Orange Street News

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Epic Fail: The OSN Experience at the Democratic Debate

By Hilde Kate Lysiak

2/26/20

I had studied each one of the candidates frontwards, backwards, and every which way imaginable. I had memorized my questions. I was armed with good follows. And best of all, I had muscled my way through the army of camera men and other reporters to get to the prime location — front and center to the exact spot the candidates would soon be appearing.

And nothing was going to stop me.

Or at least that was what I thought…

***

FEBRUARY 11th, TUESDAY

But that wasn’t exactly my state of mind eight days earlier on February 11.

After spending a month emailing candidates spokespeople, party leaders, and, most embarrassingly of all, resorting to gimmicky pleas on social media to the candidates themselves, I had successfully achieved what had once seemed impossible and been approved for media credentials to the Democratic Debate in Las Vegas only to have found myself now facing an even larger obstacle; my own parents.

Being thirteen isn’t without its advantages. I can still get into movies at a discounted rate and its easier to catch interview subjects off guard. But it also means I cannot drive or stay in a hotel alone.

“I don’t think so Hilde,” my dad said, giving me that look before staring back into his computer.

“It’s fine,” I answered.

* Flash sad face *

“I mean, I would only be interviewing the person who could be the next leader of the free world….I guess I could just stay home and watch the third season of Pretty Little Liars.”

Still nothing. My dad zombied his eyes back to his screen.

My older sister had perfected the art of the fake cry by the age of 8. My thirteen year old self had nothing.

“Did I mention it’s in Vegas?” I added.

The words Las Vegas, along with several other conditions which are too numerous to mention for the sake of this column, eventually did the job.

Now that I had a ride and a place to stay I had eight days to educate myself on the candidates running for office and the overall scene of national politics.

For those of you who have been long time readers of the OSN, you know my first, second, and third reporting passion is crime. However, moving from Selinsgrove to Patagonia, a place of only 900 people, and maybe two crime stories a year, I found myself facing the options of either expanding my horizons or folding my paper.

Since everywhere I turned the biggest news story was the upcoming presidential election my next move was easy.

I had scratched and clawed in every possible way imaginable in hopes of landing a one on one interview with the candidates, but barely received as much as a single response. That’s when I heard about the debate. One spot where all the candidates would be gathered, and available to media! It was all too perfect.

Getting credentials to the debate felt like entering a lottery. I was one of a large group of people who had applied through an online form in hopes of being awarded one of the few seats available for media. And I had to wait — for three long days.

The email’s arrival in my inbox had come with a shock. My political reporting had been rejection after rejection and I just assumed that this would be more of the same. I was wrong. And I was on my way…

The Email Ticket

I had my ticket to the debate. I had a ride to Vegas and had booked a hotel room at the exclusive Paris Hotel, where the debate was being held, for only $88 a night.

Now I needed to study.

I watched the previous debates and had forced myself to understand as much as I could about what the candidates were saying. It wasn’t just boring. At times it felt like torture.

Then I made cue cards of each candidate. Who are their main issues? What is their appropriate title? What questions have they been avoiding? What questions haven’t they been asked that would inform my readers?

These cards became my new religion.

I worshipped over the cards in the morning before I ate breakfast. I brought them to school with me and hid them under my papers. One night I fell asleep with them in my arms.

Orange Street News Study Cue Card of Tom Steyer — Who Didn’t Make the Debate Cut

FEBRUARY 17, MONDAY (TWO DAYS UNTIL THE DEBATE)

The bright lights were as advertised.

Entering Las Vegas felt like walking onto a movie set. As we pulled into the hotel I looked outside of the car window to see the Eiffel Tower, looking out my other window was the largest fountain I had ever seen, with the water synced with the beat of a Lady Gaga. Our hotel room on the 22nd floor came with a view of it all.

That first morning I took the elevator down to the fitness center on the second floor. As I approached the treadmill I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see a woman in a casual suit wearing an awkward smile.

“Ahhh, sorry hun, but the gym is for 18 and over.”

I awkward smiled back.

It was my first sign of resistance. And it wouldn’t be my last.

FEBRUARY 18th, TUESDAY, ONE DAY UNTIL THE DEBATE

Security was hot.

The hotel was full of uniforms and suspicious looks. Armed guards were checking people’s bags at every corner. Bomb smelling dogs roamed the hallways, squeezed in between slot machines, and guarded doors.

The email from NBC told me my credentials were waiting at the hotel’s Grand Ball Room for pick up. I knew this was a dangerous moment. In applying NBC never asked for my age. Did they know I was only 13? I had no idea, and wasn’t about to tell them.

