The photographer grabs my arm. He has slept badly and too little. He was kept awake by bedbugs at the overpriced but run-down hotel on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Now he is hot. There is no moving forward nor backward. Bullnecked bodyguards in sunglasses are in front of every entrance to the big hall. «No.» That’s what they all say. No, nobody will get in there now.
«Listen,» says Stefan, the photographer stuck behind me; unable to take a single picture because he is surrounded by people he doesn’t want to photograph. He is holding my arm. «Let’s not ever do this again.» I look over my shoulder. «No, never again.» Journalistic work is impossible when bodyguards block the access to the events you are supposed to cover.
On stage at that moment is US President Barack Obama (54). Nothing must go wrong. The bodyguards know that. We need to go up to the stands.
The electoral campaign is raging in America, and it is like a military campaign – for the candidates as well as for the many reporters who chase them.
More than 15,000 journalists cram themselves into Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Arena, along with the same number of delegates, politicians and helpers – and said bodyguards. It is late July and the Democrats are holding their National Convention here to nominate, to the sound of lush rock music and showered with balloons and confetti, Hillary Clinton (68) as their first female candidate for the highest office in the land.
A week before, in Cleveland, Ohio, the Republicans had chosen New York tycoon Donald Trump (70) to be their candidate – also to rock music, balloons and confetti, and with almost as many people attending.
These are the two loudest moments of a very loud and very expensive brouhaha that repeats itself every four years: the presidential electoral campaign of the United States of America. The Democrats and Republicans each spend a billion dollars on the campaign.
It begins with speculation about possible candidates. They, in turn, announce their candidacies, some more ostentatiously, some more scantily. They raise funds for the primaries, and they throw in the towel if their poll numbers are lousy or their pockets are empty. Eventually it boils down to two – and this year it is Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Trump.
The media keep tabs on these proceedings continuously from the beginning but never more intensely than during the conventions. The trek to this landmark is a long one for reporters, and it begins in January. The Blick Group’s video journalist, photographer and writer register in various places. The organizers assign them hotel rooms. Finally, each application is vetted by Secret Service officials, those federal officers who usually protect the President. Up until the week before the start of the first convention in Cleveland it remains uncertain whether the journalists will get accreditation. Then the decision comes in: approved. But they need to pick up their accreditations at a given time. Those who can’t make it lose their access.
The journalistic approach is clear: The three of us are on-site, covering what we see, hear and experience, getting as close as possible, for unfiltered reporting.
We are there to supply four Blick channels, which is not easy with a time lag of six hours between the scene of the events and Switzerland. Especially since at these conventions the really exciting stuff usually happens way past the editorial deadline – the absurd performance of Trump’s wife Melania (46), President Barack Obama’s eloquent eulogy for his own term in office, Bill Clinton (70) declaring his love to Hillary. And yet, our daily paper is supposed to be up-to-date, profound, surprising – and to stand out from a sea of news. Just like SonntagsBlick, which is supposed to brighten Sundays with features that are at least latently topical.
There is only one way to achieve this: by producing pretty much around the clock, listening to speeches in the evening and then writing about them. Stefan Falke takes pictures, Stephanie Seliner shoots videos. Every day begins early and ends long after midnight. In the mornings and the afternoons in Cleveland we meet bikers who want to protect Trump, gun nuts who want to throw Clinton in jail and protesters who demonize Trump. We hardly get any sleep, particularly since the bedbugs in Philadelphia bite.
We ask Republican delegates in Cleveland what they think about Trump and learn one thing: They care more about stopping Clinton than they do about putting Trump into the White House.
We interview female Democrats in Philadelphia about how much it matters to them to get a woman nominated for the first time – and we learn that the older women in particular are proud of it, but their younger counterparts don’t consider Hillary to be the right woman.
Perfect political shows
The conventions? They are perfect political shows. Presidents Clinton and Obama talk to the Democrats, a third, Jimmy Carter (91), checks in via video. The upbeat mood in the hall is palpable. The only places reserved for journalists are up on the stands. You need special authorization to get into the hall, which is valid for exactly one hour. If you don’t bring it back in time you lose all access to the hall.
It is worth the effort. In the hall you can meet and have a brief chat or an interview with the likes of Watergate whistleblower Carl Bernstein (72) and Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilders (52). Senator Carl Levin (82) tells you how he took down Switzerland’s banking secrecy.
All work and no play is bad for you, so we shoot a video comparing the Hillary and Trump fan merchandise, the caps and t-shirts, the posters, the mugs and the key rings. We find that Trump offers his fans a flashier and wider selection. The Democrats, on the other hand, dress more discreetly and stylishly. One juicy detail: Many Trump souvenirs are made in Asia and Latin America, even though Trump promises to bring jobs back from China and Mexico to the United States.
The Republicans spend four days in Cleveland blowing their own horn and treating themselves to lobsters and cigars. The city earns around 300 million dollars from the convention. Ten minutes down the road from the arena we find East Cleveland, one of the USA’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods, inhabited almost exclusively by blacks. The average annual income is 12,600 dollars. Houses are crumbling, cars are rusting away. A barber tells us that not a single penny the Republicans spend comes their way: a perfect story to illustrate what America is like outside the arena.
It is Thursday. We need another item for Sunday. An hour away from Cleveland lies Warren, the seat of the Ohio county with the highest share of Trump voters in the primaries. Four years ago Obama carried the election here – the perfect community for reporters to demonstrate why Trump is winning so many votes.
Late Night Snack
Thursday night in Philadelphia, or rather: early Friday morning. The last balloons are falling. Lush rock music is coming from the speakers. One last assessment on video, one last print item, and we begin the two-mile walk to our hotel. Our work is done and our appetites are up. We have scarcely found time to eat in the past fourteen days. Now it’s 3 a.m. and we are sitting at Checkers having burgers and fries. Pervaded by the smell of bad frying oil the diner looks like an Edward Hopper painting. Yes, it was great to work so intensely, pigging out on unadulterated politics. And then somebody says: «Maybe we’ll come back in four years. Maybe.»⎫