DETROIT —

Janna Hutz

Can you type without the use of both hands?

The media wizards of the national press corps can. And not only that, they can type as they check e-mail on their Palm Pilots and swill Coke in gluttonous gulps and cram popcorn down their tracheas. Actually, they type telepathically. In some cases having the bodies of their stories written out long before the Rev. Al Sharpton’s first quip of the evening or Gen. Wesley Clark’s first deer-in-the-headlights moment without logging any physical keystrokes. It’s imperative when forced to file from a cramped table overflowing with electronics and caffeine-crazed political junkies frantically scanning Friday’s Hotline in between sneaking surreptitious glances at that nubile John Kerry staffer that just placed a press release on the sleazy MSNBC cameraman’s laptop.

I went to the Congressional Black Caucus-sponsored Democratic debate in Detroit this past Sunday expecting a surreal experience. The debate organizers were going to lock us up somewhere in the vast recesses of the Fox Theatre, some kind of Shangri-La for journalists known as the “media center.” Safely cordoned off from the general public the national press corps can hunker down and get to work, pouring out that delicious copy, which the media analysts then pore over to write their own stories identifying the frontrunner as picked by the media, allowing the national press corps to look at the insights of the media analyst to tell you, the voter, which candidate will win.

The dirty secret in this whole enterprise is, gulp!, the national press corps doesn’t actually get to see the thing in the flesh. That’s right, in that ultramodern media center they’re watching the debate on TV. The parries and the thrusts, the backs and the forths are, for the brave men and women national press corps, nothing more than mere daguerreotypes. We are mere feet away from an unobstructed panoramic view of the nine gladiators, but the ushers won’t let the scorps out of their cage. But who can blame them?

Paroxysms of excitement emanate from the floor of the Fox Theatre. They must be the people of Detroit that we keep reading about in our press packets. With a rush and a push, the debate has begun and the wind is sucked out of the media center as the chattering class stops chattering. This quiet does not endure past Sharpton’s first response, apparently some sort of lecture on agricultural genetics. The hoots end and the hisses ensue when Sen. John Kerry challenges Sen. Joe Lieberman’s national security street cred.

Kerry is the creepy uncle of the Democratic field. He tells inappropriate jokes at inopportune moments. The men and women of the national press corps greet each of his attempts at humor with groans. But they really get going each time Sen. John Edwards mentions his childhood growing up in the South as “the son of a millworker.” Edwards continues to commit the gravest of the seven deadly sins: He is boring. He will receive no mercy from the journalists of the national press corps for the duration of this campaign.

The debate ends in anticlimax and the journos flee their encampment on the third floor of the Fox for “spin alley,” where the debate staffers have erected large signs bearing the name of each of the nine candidates. The journalists mill about waiting for the candidates to show. Both Kerry and Clark never show, but the others make an obligatory appearance to give rote answers to the rote questions they have already fielded innumerable times since the start of the campaign.

You can gauge the pulse of the press corps by examining which candidate they swarm. Crowds of journalists radiate around Howard Dean of Vermont the instant he emerges from the recesses of the theatre. The swarm grows exponentially and the locus of reporters surronding Dean begins to coalesce into the circles surronding the other candidates. Within moments, the horde surronding Dean is so thick that only those in his immediate vicinity can hear his raspy voice. Yet, they stand and stare at the frontrunner. He oozes the confidence of a man who has repeatedly defied the wisdom of the media wizards of the national press corps. Remember last year when the conventional wisdom held that no presidential aspirant was supposed to oppose the war? But he is now a media darling. Controversial, unorthodox, blunt and impassioned, he makes for a great story.

Peskowitz can be reached at zpeskowi@umich.edu.

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