I’m not a makeup person. But I put makeup on.

I’m a jeans and hoodie person. But I put a dress on.

In my six years of reporting news, including drug deals, meth houses, and murders, I’ve never had a parental escort on a single story. Not once. And I didn’t want that to change.

Feeling uncomfortable in makeup and dress, I walked down the long hallway that led to the Grand Ball Room trying not to trip over my own feet until I spotted the credential table.

A small group of reporters had gathered in front of it, many had camera crews or spoke different languages.

I carefully watched the people in front of me and noticed a pattern. They simply said their names and were handed the credentials. Although, these people were all obvious adults, I decided to follow their lead.

“Hi, I’m Hilde Lysiak,” I told the woman.

There was a beat. I felt the woman briefly look me up and down. I braced myself for the inevitable question about my age then…

She scrolled a list then placed a credential in my hand.

“Here you go Ms. Lysiak,” she said.

I wanted to lift her off her seat and dance her into the air, but restrained myself.

“Thank you,” I said, straight faced.

I found my dad at the blackjack table.

“Need a parental escort?” he asked.

I knew he wanted to come with me. He knew I didn’t want him to come with me.

“Sorry,” I said.

I wasn’t sorry. He knew I wasn’t sorry.

He made a muffled noise then turned back to his chips.

I was feeling on top of the world.

I looked up to see the casino ceilings were painted a light blue with painted clouds to match the sky; trippy. To my right I saw a Wizard of Oz slot machine. I knew I looked older and after scoring my credential was feeling lucky. Besides, it was only a dollar!

I put a bill in the machine and pulled the lever. It didn’t work. The lever wouldn’t come down. I pushed a button.

Bam!

Lights and noise started blasting. The munchkins began circling Glenda.

Lights started blaring.

Jackpot! Jackpot!

Everyone looked — including security.

I was escorted out of the casino — but not before scoring a $9 jackpot.

FEBRUARY 19, DEBATE DAY

I woke up with an unfamiliar feeling.

I was nervous.

Giving speeches in front of thousands of people doesn’t make me nervous.

Getting menaced by law enforcement doesn’t make me nervous.

Confronting mountain lions didn’t make me nervous.

But here it was, nerves. I realized that the fear came from never having done any political reporting before and having no idea what what to expect.

I spent most of the day going over my notes. I might be interviewing the next president of the United States and I was going to be prepared. I didn’t just want to have my questions memorized, but a good interview meant I had to really understand the issue to ask great follow-ups.

I even had my shell story, which I had been working all week on, ready as a draft on my computer.

After I had reviewed so much I felt my eyes were going to pop out of my head, I decided I needed to go on a run. By the time I got back to my room it was nearly 3:30. Not wanting the person who could potentially be the next leader of the free world to be turned off by my stench, I showered.

At 4 pm I said goodbye to my Dad and began the ten minute walk to the “media center.” That would give me almost two hours to stake out the best position to score interviews with the candidates after the debate.

It was hard not to think about how far I had come. I had begun the Orange Street News about six years ago. My first story was about how my baby sister was born. Now I was about to report on the biggest story in the world and interview who could be the next President of the United States.

But more than anything, I felt excited. I had done my prep work.

I confidently showed the security guard my credentials, which I wore dangling around my neck, then entered the Grand Ball Room.

This was it. My big moment. I had spent so many hours going over my cards and getting prepared, all for this. My mission was clear — cover the debate, then more importantly, interview as many candidates as possible.

I reminded myself that interviewing five of the candidates wouldn’t be good enough. I needed to get all six. Which I meant I needed to be quicker than the adult media. In my hometown, beating the adult run paper had never been a problem before.

I looked around at my competition and tried to get a feel for my surroundings.

The Media Center

The room was massive. Dozens of television screens hung from the ceiling over rows of long tables and chairs. I walked past them and into another room filled with what looked like small television studios.

As I looked closer I began to see a lot of familiar faces.

There was MSNBC’s anchor Chris Matthews.

There John Heilman, the reporter from The Circus (which I had watched in preparation).

I introduced myself to as many people as possible. Shook a lot of hands.

After I informed a campaign worker for Senator Elizabeth Warren that I was looking forward to speaking to his boss briefly after the debate he flashed me a strange look.

That should have been my first warning.

After a bit of gawking, I saw a table with snacks. I helped myself to a coffee and reminded myself that I had work to do and that the popcorn would have to wait until intermission.

