Notes from the West Wing: Nine minutes with President Obama

CBS 6 crew outside the White House

CBS 6 crew outside the White House

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WTVR) – We stood closely, hushed by the formality of the moment while Secret Service stood nearby, lazily watching us and flanking the doorway that led to another section of the White House.

In two minutes the door to the library would swing open and we would step inside for an interview that few will ever have in their career. I noticed we were both taking deep, calming breaths.

It had been just 24 hours ago since my boss told me I would be sent to Washington D.C. to assist the photographer and reporter interviewing President Obama from the White House.

My boss Scott Wise responded casually to an email thread we had going about a potential story.

“Also–I’d like to send you to the White House tomorrow with Tracy Sears to cover her interview the president,” he wrote to me at 11:12 a.m. Tuesday.

“So that’s not the email I expected to get back from you,” I responded.

“Surprise,” he replied. I work the 3 p.m. to midnight shift and was told simply to bring a bag into work and leave from there.

The whole affair began rather innocuously with a phone call from a man who wished to speak with reporter Tracy Sears, employed at WTVR, a CBS affiliate in Richmond, for almost 13 years.

Of course he was met with skepticism when he identified himself as the Deputy Press Secretary of the White House, Eric Schultz.

“Is this my husband?” Tracy asked, convinced it was him or a mutual friend trying to “punk” her.

He laughed and assured her that wasn’t the case. Still in disbelief she asked for him to send an email, seconds later it arrived and boasted the right string of identifying credentials: who.eop.gov.

That’s when things accelerated.

If television isn’t your industry, you may have a hard time imagining the preparation that began to occur. What you see on the television screen, hopefully, is a well-coiffed reporter, framed and nicely lit. Now, getting the reporter zapped live to your television from a remote location isn’t as effortless as it looks by the time you see it.

You don’t see the sweat from lugging gear around–cameras, microphones, lights, tripods–or the scurrying around to make deadline against all the odds.

You don’t see a producer, or someone from the news desk or master control (staffed 24-hours a day, the final point before a signal is transmitted over-the-air for broadcast television) freaking out because heavy rain can interfere with the microwave truck broadcasting the photographer’s live shot, which means the reporter might not make “slot” in the newscast–if at all.

Most of the newsroom didn’t even know about the interview until the day it aired. We were sworn to secrecy until the 5 p.m. newscast Tuesday, less than 24-hours from when Tracy’s interview would happen.

Though a bold task, one of our first decisions was to engage our Facebook fans in this one-on-one presidential interview.

STATE OF THE NATION

Pew Research polling shows that 61% of Americans sampled are following along with the shutdown discussions and only 22% aren’t concerned about its impact. 

More Americans disapprove than approve of the way that all sides – Barack Obama, Democratic leaders and Republican leaders – are handling the negotiations over the shutdown, according to the polling data.

Though on our station’s Facebook page, if that’s any type of sample, the blame is most often directed towards the president. Regardless of the subject, or the factual information, the vitriol is posted in spades.

We promoted the one-on-one with the hashtag #AskObama, researched the questions and people who proposed them. Eventually we decided on two questions we would ask President Obama. The entire thread is here:

In total, four East Coast stations were chosen to sit down with the president; Tampa, Fl., Philadelphia, Pa., Washington DC and CBS 6.

No one has explained, despite inquiry, the process of selecting these four stations and reporters.

Virginia, with a large concentration of federal employees, contractors and veterans, definitely feels the pinch of an ongoing federal shutdown that began initially with Republicans wanting to defund the health-care law, and it would only get worse in an economic shutdown.

WHOSE AGENDA?

Certainly no one turns down an interview with the president, the esteemed leader of our nation, and a man respected around the world. A good reporter knows what balance to strike, what questions to ask.

Although the president himself has boasted that “this is most transparent administration in history,” with the White House going to great lengths to release curated information, he’s also been called the “puppet master” when it comes to “limiting, shaping and manipulating media coverage of himself and his White House.”

Other journalists say that despite the “mutual loathing pact” between Obama and the D.C. press corps, Obama in his first term gave three times the amount of interviews–TV, radio, Internet, print– that  George W. Bush did, (647 versus 217) and for William Clinton (191) it was even less.

