Cleveland — If the success of a presidential campaign can be measured by the number of injured reporters left in its wake, Donald Trump's improbable candidacy is safe from collapse anytime soon — certainly safer than the victims of a spin room stampede that sent multiple journalists crashing to the concrete floor of Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena.
While most Republican candidates from Thursday night's primetime debate sent surrogates out to "Spin Alley," the Fox News-branded assembly area designated for post-debate public relations, rumor had it in the media filing center that the billionaire front-runner would be making an appearance in person. "That's the money shot," mused one photographer to no one in particular. "Whoever gets the first crack at Trump after the debate..."
Shortly thereafter, as the assembled press tried not to express too much disappointment that they were interviewing Ohio Gov. John Kasich's former congressional colleague and not, say, Kasich himself, the rumor was made manifest.
"Mr. Trump!" someone frantically shouted. Heads spun, heels stomped, elbows shoved and, before this reporter knew it, the crush of humanity had borne him straight in between the shoulder blades of America's most controversial — and now literally inescapable — candidate.
More and more reporters jostled and pushed their way in, all frantically shouting "Mr. Trump! Mr. Trump!" They jockeyed for a clear line of sight between the mass of sprayed hair and shoulder pads, cameras and microphones and iPhones in hand. A woman in heels faltered as someone yelled "Watch out!" A cameraman surveying the situation muttered, "This is the worst day of my life."
The spin room had spun out of control.
Thirty minutes before, both debates were finally over, but the real show was just beginning. Deep beneath Quicken Loans Arena — "The Q," as Clevelanders call it — hundreds of assembled journalists couldn't stand to wait for the broadcasting of closing statements before queueing up at the entrance to Spin Alley.
Journalists from around the country pressed gently against the human barrier of volunteers and Fox News staffers that cordoned off the annex, testing their camera shutters and muttering "one-two-three" into their recorders. Those in the back made use of the boxy white couches in the Facebook Elections Center as a means to survey the mob, availing themselves of the opportunity to nab a few Facebook Elections-branded cookies and stickers and Rubik's Cubes and pens and buttons and notepads. Somewhere overhead, a bird trapped in the belly of the arena tweeted frantically.
The atmosphere was surprisingly jovial — most of those assembled had been crowded into the cafeterial mess of tables and power cords that formed the media filing center since well before noon, and all of them had been relegated to watching the debate from projection screens rather than live. Spin Alley was an excuse to move our legs — maybe even to do some non-Twitter-based journalism.
Shortly after 11 p.m., once the candidates had given their closing remarks and host Megyn Kelly had bid the raucous audience a good night, the staffers and volunteers parted, and the assembled journalists became a mob. Well-groomed TV anchors in colorful socks, grizzled local political reporters in Hawaiian shirts who had been covering campaigns for decades and conspicuously overdressed digital writers abandoned all pretense of politesse as they engaged in what a political journalist once called the "oily engine of the political meat grinder" — the spin room.
If every rugby scrum ended not with a bloody nose and an eight-point try but with a political sales pitch from a third-tier candidate's favorite senior strategist, it would be a close approximation to the atmosphere inside Spin Alley.
The name refers to the act of "spinning" perception of the debate to the journalists present in order to highlight a successful performance or downplay the significance of a poor one. The spin room is part Hollywood movie junket, part stump speech: journalists can ask direct questions of candidates or their agents, but the responses are nearly always canned, save for the rare and highly prized "off the cuff" remark by frazzled debate participants. So-called "gotcha" questions aren't exactly forbidden, but they're not exactly the point, either.
Hundreds of journalists flew, drove or bussed to Cleveland so that they could be corralled away from the action by Fox News and spun by candidates' communications teams. But for those few moments of one-on-one contact with a potential future president, the pretense and the jostling is worth it, even if the quality of that contact is a little suspect.
The following is a typical exchange: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was widely seen as being one of the debate's biggest losers in post-debate analysis. The libertarian-leaning senator spoke less than half the time that frontrunner Trump did. But when asked about Paul's loss of steam following his explosive exchange with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, senior Paul advisor Doug Stafford told Mic that the candidate hadn't been hurt by his short speaking time at all. "That's not steam — that's the decision of the people asking questions," Stafford said. "I think his steam held up throughout the entire debate — he gave great answers, he was fired up, he was mixing it up, and while it would be nice to get more time, he made great use of the time that he had ... he made a lot of points about how he's the bold, conservative but he's also a different kind of Republican."
The candidates themselves weren't much better in addressing specific questions without defaulting to stump-speech platitudes. For example, Dr. Ben Carson told assembled journalists on the Spin Alley floor over the course of Thursday's spin session that "the American people want real, common-sense solutions" and "the things that I'm talking about quite frankly are not Republican or Democrat things — they are American things."
By and large, these generalities were representative of how candidates and their flacks responded to reporters' inquiries. They answered the questions they wished they'd been asked, rather than the ones they actually were asked.
Questions formulated as specifically as possible, however, did give the reporter a chance of being told more than fluff. When asked by Mic about his on-air complaint about not having received enough speaking time, Carson responded candidly: "Fortunately, they kinda made up for it in the second half," he said, laughing. "I don't know if that was because of my question or if they were just planning it that way, but I was satisfied."
Sometimes the candidate's flunkies performed with surprising specificity and authority. When asked about Kasich's relatively humane approach to the issue of same-sex marriage, former congressman Dan Burton's answer indicated that had spoken with the governor at length about the issue. "I think he made it clear that traditional marriage is what he would support," Burton told Mic. "But he also loves his family, and he understands people that have different views. What he said, and I think he said it very clearly, was the Bible tells us to love one another and accept one another. Maybe you have differences of opinion, but I think John expressed it very, very well tonight."
