash (PCM '93) reporting for CNN. It was a great experience to be able to shoot from the same location as the pros and to see a GW political communication alumna at work.
The media hierarchy at CPAC is a bit different than at many political gatherings. Anyone who isn’t with Fox News, GBTV, or PJTV is part of the “mainstream media,” which is often referred to by many CPAC attendees and speakers as the “lamestream media.” If a CPAC speaker needs an applause line, then he/she usually complains about the “mainstream media,” at which point more than a few icy glares are shot toward the media balcony. At first, it is an uneasy feeling, but you get over it eventually.
Perhaps it is a glimpse into the future of news, but CPAC attendees have embraced online television stations and blogs. At the conference, the bloggers are treated like royalty and are often minor celebrities. They have their own private filing center with a generous spread of food, which is sponsored by Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks.
From the ongoing presidential race to the Occupy/union protests outside, this year’s CPAC was different than those of the past. With over 1,200 journalists and bloggers credentialed this year, the conference quickly devolved into a media circus. Despite the large number of journalists as this year’s conference, there was no shortage of stories or storylines.
While Jonathan and I filmed some great footage of the conference and its speakers, we spent much of our weekend covering the protests outside of the venue. For two of the three days of the conference, there were large protests outside of the venue, something I never have covered before. We definitely made a lot of mistakes, but we quickly learned to use the buddy system and always keep the police line in sight.
On the second evening of the conference, we were covering a protest that escalated quickly. We were filming a group of Occupy protesters protesting Governor Scott Walker’s (R-WI) stance on unions. Unbeknownst to us, a couple dozen CPAC attendees had organized a counter-protest in support of Walker. The counter-protesters' chants of “We want glitter!” soon enraged the Occupy protesters and things quickly escalated. We were stuck between the two groups right within the police line. While it was slightly intimidating at times, we got some great footage of the back and forth between the protesters.
While I value everything that I have learned in SMPA’s classrooms, there also is no substitute for real-world experience that SMPA's location provides. CPAC offered me the chance to learn from veteran journalists and experience things that I never have before. I live for opportunities like this and find the challenge of reporting on a difficult subject matter both fun and exciting. No place in the world but Washington, D.C. can provide these experiences.
Click below to watch footage of the protests outside CPAC as filmed by John Torrisi.