White House Credentials Four Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented Magnet School Students-Journalists For The Seventh Time in Six Years.
I’ve been asked a lot over the past week why I would subject students to the level of hate, vitriol, ignorance and more associated with President Trump's visit(s) to Minnesota.
I think it is a rather easy - and yet complicated - answer. When the White House credentials our students, it provides for a unique set of opportunities to better understand the process of civic engagement, be witness to thousands of primary sources in the making through the lens of first hand accounts, and ultimately become creators a primary sources that could be used to view the historic set of events in the years to come. We also have an opportunity to tell history through the perspective of a group that often times has their voices minimized and or discarded, simply because of their age.
History is messy and complicated, and far more complex than the short soundbites we often receive, or the several paragraphs in a textbook that often sum up entire movements or time periods. Furthermore, history is often told from a singular, and sometimes/often times slanted, perspective.
When my students have this sort of an opportunity, it opens up doors in windows for advanced inquiry that is unmatched and unparalleled in a regular classroom setting. With all that said, our purpose/ goal has multiple objectives.
First, we were there to document history. While everything is simply a snapshot in time, we wanted to pursue several different aspects of the entire event in order to create several snapshots and be able to tell more of the story. Again, we know we won’t be able to cover everything when we go, but the foundation starts to become more solid when we are there and see the fluid and dynamic aspects that have already been put in place and continue to change in real time.
We discussed the logistical aspects of the event. From the planning aspect of the city of Minneapolis, to the implementation of security procedures, we were able to see how/why a city prepares for such an event that will have a major impact on how the city may be viewed and how a city continues to function despite such disruptions.
COVER & UNDERSTAND THE PROTESTS
Second, we wanted to cover several aspects of the protests. Our students were able to witness, photograph and document various viewpoints within what is perceived to be "one common voice". What they noticed was that there are multiple reasons for protest, even though the target of the most of the protesting is/was focused on the same common catalyst - this time, President Trump and a little towards Republicans in general, or Mich McConnell
We encountered protesters that were simply waiting for a camera, (still/video/ &/or audio) to be around before they would change how they were portraying their view. Some stayed silently holding signs or simply holding hands as a show of solidarity. Many protestors had talking points, but found it very difficult to expand on those views with details or "evidence" as to what their opposition had actual done in the past, or what part of law had been violated by the President Trump or Republicans. Others could pinpoint federal policy with precision. We noticed numerous people that were not there to support or protest the President. Rather, many came just to see what this whole thing was about, and as I heard a couple people say “We just want to be hear when the (expletive) erupts!”
At one point, one of my students had suggested that they were shocked at the demeanor of many of the protesters. She referenced their profanity, and inability to have a civil discussion/debate with those who were objecting to their viewpoints. She said, "I expect more from the Democrats. We're supposed to be better than that."
This was the perfect opportunity to showcase that not everybody at the protest, or even inside the rally, share all the same common goals for why they are there. In fact, there are multiple reasons that each person has for wanting to be out there. Some simply want to be heard, while others simply want to make as large of a scene as possible. Some are trying to showcase support for those whose voices feel, or are, minimized.
Again, our role is to try to capture a more complete picture from a multitude of snapshots as opposed to a singular snapshot from a series of fluid events.
UNDERSTAND THE ROLE OF MEDIA IN A FREE SOCIETY
Our third objective is to better understand the role of the free press in our society.
After observing the protests for more than an hour - the main protests would be later in the afternoon an immediately following the President’s speech - we received our official media credentials from the White House, and entered the Target Center. The first thing my students noticed, besides a heavy Secret Service presence, was the media risers already completely filled with camera and audio equipment. I brought them inside the media pen and up on the risers so they could better understand what the vantage point was for most members of the media. Then, we went in to the media filing room where most radio and print journalist would be station throughout the evening. This would be considered our home base for the rest of the afternoon, as it was a place that provided us with tables, power to charge our equipment, a place to rest, relax and reflect, etc. There were also more than two dozen televisions which would feature the live stream of the event - This was not our typical experience compared to other events, but seeing as the media filing room this time was in the Lexus Courtside Club, a fancy “high rollers” area during Timberwolves games, the posh space was already equipped with televisions.
We met with numerous local and national journalist, to understand what their objectives were while covering this event. We briefly spoke with John Croman from Kare 11, Dave Orrick from the Pioneer Press, Pat Kessler from WCCO, a photographer for the wire service and several other journalists to learn what their personal objectives were for the day, and what their actual assignments where from their editors. The most eye opening aspect, for my students, was the deadlines journalists needed to adhere to.
Our students learned that sometimes, journalist will have to prewrite portions their story in order to fully meet their deadline. For example, when Amy Klobuchar announced her presidential bid back in February, her campaign provided staff with an embargoed copy of her speech the night before. This allowed reporters to start to write the story, and change it if things went in a different direction throughout the event.
