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Inside the Convention ‘Circus’ With Bloomberg’s Halperin and Heilemann

With 15,000 credentialed media members looking for a story, a political convention is a frenetic mob scene. Journalists and their crews outnumbered delegates almost five to one last week at the Republican gathering, but in muggy Cleveland the result wasn’t clarity — it was more like a fog.

Prominent among the media masses were John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Bloomberg Politics’ managing editors, hosts of “With All Due Respect” and stars of Showtime’s political documentary series “The Circus.”

“For four days, we all come here and do theater criticism, and it’s based on our instincts, our sense of things, our fingertip feel, our history of watching these things,” Heilemann said. “It is not based on anything that is, like, real. A week from now, there will be data, and we will know how successful the convention was.”

Not that anyone was waiting. As the week unfolded, there was one story after another of convention missteps and miscues, amplified by the avalanche of media outlets demanding coverage 24/7.

Heilemann and Halperin are best known for the best-selling book “Game Change,” their account of the 2008 presidential race, and its 2012 follow-up, “Double Down.” But this election cycle, they have stretched their duties across multiple platforms. “With All Due Respect” airs on Bloomberg TV and MSNBC, and “The Circus,” a docuseries that frames the race as an ongoing narrative and also stars political consultant Mark McKinnon, is weekly on Showtime. They are also regulars on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

“For four days, we all come here and do theater criticism, and it’s based on our instincts, our sense of things, our fingertip feel, our history of watching these things. It is not based on anything that is, like, real.”
John Heilemann

Early on July 20, halfway through the Republican convention, Heilemann was booked for an appearance on “CBS This Morning.” It was only when he got to the set on the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena that he discovered who would be appearing with him: Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s campaign chairman.

Afterward, Heilemann got Manafort to do an interview for “The Circus,” asking him about the first two nights of the convention and whether the Trump campaign had managed to reach undecided voters.

“You are trying to define the convention before it is over,” Manafort responded, sounding defensive, even irritated, as he seemed to use the word “you” to refer all media, not just Heilemann.

Politely, Heilemann queried him on the vetting of Melania Trump’s speech, portions of which were allegedly plagiarized from one Michelle Obama gave in 2008.

“She gave a speech from the heart,” Manafort said of Trump. “Those are her words, and all you are trying to do is tear her down.”

After Manafort left, Heilemann was pleased with the exchange and its dramatic potential for use in “The Circus.” “Three words,” he said. “Paul Manafort: defiant.”

Heilemann, who is perpetually animated, and Halperin, with a dry wit, are not alone in pursuing a convention strategy that mixes reporting, media exposure, and branding. But the episodic nature of “The Circus” demands that they also establish a compelling, overarching story at the end— no small feat for an event that is massively over-covered.

A case in point: At one point during the week, authorities complained that the presence of the media was making it difficult to tamp down on some of the disturbances, as when a ring of photographers swarmed demonstrator burning an American flag in front of a key security checkpoint. Cleveland Police even had their own camera unit to post their own videos on Twitter.

“Conventions are kind of a nightmare,” Heilemann said. “They are always grueling. But this one is more grueling than usual because we are doing so much stuff.”

The challenge is to create content that stands out from everyone else’s.

Bloomberg Politics is a partner on “The Circus,” so there is a certain fusion of resources, and each show is kept apprised of what the other is up to at daily meetings. At the July 20 meeting for “With All Due Respect,” Halperin mentions the possibility of landing a post-convention interview with Trump on his private jet back to New York from Cleveland. By week’s end, it happens.

Showtime president David Nevins said that in ordering “The Circus,” he wanted to see a show that “took advantage of the techniques we used for ‘Inside Sports’ documentaries.”

“I was skeptical that we would end up getting access and being sufficiently differentiated from all the different ways news divisions are covering the election,” he admitted. But Heilemann and Halperin “delivered on both fronts.”

Nevins added that the two “have this Zelig-like quality to be in the right place at the right time. It is not luck. It is great reporting.”

Earlier this month, when it was apparent that Trump was about to select a running mate, Halperin staked out the home of the leading contender, Mike Pence, with the crew of “The Circus” in tow.

His timing was fortuitous, as the cameras caught the eventual arrival of Trump’s motorcade and his entrance to the Pence home.

Later in the morning on July 20, Halperin and Heilemann are on a break on the set of “Morning Joe,” having occasional conversations while perpetually checking their email.
“The one thing about the conventions is, between the logistics and the volume of things that happens, there are storylines that on a normal day in a campaign would just bring a day to a halt, that there is just no time to deal with, because you are on to the next day and the next set of speakers,” Halperin says. “So the plagiarism one was enough to break through, but there were 15 other things that happened yesterday and the day before that everyone has just kind of moved on.”
Among them: The curious decision by Trump’s campaign, in the first two nights of the convention, to program speakers after the marquee name. On night one, Melania Trump came on before Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who ended up addressing an emptying auditorium.
Heilemann tells Halperin that he asked Manafort about it, but he’s still mystified.
“I listened to everything Paul said and I tried to parse it in English and it just didn’t make any sense to me,” Heilemann says. “I could not understand what he was saying — it was making no sense. There was no argument.”
As the day went on, though, the story of the poor timing faded away as attention turned to continued discord in the party.
Joe Straus, the Texas Speaker of the House, seeks them out on the “Morning Joe” set to say hello. Before long, Straus reveals that he’s not even staying until the end of the convention, but going back before Trump delivers his acceptance speech.
It seems intriguing to Halperin that Straus, who backed Jeb Bush in the primaries, would even bother to trek to Cleveland given that he could have just skipped it altogether, as a number of Trump’s rivals did. Not only are there questions about party unity, but the defiance is out in the open.

Joe Scarborough, host of “Morning Joe,” compares the teaming of Halperin and Heilemann to the early days of “Monday Night Football” — a balance of personalities that leaves an impression.

“Mark Halperin is Frank Gifford, and then you got John Heilemann — I don’t know whether you say Dandy Don Meredith or Howard Cosell,” he says “But he provides the color, as well as a lot of really good reporting. They complement each other very well.”

“With All Due Respect” competes in a crowded landscape, particularly in an election year. Justin Smith, the CEO of Bloomberg Media, believes that it distinguishes itself because “it is fact based, with real fresh reporting from that day. It is not just opinions and hot air, but smart insights gleaned from that day.”

The return of founder Michael Bloomberg to the company in late 2014 led to a reorientation to its core financial and business news, leading to some question of what happens after the election.

“There are so many stories about everything, up, down, left, right,” Smith says. “Our consistent response to those is, ‘Politics is a really important business story.’”

On the set of “With All Due Respect,” Halperin and Heilemann were speaking with Trump campaign surrogate Kellyanne Conway. Rumors were flying that Ted Cruz would endorse Trump during his speech that evening. Halperin asked Conway about it off camera, and Heilemann introduced her by saying she had a “surprise” announcement, hoping to prod her to say something about an endorsement. But she didn’t. Heilemann seems certain Conway knew something was up. “She confirmed it with her eyes,” he said afterward.

Hours later, Cruz gave a speech in which he refused to endorse Trump, to a chorus of boos. In the fog of convention coverage, it was a moment many in the media weren’t expecting. But it was just what Heilemann, Halperin, and the rest needed: great drama.

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