Frequently, the most interesting commentary came from the journalists themselves. Cordoned off from the action of the main debate stage and weary of the short, perfunctory nature of most of their candidate interviews, most of the assembled developed a "we're all in this together" mentality in Spin Alley.
After the first debate — alternately dubbed the Undercard Debate, the Kiddie Table Debate, the JV Debate, the Kiddie Pool Debate and the Happy Hour Debate, depending on who you asked — a middle-aged journalist groaned that the broadcast had been "one of the most awful pieces of television ever produced."
Journalistic conviviality hit a fever pitch during the prime-time debate. Intraparty spats and surprising audience reactions both merited commentary, but the filing center never got closer to a party atmosphere as when Trump did... well, just about anything. When he dismissed Megyn Kelly's question regarding his previous attacks on women by saying that they were "only" aimed at Rosie O'Donnell, the media filing center might as well have been watching a WWE match.
Despite the physical nature of Spin Alley, it's not (always) a free-for-all. Young men and women in red T-shirts labelled "Debate Assistance," mostly Cleveland State University students and members of the College Republicans, were the debate's enforcers.
Their job, as much as they were allowed to talk about it, was to hold placards bearing a candidate's name — all the easier to find them in the scrum — and to keep journalists from going anywhere they weren't supposed to. The volunteers told Mic that they were under "the strictest orders ever" to not speak to press on political issues. "We're actually not supposed to even talk to you," one volunteered warily.
Minus the free T-shirt, it seemed like a thankless job. One young man, Ryan, held former Texas Gov. Rick Perry's placard aloft for nearly half an hour before the candidate finally appeared in Spin Alley, only for Perry to stop 10 feet away from him. "We just went into a room and grabbed 'em off a table," he told Mic about his placard. "I didn't know I'd pick the one guy who wouldn't show up." (Ryan bore the brunt of the annoyance of journalists who had hewn close to his side in hopes of seeing the governor, muttering things like "Aw, for god's sakes," "Oh. That's happening," "God dammit" and "Come on!")
But all gentility went out the window when Trump stepped into Spin Alley. Mosh pits at the Gathering of the Juggalos could learn lessons in physical discomfort from the scrum that tightened around Trump. A CBS reporter was tucked beneath a hulking TV camera, her head ducked underneath Trump's shoulder, microphone jabbed at the nape of his neck. Another cameraman, wielding a unit the size of a briefcase, rested it on this reporter's shoulder and zoomed in on the back of Trump's scalp. (Note: Trump's famous mane is almost beyond description. Even from inches away, it's impossible to tell where the root of each gossamer strand is, or how it might be layered, lattice-like, to achieve structural integrity worthy of a skyscraper magnate. Trump's hair is a feat of engineering, of architecture, of applied physics.)
Trump, unsurprisingly, masterfully delivered vast monologues with little to no solid message. "In the end, we're gonna make America great again," he said, apparently unprompted. "We are going to bring back the American dream, 'cause a lot of people say that the American dream is dead, but the American dream... I'm gonna bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before!" The scrum around Trump had grown at least six reporters deep in every direction; cameramen were starting to set up stepladders at the periphery to get a shot.
"But how!" a Fox News reporter shouted over the din.
"Through this," Trump said, pointing at his temple. "You see what this is?"
"Your head. You're pointing at your head," the reporter said.
"Through intelligence! Through doing the right thing! Through negotiation with other countries that are ripping us — We're being ripped off by every single country in the world. We don't make good deals anymore — we're gonna make fantastic deals." The reporter thanked Trump "so much," and the scrum exploded.
The candidate pointed to a reporter from New York magazine, who asked Trump why he thought the questions he'd fielded were so harsh. "It's the story of my life, I guess," Trump said, who grew up in a Long Island mansion and inherited millions from his real-estate developer father. "The questions to me were far tougher, and I supposedly, according to what everybody's telling me, I won the debate." He cited "the call-ins and everything" to support his claim. Kelly's questions about his comments on women, Trump said, were "unfair." After all, none of the other candidates got questioned about sexism.
"But, all due respect, none of those candidates said anything along those lines about women," said a young women who was practically stooping, her eyes trained on Trump. It was the first time this reporter had seen anyone counter a candidate's script with facts.
"All I know is I had everybody come up to me and said I had the toughest — they weren't even questions. They were statements that they asked. But you know what? It doesn't matter. I answered 'em well, and I'm very happy, and I really had a very good time."
Trump repositioned himself to head backstage, which prompted the entire scrum to start screaming incoherently. "WHO IMPRESSED YOU MOST TONIGHT," this reporter screamed into Trump's right ear, loudly enough to accidentally spit a little bit on the famously germophobic candidate's shoulder.
"I thought the candidates were really terrific."
With that non-statement, Trump made his move. As the cameramen and anchors and reporters and writers and staffers and volunteers attempted to shift, most of them backward, at least three people in sight went down hard. Once Trump had vanished, the assembled journalists were left to collect their bearings and survey the damage.
"Oh my god!"
"We almost all died in a literal stampede — you realize that, right?"
If the general lack of availability, interest and candor from the participants in the prime-time debate hadn't been proof enough that journalists aren't popular with most Republican politicians, the near-riots inspired by Trump takes that antipathy one step further. That didn't stop the assembled reporters from calling Trump the greatest thing that's ever happened to the electoral process. "Will Trump be president? No," observed one reporter. "Will he stay in and affect the rest of the race in ways that will impact who gets the nomination? You bet your ass."
Journalists, be advised: If Donald Trump makes it to the next Republican primary debate with his lead intact, Spin Alley may require hockey pads.