Clippings: Presidential visit exciting, dismaying

Prior to March 30, the closest I had been as a journalist to anything presidential was Howard Dean’s campaign kickoff in Burlington in June 2003. So, when an email from President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign offered press credentials to cover the president’s appearance at UVM’s Gutterson Field House last Friday, I took a shot. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to cover the first visit to Vermont by a sitting president in 17 years.
“Not all requests will be honored, as there is high demand to cover this event,” the email warned, so I was pretty excited when my request was approved. I offered to cover it and take photos for all of the papers my publisher Angelo Lynn and his brother Emerson own, including my paper, The Reporter in Brandon, this paper, the St. Albans Messenger, Essex Reporter, Colchester Sun and Mountain Times.
I received an email saying that all members of the media would be able to park in the lot at Burlington’s waterfront and three shuttles would take us to Gutterson for the 2:30 p.m. event, the last shuttle leaving at 12:30 p.m.
I arrived at the parking area in time for the first shuttle at 11:30 a.m. I am always early, I get it from my mother. I was impressed that parking was so easy and direct. I even wrote in my notebook, “Democracy at work! Take the ‘free press’ and put them on a bus and take them to the event.” Turns out being early in this case made a very long afternoon even longer and my concept of a “free press” was irrevocably changed.
A busload of working journalists, me included, arrived at the back entrance to the field house and stood in line to show identification. We were each handed red and white paper identification badges that read “White House Press Corps” on them. I will treasure mine for the rest of my life.
We were then directed to a large recreation room. We were told to stay there, that we were not allowed to leave except to use the portable toilet outside the entrance, and then only with a volunteer escort.
It was noon and I was kicking myself that I did not bring my laptop computer from work.
Journalists and photographers from all over New England were arriving and they were all directed to this “holding area” for reporters. Everyone from VPR and the Burlington Free Press to the Associated Press and Harvard Gazette, we were all there, roughly 50 journalists, aimlessly wandering around a rec room featuring a high bank of windows we couldn’t see out of and a wall of yoga balls. There was no coffee, no water, no nothing but some folding chairs and a few tables. Everyone was looking into their smart phones and iPads, killing time. Pretty glamorous, huh?
At about 1:15 p.m., White House press aide Stephanie Temaat came in and asked us to gather around. She proceeded to tell us that we would be held in that room until roughly 10 minutes before the president’s remarks, at which time we would be escorted into the field house to the risers set up for members of the media. After the president’s speech, we would be escorted off the risers and join the masses exiting the facility. We would not be allowed to cover the pre-show, the performance by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals or remarks by Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, Gov. Shumlin or speeches by anyone other than the president. If we wanted to talk to people in the audience, we could do so after the event as we were leaving the field house, but not before. Then we would go back to the room, collect our things and head to the shuttle, which would take us back to the parking area at the waterfront.
When she finished, there was palpable feeling among us of dissatisfaction. It is an American journalist’s instinct to report on whatever we think is newsworthy. We are used to moving freely and trying to talk to whomever we feel will help us get the facts and tell an honest, accurate story. It’s our inalienable right under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. There, in UVM’s Gutterson Field House, we had no control over who we could talk to and what we could cover, and I was chafing against the restriction.
Then it occurred to me that to thoroughly and accurately cover President Obama’s visit to UVM, I should have bought a $100 ticket weeks ago. I could have seen everything, heard everything and reported on everything that happened in that field house on Friday afternoon. It was ironic, that I received special permission to cover the event as a member of the press, and had less access than a member of the general public.
And it was so frustrating.
But in the end, when the president came on stage to the roar of 4,500 strong, the first 20 photos I took were blurry because my hands were shaking. It was thrilling. It was really the president, right there, and the same camera I’ve used to photograph smiling babies and the local farmers’ market and a championship high school soccer team, I was using to photograph the president of the United States, or as they say, POTUS.
It was a great speech and an unforgettable experience, and I will carefully set aside my White House Press Corps ID and my confirmation email and my photos for posterity. But the experience has also given me pause to reflection on the true meaning of a “free” press.
Lee Kahrs is the editor of The Reporter in Brandon.

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