Being a reporter has its privileges. We get to go places and see things most people don't, as last week when more than 2,000 of us went to Centre College in Danville, Ky., to watch Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman and Republican Dick Cheney spar verbally.
Take a right at the story idea
You might say the city and college are prepared for the press. A few miles from town, an electric highway sign greets southbound reporters with the message, "VICE PRES DEBATES, TAKE RIGHT." Not much farther away, several small yard signs with the words "Media credentials" lead the way to the student bookstore, which houses the credentials center. I had faxed my name, social-security number and other information to the debate commission in Washington, D.C. a couple of weeks ago, so after checking a list, I receive the media kit — a spiffy navy-blue shoulder bag with the debate logo. But that isn't all. Inside are two reporter's notebooks, including one with tongue-in-cheek suggested questions for Gov. Paul Patton ("Why is Kentucky such a leader in education?"), a chunk of Kentucky tourism information ("See Mammoth Cave!"), a couple of maps of Centre College and Danville, a copy of Kentucky Monthly's September issue, a visitor's guide to Danville published by the Advocate Messenger newspaper and a media guide for the debate, complete with phone numbers for Centre College President John Roush.
Have one on us
After parking in one of the media lots early Thursday afternoon, I wander to the college gym turned media center next to the debate venue, the Norton Center for the Arts. After a state trooper searches my bag, I enter the media center — a collection of dozens of tables, some with phones, surrounded by TVs tuned to CNN, which features the Serbian people's revolt against Slobodan Milosevic.
While the general public pays $2 for a hot dog and $1 for a medium soft drink or tiny cup of water near the main outdoor stage and giant TV screens, reporters can wander to the Anheuser-Busch Presidential Debate Canteen, a four-post tent with more TVs tuned to CNN, free newspapers and a catered buffet of pasta, soft drinks, fruit, brownies and more.
The other debate rules
All around campus large white signs read, "Welcome to Centre College. Remember that the campus is private property. All visitors who wish to remain on campus must abide by the following rules:
1. No disorderly conduct
2. No weapons allowed, concealed or otherwise
3. Be respectful and courteous at all times
4. No glass bottles, plastic bottles, or cans
5. No coolers allowed
6. No signs on sticks or posts
7. Group expressive activity is to take place in Speaker's Park (S side off Russel St)
8. No PA systems or noisemakers
9. No alcoholic beverages or illegal substances
10. No literature may be distributed except at the designated information tables
11. Please turn off all cell phones and pagers in this area."
Centre College and Danville officials are obviously worried about protestors, mostly from the Green Party, who are upset about having their candidates excluded from the debates. The Commission on Presidential Debates requires candidates to receive 15 percent voter support via six national polls to participate in the debates. That's 10 percent more than required for federal matching campaign funds. That level would also have kept Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura out of the gubernatorial debates, almost guaranteeing defeat.
So the college puts white plastic fences around the main outdoor stage and giant TV screens in the center of campus and posts state troopers to guard entrances from boisterous protest groups, which are relegated to a football-practice field at least a few hundred yards from the main public area and several hundred yards from the debate hall. Students are told to wear their student IDs around their necks.
To be fair, the couple of hundred protestors violate the rules on literature, PA systems and noisemakers — and possibly disorderly conduct — but aren't arrested by the very patient police and state troopers. Their parade permits apply only to sidewalks, but police give them an escort when they take to the streets.
Even the signs listing rules break the rules: They are posted on wood stakes. The police let them stand. ©