But Obama has a different strategy than other presidents. By contrast, Bush held 354 short question-and-answer sessions with reporters compared to Obama’s 107 sessions, according to statistics compiled by Matha Kumar. 

With such strategy the president has more control over timing with the one-on-one, less impromptu interviews and there are fewer opportunities for follow-up questions. But he’s also providing incredible opportunities for local stations to relate national and world news directly to their market.

Regardless, we were going and we were excited. Two a.m. found me sleepless with a pillow over my head, in a hotel two miles from Capitol Hill.

FAIR AND BALANCED

Wednesday would remain mostly as grey and monochromatic as the stone and marble of the secured D.C. buildings which we stepped in and out of, so it was only an alleged sunrise that followed our car towards Capitol Hill that morning.

Hulky security guards loomed, sentinels more visible under the shadow of a government shutdown which accounted for the absence of tourists and employees.

Their profiles along the steps and perimeter ominously recalled recent violence: Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis, rogue driver Miriam Carey, and then 64-year-old John Constantino who died from self-immolation on the national mall.

Having visited the area my entire life, this new District of Calamity feels different, less accessible to its public owners.  Since 9/11 our nation’s capital has been fortified through incremental steps, including the closure of streets and jersey barrier construction, all designed to shield sensitive buildings. 

The access that has become complicated for many is more easily granted when you are on the list, as our names were, at the first stop to interview House Majority Leader Eric Cantor at his Capitol office.

Still, our access wasn’t without its rules. We had to throw out our bottles of water as we went through security; yes, the security guard said, even if mine was sealed.

Cantor’s interview was five hours before Tracy would meet with President Obama, providing a balance of sorts by questioning two polarizing men within the government.

The political divide in our nation shows no more clearly than at this time of great strain, when it’s easy to feel that questions and answers are so often anchored in partisanship and not solution. The entire transcript of Tracy’s interview with Cantor can be read here. 

ROAD TO THE WHITE HOUSE

When you’re reporting from the road you wind up in a lot of MacGyver situations.  At one point in the day I remember seeing Tracy with her curling iron plugged into an available outlet, located beside a water fountain in the White House press briefing room.

We weren’t expected at the White House for another hour after Cantor’s interview, so we set up shop in a paid parking space and Tim Hawkins, our chief photographer, had to “feed” video back to the station. We use something called a Teradek that can stream video over an internet or cellular connection, which is then recorded back at the station.

At one point I looked back and saw his square black case open, with various transmitters and wires peeping through, and then quickly wrenched my neck around in all directions to see if anyone looked alarmed.

I noted several black SUVs parked around us, and men with IFBS standing around on the sidewalk, but it was D.C. after all and that’s a pretty common uniform these days. No one had tackled Tim or seemed to consider the case a suspicious package.

Tim packed up gear once again and we headed towards 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

One might think that security at the White House would be most daunting but the guys there are pretty nice; maybe because somewhere behind the office where we checked in sits a team of snipers and savvy bodyguards.

A separate team would stage and record the interview with the president, but we still had heaps of equipment to bring for evening news live shots, which would boast in the background that classic north lawn view of the White House usually reserved for the network stations.

White House security went through all equipment we had, including my laptop and iPad, checking for bugs and explosives. We were given our press badges, which are swiped over a keypad that then green lights us to walk through the second checkpoint–a metal detector and x-ray machine for our phones and miscellaneous things.

And suddenly we were on the other side of the gate, looking back at the tourists.  We walked toward the West Wing, into the theater converted from Theodore Roosevelt’s swimming pool into a press pool.

The space felt like a combination of an airplane and a bunker or ship galley. The blue, first-class leather seats allegedly cost around $1,500 in the renovation. Each seat, 49 in all, is assigned to a news organization, and behind the rows of seats stretches a long expanse of granite top that houses below little cubbies. A power outlet under the seat was a desperate oasis of electricity for my needy iPhone 5 battery.

It could have easily felt suffocating, yet the constant flutter of activity seemed to arrange space frequently enough to keep it from being claustrophobic. Slender hallways with cramped off-shoots house different news organizations. Presumably there are more offices downstairs, though I didn’t see any, just noticed a steady flow of back and forth traffic.

