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June 04, 2007

Inside the debate spin room with Gather.com's bloggers

by Josh Bernoff

I spent last night in the spin room at the Democratic Presidential debate put on by WMUR-TV and CNN at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. WMUR is a Manchester TV station, owned by Hearst-Argyle.

Gather.com and WMUR teamed up to recruit bloggers to write about the debate. Only about 25 people signed up, probably because they didn't  give the promotion enough time. Gather.com's members chose the 15 best -- five democrats, five republicans, and five independents, all New Hampshire residents.

While this sounded like a good idea to me, when I saw the original blog postings I wasn't all that impressed. But that all changed last night.

I sat in the "spin room" with the bloggers as they covered the debate. First, let me set the stage. The spin room was a college gym with little platforms belonging to each candidate (photos here). During the debate, which happened in a hockey rink right down the street, the bloggers and I watched on a monitor in the spin room. (At one point they showed a shot of us on CNN.)

From the blogging perspective, what I found interesting was how the gather.com bloggers rose to the occasion. These were some pretty typical and ordinary people, moms, a student going back to journalism school -- not your hard-core political types at all. But partly because the spotlight was on them, and partly because they got to react to each other, some nice insights came out. Fred Hollander, an engineer whose question on earmarks was posed to the candidates during the debate, found most of their responses unsatisfying -- "Sounds like the democratic frontrunners would continue with the traditional corruption." (How cool is it that a blogger gets his question answered on national TV?) Rebecca Lavoie has a very  nice summary of the emotional style each candidate demonstrated, which is at least as important as issues and positions. Keith Ballingal pointed out that there seems to be an unnatural affinity between the Edwards and Obama campaigns -- and as soon as I read it, they backed each other up again on another point. And David Mirsky, who sat next me, seemed the most prolific with insights during the event.

Seth Godin has complained about the shortcomings of live blogging and I agree -- there's an inverse relationship between speed and value. But these regular old people that Gather has selected are getting better. I can't wait to see what they do with the Republicans.

After the debate was over, the spinning began. The room, which had been mostly empty, filled up with about thirty or forty film crews along with hundreds of print reporters. These proceeded to swarm around the surrogates on the platforms, giving interviews to "spin" their candidate's performance. Eventually most of the candidates showed up, roughly in reverse order of their popularity. Mike Gravel was first, Bill Richardson and Dennis Kucinich and Bill Richardson soon after. Naturally, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards didn't show by the time I left, about 45 minutes after the debate ended.

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