Coffee and Snack Station Inside of Media Center

First, I needed to figure out where my seat was so that I could set my computer down but when I introduced myself to a worker she kindly informed me that the chairs were reserved for other media and that I would be sitting on the floor.

Fair enough, I thought. They had paid their dues. I was a nubie.

6PM PACIFIC TIME

Watching the debate start on the endless rows of TVs was one of the weirder moments of my life.

Sitting on the floor, my computer open to my dummy story and fingers pressed against the keyboard ready as I waited for quotes…

I wouldn’t have to wait long.

I knew they would be attacking Bloomberg, but was unprepared for the complete bloodbath that was the first ten minutes of the debate.

Candidates Get Ready to Argue

The media in the room were reacting like laugh reals edited in to 80’s sitcoms.

When Elizabeth Warren delivered her “I’d like to talk about who we are running against, a billionaire who calls woman fat broads and horse faced lesbians and no I’m not talking about Donald Trump I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”

The media center almost melted down. The room was crackling with “Oooos!” “Wows” and even heard one”Oh Snap.”

My fingers felt like they were typing into wet cement. They couldn’t get the words out fast enough.

At the first commercial break I had eaten all of my popcorn and went for more snacks.

My heart than sank at the horrific sight. It was all gone! The two tables that were serving chips and coffee had just vanished without a trace. Dejected, I walked back to my spot.

Following the commercial break, the debate only got spicier.

Former Vice President Joe Biden hit Bloomberg on his work as Mayor of New York City. “He has not managed his city very very well when he was there. He didn’t get a whole lot done. He had stop and frisk throwing close to five million young black men up against a wall.”

Senator Bernie Sanders also attacked Bloomberg’s previous job performance: “Mr. Bloomberg had policies in New York City of stop and frisk which went after African-American and Latino people in an outrageous way.”

Bloomberg was taking a beating. It was clear that my lede was going to have reflect that.

I continued typing and editing my story, adjusting the quotes and molding it as the debate went on until I felt comfortable with my story. The time seemed to move at an unnaturally fast pace. It felt like the first moment I had a chance to look up from my keyboard that it was coming to an end.

Read through once.

Read through twice.

Five minutes after the debate was over I was published.

I also emailed my copy to the Arizona Star who had hired me to cover the story. It led their website. My first non-OSN byline.

My first non-OSN byline

The easy part was behind me. But now came the important part of the evening. The entire reason I had arrived — the reason I spent months stalking the candidates, one evening begging my dad, and paying nearly $200 of my own money to get two nights at the hotel: My one on one interviews with the candidates.

I had learned earlier in the night that there was a section in the red carpet behind a medal fence that the candidates would walk past after they exited the stage. From their they could take questions from the media.

While the rest of the media raced to the spin room, an area where spokespeople tried to persuade the media to write about how well their employer had done at the debate, I went straight for the fence, knowing how critical my positioning would be due to my short stature.

I began speed walking though the red carpeted room, racing past the swarms of reporters in the spin room, determined to be first to secure my spot only to be confronted by rows of camera people and media types who had already taken the best spots.

But I wasn’t going to let six feet of bodies stop me from my goal. The Orange Street News was going to interview each candidate or die trying.

I took a deep breath and began elbowing my way through the people.

“Excuse me,” I repeated again and again, as I shoved my way forward.

It may have only been a few yards, but it was brutal. The back of my head got hit with a camera. A boom mic poked my ear. At one point I even thought someone kicked me.

My heart was racing. People were getting angry, some refusing to give way, causing me to duck and weave to get past them.

It wasn’t my most graceful moment, but it was working. I was making progress. A handful of elbows and not safe for publication words later and I had done it! I had made my way to the front!

Now all that would be standing between me and the candidates would be one small fence.

I had done it. Now the rest would be easy. All that was left was to score the interviews, which would be cake.

I was prepared. I mentally went over my questions one last time and braced myself for my one on ones.

Suddenly, the doors burst open. Out came Senator Amy Klobachar. She was walking towards me, only feet a way.

“Excuse me, Senator Klobachar,” I shouted.

But the Senator walked straight past me, then a second later through a pair of metal bars that had been guarded by a security officer.

Bad luck, I told myself. There were still five more candidates to go. So, I’ll just have to settle for five interviews.

Then just a minute later Mayor Pete Buttigieg came out the doors.

The OSN position in front of the line waiting for candidates

“Excuse me, Mayor Pete!” I shouted.

Then poof, he was gone behind the metal bars.

Senator Elizabeth Warren was next. Ignoring me completely before, like the others, disappearing through the metal bars.