Rachel Scott, a journalist with ABC, talked to our students about her team (I believe about 7-9 in total) and what their goals were. Some were responsible for gathering audio and crowd reactions while others were transferring stories & clips back to their office to go live on their website and via social media. Scott would interview people before and after the event and do taped (and possibly live… I’m not sure this time) shots from the media area.
Minnesota Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan spent about 10 minutes with our student journalists and shared her perspective about what the President of the United States has been able to do for Minnesota. She talked about her own immigrant experience and suggested that the President would be the first Republican to win the state since Richard Nixon in 1972. They continued to ask questions about policy, how the President is and isn’t working with Democrats on key legislation and more.
We also interviewed MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, the newly named Honorary Chairman of the Minnesota Trump Campaign. Lindell described how the President’s economic policies have helped his business flourish, but struggled to answer any policy related questions our students asked, including his thoughts about the renaming of Bde Maka Ska (formerly Lake Calhoun), water rights, impeachment and several other questions.
We also had a nearly 15 minute exclusive interview with the Trump Campaign National Press Secretary, Kayleigh McEnany. Our student-journalists spent the first half of the interview asking her what inspired her to get into politics, how she balances work and family life (her husband is in the Baltimore Orioles organization), if she plans on taking time off from the campaign when her baby arrives (she is 8 ½ months pregnant) and how difficult the job can be at times and what impacted her to be the person she is right now. During the second half of the interview, our students focused on policy related questions, ranging from the clean water act, especially in regards to Northern Minnesota, paid family leave, what are the biggest challenges the campaign faces, how she feels about the protesters outside, what her take was/is on the whistleblowers, why they chose Minnesota to focus on at this stage of his presidency, and of course, impeachment.
When asked why she decided to take this much time out of her day to meet with our student-journalists when she could be courting the national media, she described how she was intrigued by journalism and politics around the age of 14 and how she had her first internship at the age of 16. She described how when she heard that their wee students who were interested in this, she decided that she needed to make it a priority to give us time.
UNDERSTANDING TRUMP SUPPORTERS
Our fourth objective was to understand why Trump supporters came to the rally. Unlike the last arena the President visited in Minnesota (Rochester, MN October 4, 2018), the crowds of rally attendees did not line up for blocks outside on the street. Rather, they were directed into a couple of different skyway systems. I was told by one police officer that it was to “minimize the risk of a potential flareup.” This made it a little more difficult to ask President Trump supporters what their thoughts were before the event. Rather, we interviewed dozens of supporters inside the arena. Besides asking common questions about where they were from, how long they had to drive to get there, how long they were standing in line, etc., our students asked them to share why they support the President, what policies they held dear, their thoughts on impeachment and more. Like many of the protesters outside, we found that some people were more willing to talk than others. Some had in depth personal reasons and could share life experiences which they felt helped solidify their views. Others struggled to give any depth to their answers, including facts or evidence for the comments they were making.
LISTENING TO THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES
The fifth major goal that we had is to listen to the President of the United States as he addresses the crowd of supporters, not only in the arena, but on live streams through various media applications.
It’s not all that often that regular citizens are within 70 feet of the President of the United States, so understandably, there is going to be a rush of excitement and energy from the crowd when the President comes on. While this was no different from what we experienced four times with President Obama, the atmosphere was more electric at the Target Center, simply because of the size of the arena. Nearly 20,000 people were packed into the space and the vibe took on a concert like atmosphere prior to the President’s arrival, with music blaring for more than an hour.
What’s also more rare is that fact that the Vice President of the United States was there and took the stage with the President for a few minutes. Outside of the final weeks of a campaign, at the National Conventions or key events in Washington D.C., this sort of joint appearance doesn’t happen much, regardless of which party.
During the speech, our students were focused on what other journalists in the media pit were doing, looking for, photographing, videoing and writing about the reactions they saw from supporters in the crowd, and of course, writing down quotes and other highlights from the President’s speech. We would talk about that aspect towards the end of the evening when we had a little more time to debrief.
While we were as prepared as we could be about the President’s rally style speeches an the reactions we would see/hear from the crowd, there were still elements that took our student off guard. They were amazed(?) shocked(?) curious(?) about how certain crowd reactions or comments could take the President off message for several minutes at a time, or how his comments would send the crowd into a frenzy.
The President himself mentioned several times that he was off script and how the media and the crowd loves when he gets off script. My students noticed - and were corroborated by other members of the media before, during and after the event - that it became very difficult to follow aspects of the 1 hour and 48 minute speech, because the President would bounce around from topic to topic and often times build no context before switching topics so suddenly.
