This week's Democratic National Convention in the US got me thinking about a funny thing that happened to me 20 years ago while I was a young correspondent attending the 2000 DNC in Los Angeles. Well, it seems funny now from a distance of 20 years. Let me explain…
The event is one of the key pillars of every US Presidential election; the moment the party, and delegates of each state, officially nominates its candidate. The Democrat and Republican conventions are incredible spectacles; three days of delegates, party officials and thousands of US and international media.
Outside gather all sorts of crackpots and protesters (that year there was even a protest gig by the Nine Inch Nails) and on the final night there is the absolute theatre and drama of the nomination itself – with ticker tape, music and primetime speeches for coast-to-coast audiences.
For a young journalist, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to have this ringside seat to history. In 2000, Democrats were gathering to witness farewell to President Bill Clinton and to see Al Gore accept his party’s nomination.
That’s why I feel for all those journalists who have been deprived of the experience to attend DNC 2020 – watching an online presentation is obviously no substitute for being there.
Anyway, Gore was up against George W. Bush and it seemed likely that Gore, with eight years as Clinton’s Veep behind him, would beat a Republican regarded as inexperienced and somewhat gaffe-prone.
I flew into LA from London and made my way, firstly to my hotel. Now, as most reporters know, budgets for hotel rooms are not vast and so, with a bit of resourcefulness, I found a room in a city of skyrocketing convention week rates. It wasn’t the Ritz but at $160 a night x 4 nights, it was still a substantial outlay for my newspaper – Scotland on Sunday (which incidentally was then owned by the Ritz owners, the Barclay brothers!)
As I worked for a Sunday newspaper, Monday was a day when I could relax and leave my computer in the hotel. All I had to do was to get to the Staples Center and collect my credentials – which had to be applied for months in advance. I took a seat in the arena to get my bearings and find my designated press seat for the rest of the week.
Day One of the DNC was something of a non-event with the Democrat equivalent of county councillors taking to the podium before mostly empty seats. As I watched, a woman sat down beside me and introduced herself as Ann O’Neill, a reporter for the media page of the Los Angeles Times.
“Would you mind speaking to me about why you are here and who you are working for?” she said. “Sure,” I said. “Happy to.”
“What’s the biggest story in Scotland right now? How do people in your country react to the US election?”
So far, so good. I explained that, yes, I worked for a Scottish newspaper but that I was IRISH.
She continued. “What do you think of Gore? Do people know anything about George Dubya? What does the UK public think about US politics?
“Why do you not have a laptop with you?” she asked me.
“Left it at the hotel. It’s only Monday and I work for a Sunday paper, so I’m not working today,” I said. Around 15 minutes of further chit chat passed and then she said: “Thanks very much.”
That was that.
And then came Thursday.
The first clue was the open copy of the LA Times on my desk in the Foreign Press Centre and a pile of $1 bills. “There’s a collection for you,” laughed Joe Carroll the veteran Irish Times Washington Correspondent.
“Are you swimming back to Scotland?” joked another colleague, Stephen Khan of the Glasgow Herald. Fuck! The piece couldn’t have been worse. In the parlance of Fleet Street, I’d been stitched up. Done up like a kipper. Shafted.
“For the Scots, the Democrats Rank Right Up There with Dolly” was the headline on an absolutely massive half-page media piece in the LA Times – and it was all about me.
The first mistake in a piece riddled with errors and stereotypes came in the very first word. She had spelled my name Cairan.
“Cairan Byrne just might be the only journalist covering the Democratic National Convention who doesn’t have a cellular phone or a laptop computer at his fingertips. He sits in the nosebleed seats of the press stands–Section 118, Row 8–specially reserved for reporters from the foreign publications.”
(I was actually less than 30 metres to the side of the main stage and had a fab view, as my Boots Single-Use Disposable Camera photos show)
On and on went the article, cliché after cliché, stereotype upon stereotype. A reader might have been forgiven for thinking I had rowed a Currach all the way to America.
“Here in Los Angeles, Byrne has been working outside of the official loop of the convention press pack. He made his own reservations, scored his own credentials. That he’s even here is a story in itself,“ the piece said.
‘That he’s even here is a story in itself?’ WTF?
It got worse. “From here, he can’t really see the speakers, and even the television monitors meant to bring the action up close and personal seem miles away. When he goes back to his hotel room in a downscale section of Los Angeles, the amenities are even fewer. No laundry service, no restaurant, no room service and worst of all, no bar. All this for $160 a night, Byrne groused.”
‘Worst of all, no bar’. FFS.
And seriously, who ‘grouses?’ FFFS.
Even poor old Dolly the Sheep became a target. While Scottish scientists at the Roslin Institute may have been making global headlines for their work on DNA, the reporter seemed completely flummoxed.
She ‘reported’: “Byrne, 28, is the foreign editor of Scotland on Sunday, the national newspaper of, well, Scotland. You know, home of bagpipes, men in plaid skirts and Dolly, the cloned sheep.”
“The top story in the most recent edition of Scotland on Sunday dealt with Dolly. Her cloners are abandoning their attempts to do the same with pigs. Pigs, it seems, carry too many diseases to be of any use to humans as medical spare parts.”
The pisstake – and mistakes – kept coming. Despite an entire chat about me being Irish, and she being an ‘O’Neill’, the reporter wrote this: “Interviewing a Scotsman in a loud, crowded place is not easy…..”
After getting over the shock of becoming the reluctant star of the Foreign Press Centre, I actually did manage to laugh it off soak up the US election convention experience.
Despite my encounter with the LA Times , the week remains a career highlight. I saw Edward Kennedy speak, I watched Bill Clinton bid farewell to the booming strains of ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ and listened intently as Al Gore accepted the nomination. In November, I was back in the US to see the prize slip from the Dem’s grasp and the rest is history.
As for my own LA Times Gore-ing, I’d largely forgotten about it until I Googled it last week (remembering to search under Cairan!). And here it is in all its, er, glory…