January 30, 2014 was no ordinary day. After a rigorous vetting process by the Secret Service and White House Press Association, my producer and I were given clearance to attend President Obama’s address in Nashville, TN.
Matt and I left Middle Tennessee State University around 7:15 in the morning. Adhering to the advice of legendary news anchor Chris Clark to never turn down a meal or a bathroom, we stopped at Starbucks along the way to grab a bite to eat, knowing fully well we may not get a chance to eat lunch that day. With rush hour traffic, we arrived about an hour later at McGavock.
The scene there was unlike I had ever seen. Cop cars were plentiful and the secret service we KNEW ABOUT, was all over the place. Media was designated to park across the street at a local church. Matt and I shot a brief video update on my phone and posted it to the MT10 News Facebook group before going inside McGavock to set up our equipment.
Much to our suprise, there was no security check to get in this first time. We walked into the gymnasium and found our designated spot on a secondary media platform, stage right from the President’s podium. I LOVED being set up at this angle. Local affiliates and cable news outlets had the back media riser, looking directly at the President, because they were all streaming live and it was less of a cable pull from that angle. Sure, they had your standard straight-ahead shot of the President, but its shot variety was extremely limited.
Around 9:15, I had the opportunity to do a live call in for the Justin Reed Show on WMTS, live from inside the gymnasium. After I concluded the call, we were asked to leave by the Secret Service, so they could do an extensive security sweep of all the equipment and the area. Media was actually asked to leave the entire property. The sweep lasted 3 hours and we had to stay in the media parking lot, or leave.
The Wait – Part 1
Luckily enough for me, my producer also happened to be an associate producer for WSMV Channel 4 in Nashville. For about an hour, Matt showed me the incredibly awesome (and confusingly laid out) WSMV studios building. Anyone that knows me, knows this is turning into the best day of my life.
After that, with plenty of time to spare and empty stomachs, we headed to the Opry Mills food court, which was an oasis with free public wifi, bathrooms, and food access. Those were three things that the church parking lot just couldn’t provide.
Around noon, we went back to McGavock to find about 10 protesters lined up already on the street. We began talking to the protesters, and before we knew it, a crowd over 100 had gathered. The most interesting aspect of this is that the demonstrators, both for and against, lined up right next to each other, despite a roadside full of space. This caused a lot of interesting interviews and arguments.
One interview in particular was incredibly interesting. A gentleman standing with the Tea Party protesters accused me of “causing Benghazi”. Naturally, he wasn’t accusing me of being a part of the State Department, but rather of the “lamestream media” that allows all of this stuff to happen. He said all of this, not as respectfully as I’ve stated it here, very emphatically in my face. My instinct was to argue back, but then I remembered a lesson from Dale Carnegie, one of my favorite authors, and sentiments echoed throughout my childhood by my parents, that “the best argument is one that you avoid.” I had to remind myself that, no matter how great I made my points, there was absolutely nothing I could do to convince this man his views were faulty. To be clear, I’m not even talking about politics here, I’m talking about this man’s opinion of what role the media plays in our society.
After hours of collecting protesting footage and interviews on camera and on cell phone for immediate distribution on the internet, Matt and I trekked back over to the high school and stood in the secret service security line.
The TSA doesn’t have anything on the Secret Service. They had everything short of a full-body screener. Bomb sniffing dogs, wands, pat-downs, metal detectors – you name it, they probably had it and you didn’t know it.
The Wait – Part 2
Once we were back in the gymnasium, we started playing the very predictable “waiting game”. From time to time, there would be little nuggets of excitement in this 4 hour period. “Yay, we get to test the audio feed!” “Oh look, that guy looks famous, take the camera off and let’s go talk to him!” The only problem with the “looks famous” part is when you don’t actually know who they are, and get too scared to guess wrong. That’s why Matt and I missed out on interviews with Ashley Judd and former Nashville Mayor Bill Purcells. We thought it might be both of them, but we weren’t sure enough to pull the trigger. Unfortunately, we were right both times – should have just gone for the interview.
About 30 minutes out from the President’s scheduled address, we got word from an official White House staffer that the President was running….wait for it….a little behind. We weren’t surprised, but we weren’t excited by the news either.
30 minutes before the speech actually began, the more important people started arriving. First, was Al Gore, who is rarely seen in Tennessee, or public in general, anymore. Then, Mayor Karl Dean arrived with Rep. Jim Cooper, and other Democratic leaders who met the President at the airport. Next, the traveling White House staff entered the gym. Notables included Pete Souza – the official White House photographer, Jay Carney – the White House Press Secretary, and this one guy in a suit that looked so in shape for a man of his age, I’m just assuming he had to be head of security.