About an hour and fifteen minutes into his speech, we decided to leave the main arena media pit and head back into the media filing room so we could listen to the speech, while relaxing in comfortable chairs. This would also allow us to debrief and watch print and radio journalists, along with several national and international photographers, writing stories, updating social media accounts and websites, and edit photos.
Just as we were leaving the arena though, the President started to talk about Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar. We stepped back into the area to listen to the crowd become more intense and enraged - possibly the loudest of the night. We watched in the very front row, no more than 10 feet in front of us, a woman who started to shout out against the President and in support of Representative Omar. The crowd would cant “USA! USA!” as she was being escorted out.
We continued back to the media filing room - only about 20 yards away under the stadium - and listened to the final 20 minutes of the speech. From there, we could also watch Minneapolis Police, who had a staging area no more than 10 feet from our tables. We watched as they donned riot gear, complete with tear gas canisters, pepper spray, 3 foot batons, and what appeared to be an elaborate fanny pack style system of pouches with zip ties, glow sticks and other materials. We would watch small waves of police entering and exiting from a secure door that led them out to the front lines of the protests.
As we discussed numerous times our pre-meetings in email and person, throughout our 11 hours of observing, - and will continue to discuss in our subsequent discussions that will continue to occur long after this event - we talked about how the presence of media, social media, and increased security measures could potentially escalate any number of situations. We pondered what the scene(s) could potentially look like if there was not a heavy police and security presence, what the could mean for us - as members of the media -, the protesters and the rally attendees, not to mention the businesses in the neighboring blocks.
There was not solid place to put this before, so this sounds like the perfect time - Prior to receiving our official credentials, we stopped in at the Loon Cafe and talke to the manager about what they were expecting, preparing for, etc. It was fascinating to learn what discussions her establishment was having, days in advance, about how long to stay open, if they would need to close early, how they could protect their employees, patrons, etc. She described how they had been in contact with Minneapolis Police prior to Thursday to address their potential concerns and to better understand what the Police would do to protect their establishment while also trying to keep peace outside on the streets.
Again, this was one of those fascinating discussions that my students would navigate throughout the day and would have to internalize. It challenged them to think on the spot about all of the possibilities that could result from just a few hours of one day.
AFTERMATH - HOW DO YOU INTERNALIZE?
Every event that my students cover, whether it is a Presidential visit from President Trump or President Obama, being credentialed by the NFL for their Super Bowl Opening Night or NFL Women’s Summit, to WeDay, covering Secretary Clinton’s address to the NEA, a presidential campaign stop by Senator Marco Rubio, or a Presidential bid announcement from Senator Amy Klobuchar, we make time to debrief and reflect immediately following the event, withing the next several days and from time to time after that.
This time was a little different though, because we had MPR’s Elizabeth Shockman shadowing us throughout our entire 11 hour journey. Her goal was to produce a segment on how our student-journalists viewed the events. Some of the typical debriefing that we would do after an event took place throughout the day with the questions Shockman was asking. This was the perfect opportunity for our students to formulate their thoughts and provide them with a way to express what they were feeling.
Trump (the student, not the President) also lead a discussion in his social studies class Friday afternoon about what he observed throughout the day. As we showcased several of the tweets from showcasing what he was doing in Minneapolis at the protest, behind the scenes and with the media, his classmates started asking him questions about the experience. This was amazing, because now it truly did become a student centered activity that showcased student voice. What more could a teacher ask for?
In addition to that, Jennifer Austin from Kare 11 reached out to us Friday morning and asked if they could interview our students about their experiences. Again, this was another incredible opportunity, not only for those four students to reflect on their own opportunity, but also to showcase whatour Capitol Hill students and capable of. I have little doubt this, and the previous experiences of our nearly 45 student journalists, will help open the door for more opportunity for our students moving forward. As I’ve stated to the parents involved, their children some and heard some very interesting things and they will be replaying certain aspects of those things for days if not weeks to come. Being aware of that and continuing to ask their children questions will help them to process.
SO WHY DO I DO IT AGAIN?
When we were credentialed last October to cover Air Force One’s landing, which resulted in our meeting of President Trump, I stated “Regardless of your views on the current administration, or the state of politics in general in our country, Eve, Emma, Pria and Quinn were able to experience something that very few people have an opportunity to do, let alone middle school students - they met the President of the United States of America while gaining first hand experience of the importance of journalism.” I could not agree more this time around, even if the nature of his visit has turned more complicated than it was in the past. In fact, I think that is what makes it more important for us to cover this event and learn from it.
We were given a unique opportunity to try to capture a more complete picture of a complicated story in our nation’s history. Rather than accept a singular snapshot of the event told by someone else, we seized the opportunity and were able to build and preserve of multitude of snapshots to showcase complex perspectives of this dynamic and historic series of events that continues to unfold in front of us and shape our country. I would be a fool to not push for that opportunity for my students.