A Black Man and a Brown Woman Went to the Conventions (to Produce the Brian Lehrer Show)
Shumita Basu and Jorteh Senah here, your Brian Lehrer Show eyes-on-the-ground in Cleveland and Philadelphia during the conventions!
We were together at the Republican convention, then Shumita flew solo at the DNC. But our minds are still churning over what we saw, heard and experienced.
Here are a few of Shumita’s observations, after attending both:
The RNC bookers were not interested in working with us; many of the DNC bookers were public radio fans.
Here’s how it works at both conventions: all of the media outlets are set up in a section called “Media Row,” and bookers come around to tell you who’s available and organize their schedules. The RNC bookers were pointedly unconcerned with us Brian Lehrer producers, which left us to try to nab our own interviews as people were walking around. The DNC was refreshingly opposite; the team of bookers was more organized and even seemed to be advocating for us to snag great guests.
I felt depleted and anxious after the RNC. I felt depleted and not as anxious after the DNC.
I was emotionally exhausted after spending a week at the arena in Cleveland. As a child of two immigrants, I was horrified to hear speech after speech about the dangers of “illegals.” While I recognize that the DNC is (like the RNC) a very staged production, the emphasis on diversity and acceptance was felt every night, from Khizr Khan’s speech about his son, a fallen solider, to VP nominee Tim Kaine’s explanation of values: “fe, familia, y trabajo.”
I understand the importance of objectivity in my work, but there’s something about standing in a stadium full of people chanting “Build the wall!” and “Lock her up!” that begs for an emotional response. That’s what the conventions are about, after all — they’re meant to rile people up. My reminder to myself was to stick to facts and to tweet lots of pictures and videos, inviting others to stand in my shoes.
But I also kept this piece of advice close to my heart, from Latino USA’s Maria Hinojosa during WNYC’s Werk It Festival: “Own the fact that you’re making choices when you’re reporting about where you’re going to go, who you’re going to talk to, how you’re going to talk to them — because of your experience personally.”
I got hit on at the RNC while doing my job. That didn’t happen in Philly.
Listen, I won’t dwell on this point too much, but I think it warrants a mention. I was approached several times over the course of the RNC (while clearly acting as a producer at Media Row) and, well, hit on. Bad pick-up lines included: “You’re pretty,” and “You’re so professional!” No one marveled at how cute or competent I was at the DNC — and in my professional opinion, that’s the way it should be.
And here are Jorteh’s thoughts, after returning to New York from Cleveland:
As someone who spent my childhood in West Africa and Trinidad and all of my adult life in New York City, I had a skewed perception of America. I was obviously aware of the scope of the American experience, but New York City has always been my American experience. When I overheard, or in one instance was the target of, opinions I didn’t agree with during the Republican National Convention, I believed none of it affected me, because I’m a professional journalist impervious to “distractions.”
I wasn’t aware of the impact being at the RNC had on me until I returned to my neighborhood in Harlem. I had a very visceral reaction during my cab ride to my apartment, seeing diverse groups of people living together, even if it wasn’t always in perfect harmony.
Part of the reason I volunteered to go the Republican National Convention was because I wanted more insight into a demographic I had little interaction with and to experience conservatism up close. I’ve always approached my job as an opportunity to learn something new. Taking that approach helps check my biases, because it shifts my focus from expressing my opinions to seeking explanations. This sometimes involves presenting points which align with my opinions, but the intent is always to better understand someone’s point of view. This is never easy — I have biases like everyone else — and keeping those biases at bay is a skill you hone but never really perfect. My time at the RNC was a chance to work on that skill in one of the most challenging environments, and I believe I returned to New York City a better journalist because of my experiences in Cleveland.