News nets dig in to cover RNC, storm

Republicans truncate convention opening while journos split attention

TAMPA, Fla. — Tropical Storm Isaac forced the networks to retool their plans for coverage of the Republican National Convention, but inside the sprawling air-conditioned convention complex that is base camp for thousands of journalists the kind of theater typical of such media-saturated events was already taking shape on Monday.

Anticipating Isaac’s arrival, Fox News on Sunday dispatched Shepard Smith to do his nightly show from New Orleans. Smith opened his Fox News show on Monday with images of strong winds and hurricane preparations, as he talked of the storm situation getting more serious than originally thought, and even posited a “worst-case scenario” for New Orleans.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Soledad O’Brien headed to New Orleans on Monday, altering original plans to be among the star talent in Tampa. The broadcast networks were mobilizing coverage in the Big Easy as well.

Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief and senior vice president, said the cable network was monitoring the situation with its meteorologists to determine how coverage will play out over the next few days.

“We have a convention to cover and we will cover it,” Feist said. “We will cover both stories.”

Feist held out the prospect that Cooper and O’Brien could return to Tampa if the storm story turns out not to be significant.

That is to a large extent what happened in 2008, when the first day of the Republican convention (held in St. Paul, Minnesota) was canceled out of respect for the residents of the Gulf Coast facing Hurricane Gustav. But the weather turned out to be not as great a disaster as had been feared.

Nevertheless, convention planners face the prospect of having images of a revelatory convention floor juxtaposed with video of major news talent reporting on hurricane-force winds.

“We expect not to change” the schedule, said Russ Schriefer, a senior advisor to Mitt Romney’s campaign, adding that convention organizers planned to proceed with a lineup on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday but were watching the weather for any developments that might force a change in plans.

Monday’s convention events were brief — RNC chairman Reince Priebus gaveled the proceedings to order and almost immediately recessed — but the delegates on the floor were in a celebratory mood. They erupted in cheers as a short film ran with the voice of Mitt Romney saying, “We love America. We believe in America.”

Planners over the weekend had canceled most of the first day of the convention when it looked like the tropical storm was headed toward Florida’s west coast, but it turned out that the day was marked by bursts of sunlight at some points and fierce winds and short downpours at others. Refuge was sought between venues in air-conditioned, tented walkways, set up not for storms but to cope with humidity.

The media saturation in the early going felt more like a soaking, as reporters tracked down any recognizable figure for interviews on an otherwise scant day for convention news.

A half-dozen reporters surrounded Jon Voight as he headed for a Sirius XM interview along radio row, the avenue of dozens of talkshow hosts that is a convention version of the red carpet. As handlers tried to pull Voight away from the throng for the pressing radio interview, Voight talked of helping out Mitt Romney. He talked about the fallout from the era of Vietnam War protests. And he talked about the media’s responsibilities.

“Let me just say this: If you are on the left and you are going to try to get something from me you are going to twist, it is not smart,” he said to one reporter, although he was speaking to all. “It is not smart to lie, you know. It is the poison that has taken us down. Don’t do it.”

He added, “Think of the country, think about what your parents have told you about being upstanding, about being of character. Go that way, don’t go this other way. It’s very dangerous.”

Finally, he got in a plug.

“And go see ‘2016,’?” he said, referring to the anti-Obama documentary that was an unexpected box office hit over the weekend. (Producer Gerald Molen and the film’s co-directors, Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan, are due here Tuesday for a series of screenings at film festival called the Troublemaker Fest.)

One of the few political figures here who had positive things to say about President Obama, perhaps, was Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who walked the halls to do a series of TV appearances countering the rhetoric expected throughout the week. (“Is that Rubio?” said one passerby, watching as Villaraigosa talked to a Spanish-language outlet. “No…” said the man with him, who apparently still wasn’t sure who Villaraigosa was.)

Protests returned to the convention, but they were far removed from the venues and even from the security perimeter.

A couple dozen twentysomethings gathered on one street, chanting, “We are the proletariat!” and carrying a banner that read “Dump both parties of Wall Street.” Other demonstrators held up banners supporting Ron Paul.

But by far the biggest presence was that of the police — in riot gear, squad cars and on horseback — surrounding the protesters. The maze of security is so extensive, in fact, that many businesses in downtown Tampa have closed for the week, bringing an eerie quiet to any spot away from the convention.

Also silenced, at least for Monday, was Donald Trump. “The Celebrity Apprentice” host had cryptically promised a big “surprise” at the convention, although the plans were dropped because of the suspension of activities ahead of the storm. Trump told reporters on Sunday when he went to Sarasota to accept the local Republican party’s Citizenship Award that he was headed back to New York.

As is often the case with Trump, that may not be the end of it.

On a conference call with reporters, Romney adviser Schriefer was asked about Trump’s plans.

“Just because he’s not here doesn’t mean he’s not going to be showing up,” Schriefer said.