Boca Raton, Fla. — They call this large and very air-conditioned room “spin alley.” On most days, it’s a nondescript athletic building at tiny Lynn University. But tonight, it’s a bustling media circus, and stuffed with cameras, klieg lights, laptops, and politicians. Everybody from Capitol Hill seems to be here, from Republican grandees (John McCain, Peter King) to Democratic hotshots (Robert Gibbs, Stephanie Cutter). The Lynn undergraduates, however, are clustering around the media stars. They’re all on their iPhones, busily texting their roommates, and wondering whether their friends across campus can spot them behind Neil Cavuto’s hair.
The reporters, for the most part, are bored. This is dead time. We’ve got a couple hours until the debate, and there isn’t much to do except mingle with McCain, Gibbs, and the others. There is a Budweiser tent, just a few yards from the filing center, and most people seem to find their way there after a while. A handful of media types are sipping the free Stella Artois and Shock Top, but the majority of TV anchors and newspaper writers are sticking with Diet Coke. In the age of Twitter, no one wants to be seen drinking, or having a little too much fun. It’s all salads, diet soda, and water. The raucous, smoke-filled press galleries of the past may be history.
At 4:30 p.m., when things were less busy, several reporters (we won’t name names) even watched Ellen DeGeneres’s show to pass the time. Their detachment from the political players a few feet away was understandable. The politicians in the room weren’t really there to chat with print reporters, but to go on TV. Aides would usher them in, guide them to the appropriate set, and usher them out after their two or three minutes on CNN or MSNBC. Only the older figures, such as McCain, visibly enjoyed holding court with the bloggers. Most other surrogates do everything they can to avoid getting bombarded with questions.
It can be a pretty dismal scene. Nevertheless, at debate after debate, reporters and TV networks populate these alleys. It’s nearly impossible for journalists to actually get inside the debate hall, but people come to see the strategists, politicos, and power brokers up close. There is something to be said for being able to ask David Axelrod or Stuart Stevens a question, face to face, rather than via phone or email. It makes politics a little more real, less anodyne. Everyone may be drinking Diet Coke and eating salad, but after the debate, when you shove a recorder near an adviser’s chin, you feel, for a moment, like you’re doing things the old-school way.
Still, even the veterans wonder if “spin alley” has become a relic of a bygone era. “They have just become less useful,” says Dan Balz, a longtime reporter for the Washington Post. He and I are standing in the red-carpeted alley, hours before the debate. He just spoke with Cutter, and he’s making his way toward McCain. “TV, especially local TV, makes use of it, but when I look at the post-debate coverage, I don’t read a lot that comes from the spin room. It’s just a ritual, and people do it, and schmooze one another.”
Balz pauses and takes in the mass of reporters milling about. He smiles. “Then again, it’s still what it’s always been. It’s spin,” he says. “The campaigns come out with their talking points, but the hope is to pull someone aside, and get them off of their script.”