The most frustrating part of the waiting game came when we all knew the President had arrived to the high school, but hadn’t come in yet. The crowd did nothing to help this when they would randomly start cheering, we’d all press record, only for it to be a false alarm. This happened a lot. Finding myself with a mix of excitement, nervousness and exhaustion, this was not an enjoyable part of the day.
The President was greeted by thunderous applause after the McGavock HS Student Body President introduced the commander-in-chief. I was so enamored by the fact the sitting President was in my midst, I had to remind myself to focus on the task at hand, ACTUALLY COVERING THE PRESIDENT’S SPEECH. Matt manned one camera, and I had the other. Matt kept a stationary (safety) shot of the President and took still photos. I was a “hero cam” of sorts, to steal a multicamera reference. I would get crowd shots, wide shots, extreme close shots. I also attempted to get some cell phone videos and photos that could be instantly uploaded onto our social media websites.
A side note here, I don’t care about what your politics are, the President is a gifted communicator. He told jokes, he was demonstrative, he was truly gifted.
The experience was so enjoyable, the President’s address went by like a blink of an eye. Before I even realized it, the President had given his conclusion and was shaking hands.
Now the fun really began.
The Final Stretch
Throughout the entire day, the White House staff had a structure to everything. That all ended after the President left the building. Barriers could be crossed, which meant, interviews could be had. Matt and I instantly dashed for Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. We were so caught up in the excitement, we forgot our mic. So I ran back to get the tangled mic chord. I was worried this mental lapse would mean we missed the Mayor. I finally got our mic untangled from the rest of the jumbled XLR cables and dashed back towards the Mayor. At the time, pretty much all of Nashville stations had him in a pooled interview. We waited for Nashville media, who were pooled together so close we couldn’t fit in, to finish. Without much pomp and circumstance to it, Mayor Dean popped out of the media huddle and was walking away. I got the Mayor’s attention, and then went blank. Nada. Zilch. I stumbled with my words for a second, and then, with all the clumsiness I could muster, uttered out a question that kinda-sorta-not really asked a question about how he thought the President did. Luckily, I wasn’t Karl’s first interview. He gave me a look that said “I know what you’re trying to ask me kid,” and gave a great answer. THANKFULLY, my additional questions to Mayor Dean were put together much more cohesively. I’m grateful he didn’t just walk off.
After the Mayor’s interview, we dashed frantically to grab Rep. Jim Cooper, only one of 2 Democratic Tennessee Congressman. I asked Representative Cooper if he would speak with us. He told me, “this has to be quick.” I dove straight into “how do you think the President did today?” His reply was what every reporter dreams of – short, witty, and to the point. Knowing fully well that that was a great soundbite and he had places to be, we thanked the Congressman and let him go meet up with the President to return to Air Force One.
Next, we shot a standup in front of the podium and waited on a student the President highlighted in his speech. She did numerous live shots and interviews with media for quite a while. Finally. she became available for us, and we got the chance to talk to her.
Her story was pretty amazing. She said she was verbally attacked by a teacher in Middle School who told her she would never amount to anything in high school and just forget college. She said she gave up on teachers at that point, that is, until her broadcast teacher came along. I enjoyed talking to her. Though still a meek and mild recent-high school graduate, I could tell she was empowered by her teacher and the media frenzy she had been a part of that day.
The Load Out
Our shooting was done and it was time to get out. We packed up our 2 EMJ camera kits in the pelican cases, carried out our pack of wireless mics, and lugged our 2 tripods back across the street to Donelson Fellowship Church’s parking lot. The day was over right?
Nope. Our day was just beginning.
The root word of “News” is “New”. If it isn’t timely, it isn’t important. So, Matt and I went through drive-thru to scarf down some food and stopped by the Shell for some essentials and got to work. We edited the video package and uploaded photos until about 2 am. THEN, our landmark day covering the President was over.
The experience was unlike any I’ve ever been a part of. Between the process of getting approved to cover the event, to the protesters, the event itself, and the post-address interviews, it was such a useful and humbling experience. Everyone we met from different media outlets were kind and friendly. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime kind of day. Thank you to Matthew Parker who was so helpful throughout the entire process, Professor Rob Jasso for pointers and equipment, Mr. Stephan Foust – Director for the Center for Innovation in Media for guidance and counseling, Emily West – Editor-in-Chief of Sidelines for helping us with social media and for posting our video on their article, MTSU’s Facebook page for featuring our story on one of their posts, and the President of the United States for visiting Nashville, so I could be reminded why I’m pursuing this career, and why I love my major, my school, and my opportunities that few others get a chance to experience.