Tracy and other reporters let to meet Dennis McDonough, the White House Chief of Staff, to be briefed for the upcoming interview. It was 12:30 p.m. and Jay Carney was expected to enter the pressroom shortly for an afternoon briefing.

It was around 1 p.m. when he did enter, though we had all just reached the point of awareness that in about an hour Tracy would be interviewing the president, and it was hard to focus on much else. Tracy was going over her notes and I took notes on the press conference.

Despite the number of times that Carney said “ransom” in reference to the Republican Party taking the government hostage in attempts to defund the ACA, the press briefing was probably one of my favorite parts of the day. I discovered on my way to the bathroom that a loudspeaker broadcasts the briefing through the entire press cave.

The Press Secretary addressed one of the viewer questions that we planned to ask President Obama, about the payment of death benefits to the families of military, which had lapsed with the government shutdown. On Friday, legislation was passed to resume benefits.

HELLO MR. PRESIDENT

A man came by and grouped all the visiting news stations together to lead us into the White House. We walked downstairs, outside and past a covered BBQ grill, and then into the White House, ground level.

A long hallway stretched out in front of us. The plush red carpet that blanketed the white marble floor muffled our footsteps while low vault ceilings shaped the way past rooms full of security, down to the Vermeil room where we would wait.

The interview was directly across the hallway, in the room that Franklin D. Roosevelt converted into a library in 1961.

We were ushered into the Vermeil room and warned not to sit on the actual furniture, but rather use the chairs provided for us. We were reminded no picture taking, nor eating or drinking in the facility either. I believe each suggestion was overlooked by some, if not all of us.

Vermeil is a combination of sterling silver, gold, and other precious metals, commonly used as a component in jewelry. Shiny, centuries-old pieces adorned the shelves.  Several First Lady portraits hung in the room; Jacqueline Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lou Hoover, Patricia Nixon, and over the mantle Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson.

If you’ve never seen the White House, Google has mapped the entire mansion as part of their arts project. You can click here to see it.

The door opened and we were beckoned to the hallway to wait with White House staff and Secret Service.

Despite the money and time our station spent on this interview, we had very little contact with the president. As it was, he was seated when we walked in, with a chair across from him set up for Tracy. It would have been ideal for him to stop and say hello to the entire group, take 5-10 minutes to do that simple thing before the interview.

Each reporter, plus one producer, was allowed in the room with the president. An iPad and an iPhone tightly controlled time. We had been told that all details from our interview were to remain secret until 5 p.m., though no reason was given why. For an administration so reliant on social media, it was surprising we couldn’t use it to communicate or promote the interview.

One crew lit and filmed all interviews and we were warned to take no pictures, a house photographer would take a two-shot of reporter and president.

Eight minutes with one the most powerful men in America goes quickly, it’s about the length of a shower. Tracy’s interview stopped at nine minutes and forty seconds.

At the end, the President offered to write two cards for each of her children, after she asked a question on behalf of her son’s third grade class.

As an interactive web producer, I was frantic to get a photo of the moment. The cameras weren’t rolling and the staff photographer wasn’t shooting. I asked if he would shoot the picture, and he said he already had one.

My phone was in my hand and I know I was just wide-eyed in panic that the moment wouldn’t be captured. Thankfully, a staffer leaned in and whispered calmly that it was just fine if I want to snap the shot. Now we’re talking! I wish I had tried this tactic at the beginning.

This left me with one photo document of the one day I was five feet away from the president. It’s not even a great photo, due to the stiff angle I had to work with.

And that was that. We waited for the others and then returned to the press room to get ready for Tracy’s live shots on the 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts, and then we headed home to get ready for the 11 p.m. show. By the time I left work, it had been an 18 hour day.

The last picture I took inside the gate was of my press pass. I couldn’t help but think on my way out, as I begrudgingly surrendered the PRESS badge, about the double duty the word serves.

In America, a member of the free press–an actual novelty on a global stage–is given that chance “to bear down on, to force to action, to squeeze contents from, to lay stress on–to emphasize.”

And no matter which side of the White House gate–or the political line–that you’re on, it’s clear we must press forward from these trying times with the right amount of strength and grace.

The press must diligently push for its own right to access if we are to best serve our readers.

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