Thursday, February 28, 2008

Behind the Scenes: An Insider Look at the MSNBC Democratic Debate

By: Sean Balewski

Blinding snow and frigid temperatures. The epitome of a Cleveland winter. Yet, the wicked weather did not overshadow the pivotal event that took place Tuesday evening inside the Wolstein Center at Cleveland State University, where the two final Democratic contenders for the Presidency, Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama, squared off in what may be their final debate.

I was in the front-row for the debate and had the wonderful opportunity to see first-hand potential history in the making. However, it was all the excitement and craziness leading up to that night that made the event even more memorable.

Having interned with NBC on and off for the past year and a half, I was asked to come up to Cleveland to work the Democratic Debate for MSNBC. Arriving early Sunday morning at the Wolstein Center, I was immediately taken aback by how many people were there for setup. The entire arena floor was flooded with workers scrambling to assemble the massive stage. And around the stage, the floor was a sea of cables and wires.

My duties consisted of setting up the mobile command center for all of the NBC producers and correspondents who would be sweeping into the arena the following day. Although that first day was just setup, it was amazing to be around all of the excitement.

Monday morning also started off early, and upon arrival, I immediately knew the day would be very different. Brian Williams and his entourage were slated to arrive midday because Nightly News was going to be live from Cleveland that evening. NBC Correspondent Andrea Mitchell had already arrived and was busily working the phones. I was sent out to finish some shopping for the office and to stockpile some water and much-needed snacks for the remaining days.

As the correspondents and anchors started to arrive, the excitement in the mobile newsroom intensified. The room was a buzz over Senator Clinton's challenge to Senator Obama to "meet her in Ohio" and all were making calls to see who had leaked the picture of Obama in a turbin to the Drudge Report. At times I had to run out to re-stock supplies or transport people around the city, but when I was around the newsroom I was soaking in all that was surrounding me.

It was incredible to witness these sharp minds shaping out the content and format of what many were calling the last debate for the Democratic contenders. In the mid-afternoon, I was helping with the evening's production of the Nightly News. Brian Williams was anchoring from the arena, and so, it was all hands on deck, to make sure that the broadcast went off without a hitch.

Tuesday was the day of all days. Six inches of snow had fallen in the early morning hours, and already everyone was worried about travel delays for correspondents and most importantly the candidates. Also, as if things weren't crazy enough, there was the added inconvenience of...the Secret Service.

All of us had to leave the arena for about two hours while the Secret Service swept the building, and so, we were left to stand out in the cold, trying desperately to gather heat from the pack of satellite trucks that engulfed the exterior of the arena.

After waiting and passing through security for what seemed like the millionth time, I went back to the newsroom and went straight to work. Immediately, Brian Williams' producer sought me out for some much needed help. We discussed ways to get notes to Brian during the debate as well as what information and supplies Brian needed for the evening. MSNBC's HARDBALL with CHRIS MATTHEWS was doing that show live from another room inside the arena, and so, I was sent over there to see if any of the affiliates needed help setting up.

Inside the spin room, I watched all of the major networks as well as local stations from around the state conduct interviews with the celebrities and television personalities who were in attendance. The energy in that room was incredible!

As we neared air-time for Nightly News, the excitement continued to build. NBC News President Steve Capus had arrived, as well as most of the NBC News correspondents. For one night only, Cleveland had been turned into command-central for NBC News. Nightly went off without a problem, and then it was time to switch gears. For the rest of the evening, we were double and triple checking everything to make sure that all was in order for the debate. Producers and the NBC political team were going over last minute changes and questions with moderators Williams and Tim Russert. And then was showtime!

I was under the impression the entire three days that I was there, that I would be watching the debate from the control room in the production truck. But at five minutes to 8 o'clock, I was delivered a fantastic surprise. As a reward for all of the hard work that I had put in over the last 48 hours, I was given front-row seats for the debate. I had better seats than the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Chelsea Clinton, Governor Ted Strickland, and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson. I was in the front row!

The debate itself was very exciting, and it was interesting to see the reactions and gestures of the candidates that weren't seen on television. Also, it was incredible to see these two distinguised politicians in such close proximity.

After the debate, I scrambled to the front of the stage and had the opportunity to shake Senator Barack Obama's hand...a firm hand-shake I might add!

All in all, the experience was amazing. I was fortunate enough to have the chance to witness what goes into putting together a nationally televised Presidential debate, and I worked closely with those who made the magic come to life.

Many have said that this debate could be the last debate between these two candidates because the March 4th primaries in Ohio, Texas, Vermont, and Rhode Island may determine who is the Democratic nominee. So it was with pride in my hometown of Cleveland, that I was able to witness what may be the last showdown between these two candidates.

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