Hot anger had turned into despair when a woman introduced herself.

It was a reporter for the Washington Post. She had worked with my dad and had followed my work, she said, before adding “Yeah, they don’t usually talk to us. Sometimes they don’t even come out.”

“What is behind there?” I said, pointing to the metal doors that the candidates kept disappearing into.

“Oh, that is where the important television media types are,” she said. “They are in their doing interviews right now.”

Check.

Mate.

Still, I couldn’t find it in myself to leave my spot until one by one the rest of the media had gone and it was basically just me and the Washington Post reporter.

A new reality began to sink in. I was left Patagonia hoping to bring OSN readers new information to help them make their decision on who to vote for in the upcoming election but instead would be driving away with nothing more than the $9 I illegally won at the slot machine and having published an article I could have written by watching the debate at home on television.

I walked out of the room trying to keep my shoulders up. I didn’t want anyone to see how upset I was. I needed to look professional.

I especially didn’t want to see my dad. I didn’t want to hear him tell me what a great job I did when we both knew I had failed to accomplish my goal.

A few minutes later he appeared, smiling. “Loved your story! You did great!”

I wanted to scream for him to shut up. That I didn’t get a single interview. That everything had been a giant waste. That he knew I had failed but was just trying to make me feel better. But all that came out was a quiet thank you.

The Washington Post reporter took me out for dinner. I ordered pizza and listened as she told stories about her experiences covering politics. She didn’t get interviews either, but unlike me, she wasn’t upset.

“It’s all part of the game,” she said.

Hearing her tell stories about her experiences at the Washington Post over slices of Chicago-style deep dish pizza made me feel better. I began to remember how much I love reporting news, even if on this day I was a total failure.

But it was something else she said that made the trip all somehow feel worth it.

“Nobody cared about your age,” she said. “You were treated crappy just like the rest of us. To them, you were just another reporter.”

10 comments on “Epic Fail: The OSN Experience at the Democratic Debate

  1. Jeffery Gainer
    February 26, 2020

    “I needed to look professional.”
    You not only look professional, you are a professional. Best wishes, Jeffery

    Like

  2. Jamie Gomez
    February 26, 2020

    You didn’t get what you were after and I can understand that if felt like an epic fail – but I think you will look back on this experience and realize that you actually got something pretty profound out of your vegas trip – and I’m not talking about the 9 buck slot winnings!

    Like

  3. David Stonier-Gibson
    February 26, 2020

    That was one of the best written, and entertaining, narratives I’ve seen for a long time. And I’d venture to say you were professionally prepared for ‘Vegas way better than any of you colleagues.

    Like

  4. Tom Lynch
    February 27, 2020

    Thanks for writing this. I loved it! Gave us great insight into what a professional reporter goes through to get the news.

    Like

  5. Carmen Nobel
    February 27, 2020

    You got (and shared) an inside view of how print reporters are treated at a major political event — and you found a mentor at the Washington Post! Epic success! I hope this piece goes viral.

    Like

  6. Bob Lamm
    February 27, 2020

    Great story. So sorry you didn’t get to interview all six candidates.

    Like

  7. Simon Smith
    February 28, 2020

    I think this is one of the best things you’ve written. It’s much more interesting and entertaining than anything you would have got from the candidates. Instead, you gave us an amusing piece of gonzo journalism about your experience of fear and loathing in Las Vegas.

    Like

  8. jarijari7
    February 28, 2020

    Excellent yarn, Heidi Kate. Hope you get to meet Trump one day. All the best from Sydney, Australia.

    On Thu, Feb 27, 2020 at 10:49 AM Orange Street News wrote:

    > Hilde Kate Lysiak posted: ” By Hilde Kate Lysiak 2/26/20 I had studied > each one of the candidates frontwards, backwards, and every which way > imaginable. I had memorized my questions. I was armed with good follows. > And best of all, I had muscled my way through the army of cam” >

    Like

  9. jarijari7
    February 28, 2020

    Excellent story Hilde Kate. Hope you get to meet Trump one day, that would be interesting. All the best from Sydney, Australia.

    On Thu, Feb 27, 2020 at 10:49 AM Orange Street News wrote:

    > Hilde Kate Lysiak posted: ” By Hilde Kate Lysiak 2/26/20 I had studied > each one of the candidates frontwards, backwards, and every which way > imaginable. I had memorized my questions. I was armed with good follows. > And best of all, I had muscled my way through the army of cam” >

    Like

  10. Pingback: OSN Top Stories of the Month February | Orange Street News

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