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American Journalism Review
Only the Stickered Survive  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2004

Only the Stickered Survive   

A reporter learns the hard way what matters when covering a presidential visit.

By Bill Toland
Bill Toland is a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.     

We print reporters generally don't wear suits, unless there's a free sit-down dinner involved. But I figured, you know, it's the President of the United States. If you're not going to wear a suit when the president comes to town, you might as well not own one.

I arrive at Harrisburg's Central Dauphin High School a little before 10 a.m., more than an hour before the president is expected. The place, naturally, is a zoo. Kids adorned with "Welcome President Bush" T-shirts are whizzing about, Secret Service agents are speaking urgently into their wrists, bomb dogs are sniffing hundreds of crotches per minute. I'd like to tell the dogs, if I was hiding a bomb, you can bet it wouldn't be there.

I shuffle into the press check-in area about the same time as another Pennsylvania reporter from the York Dispatch. Together, we're quizzed by the White House advance team: Name? Newspaper? Can I see your credentials? We're going to need some photo ID.

We accommodate them, and in exchange they give us each a White House press badge, which as it turns out is pretty useless because to guard against counterfeiting, the badges must be affixed with a sticker. Without one, you might as well be wearing a badge that says: "Welcome to Arby's."

"We're out of stickers," a woman from the press team announces grimly. After some deliberation with colleagues, she waves us ahead, so we walk, conspicuously stickerless, maybe 10 feet before we're intercepted by a guy with a gun. "Whoa," he says. "You guys don't have any stickers." And you can tell he means it.

The sticker people, we explain sweetly, are out of stickers, motioning in the direction of the check-in desk, passing the blame. "We're out of stickers!" the press team lady confirms, shouting. The guy with the gun shouts back: "They can't get into the gym without stickers--they're essential."

So the York reporter and I and a gathering press crowd, all of us stickerless, huddle against the wall, waiting for the man with the gun to sort things out. Frowning deeply, he relays the situation into his radio, and 15 minutes later announces that, sticker or not, we would be permitted in. The First Amendment survives another stiff test.

We're herded into the roped-in media area, where reporters outnumber chairs by a 2-1 margin. I spy an empty spot in front and step toward it, dropping my briefcase to the floor and getting ready to do the same with my overcoat. That's when I feel an elbow in my ribs, as subtle as a tetanus shot. "We're doing a live shot," explains a TV journalist with WGAL in Harrisburg. I slide 3 feet to the left, which I think is sufficient, but the newsman feels differently.

"Look, we staked this spot out, and you're screwing with me," he spits. So I gather my briefcase and step back along the riser, careful to keep my head between the two TV cameras. A few minutes later, the newsman asks if I'd consider sitting on the edge of the riser, instead of standing in front of it, because it's interfering with an extremely vital shot of a smiling girl holding a "Welcome President Bush" shirt.

So I retreat further, now sitting on a 4-inch slice of riser. Before long I'm sweating like Richard Simmons on account of the camera lights. The overcoat is the first thing to go--I crumple it in a pile and toss it on the floor. The suit coat gets the same treatment.

Forty minutes pass. Near the end of Bush's address, I start shifting in my seat, and that's when one of the cameramen behind me kneels down, taps me on the shoulder and suggests that maybe I could stop moving around so much. What he means to say is: Your ass is rocking the camera, pal.

For the next 15 minutes I try to keep perfectly still and, mercifully, Bush wraps up in under an hour. I throw on my coats, bolt from my "seat," and find myself first in line to exit the press area. Yet another White House flack informs me that we'll have to wait around for a few more minutes until the president leaves the building.

So I spin around to find my spot along the riser, but it's gone, swallowed by a riot of yammering news anchors and cameramen packing away their gear. I'm all dressed up, with no place to stand.

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