Behind the Scenes at the Second Presidential Debate

By Alissa Krinsky 

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The second presidential debate of the 2016 cycle is now one for the history books. (And, oh boy, what those history books will say!) TVNewser was on the campus of Washington University for about 13 hours Sunday taking the pulse of those who have been covering the 2016 race. Here’s a tick-tock of our day:

10:00 a.m. CT – TVNewser arrives on campus to pick up credentials. We get assigned seat P8 in the massive media filing center, which is adjacent to the spin room and near the actual debate hall, and most importantly, and not coincidentally, close to the food tent.

We go to check out the debate stage, but no photos are allowed in advance of the event.

11:15 We spot Bloomberg’s John Heilemann, on-the-scene for Showtime’s The Circus. He’s just made an appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation.

11:45 – Our first interview of the day is with John Dickerson, who’s just finished taping Face the Nation from Washington University’s law school library. Dickerson has just wrapped up his first year as the program’s host. He talks coverage, ratings, and the legacy of his predecessor Bob Schieffer.

“Bob had an amazing run, and so he handed over to me a show that was in great shape,” Dickerson said.  “And so the pressure is not so much in the ratings, but the pressure is to be true to what Bob did, to what CBS does, to what our viewers expect, to what I expect.

“It’s a lot worse if you have a show and you squander the trust and the opportunity to try and at least elevate or contribute to the process,” he said. “That’s a much bigger problem and bummer, than any ratings stuff.”


Dickerson says his approach to campaign 2016 coverage has been to focus “a lot on presidential attributes. Not just covering the horse race, but covering what it takes to be a president, how you behave as a president, what the skills are for the job. And then using that to try and figure out whether the people who are running for president have any of those skills.” Dickerson also took time to sit for a golf cart interview with Heilemann for The Circus.

12:15 p.m. – We head for lunch at the food tent sponsored by Anheuser-Busch. We spot FNC’s Shepard Smith and his team as well as the world-famous Clydesdales! When in St. Louis…



1:30 – We meet up with Fox News’s Bret Baier who tells us about covering campaign 2016, his thoughts on Roger Ailes, and his pride for colleague Chris Wallace on being tapped to moderate the final presidential debate Oct. 19. Here’s that interview.

3:00 – TVNewser bumps into NBC’s Chris Jansing, and CNN’s Jim Acosta on the way to settling in to P8 to start writing up stories.

5:00 – The spinning really gets started in the Spin Room. We chat with FNC’s Jennifer Griffin who is covering the Clinton campaign. ABC’s Jon Karl is also here. Back in the filing room, we talk with CNBC’s John Harwood who co-moderated a GOP primary debate last October. It was CNBC’s most-watched program ever.


6:00 – We catch up with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell right after her Nightly News live report. Although she’s covered conventions and campaigns since 1972, Mitchell says she still gets a kick out of being on the trail, despite the occasional frustration.

“Sometimes, as in this year, it seems as though we get sidetracked with a lot of issues from the campaigns and the candidates that have nothing to do with what it takes to actually serve in the office,” Mitchell told us.

In addition to her reporting for NBC, Mitchell anchors MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports. “I think it’s been an evolution over the last few years,” she said about the changes at the cable network. “It’s very important to me.”

The reconfigured lineup includes the return of a nightly slot for colleague Brian Williams. “It’s a great way to end the day, at least at 11 o’clock Eastern. I find that I have to watch it every day,” she said.

7:00 – More newser sightings including Sean Hannity, Major Garrett and Tucker Carlson.


8:00 – At long last, the second debate begins. The biggest reaction from the thousands of assembled journalists in the media filing center comes right a the start, when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump do not shake hands after introductions from moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz.

9:30 – After the debate, hordes of journos flock to the Spin Room, jostling for position. While Trump does not appear as he did after the first debate, he sends a few surrogates to greet the press in his place, including Bill Clinton accuser Paula Jones. Shouts of “PAULA!” fill the room in pursuit when she leaves after only a few minutes of speaking with reporters.


Among those making appearances as well are DNC Chair Donna Brazile, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Trump surrogates Rudy Giuliani and Omorosa Manigault, and Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway.


11:00 – We leave the still-spinning room, which includes CNN and MSNBC with their own make-shift news sets, as the cable networks continue coverage into the night.



(Photos: Alissa Krinsky)