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Dispatches from the DNC: An Unconventional Summer


In July, 45 Tufts students experienced the Democratic National Convention up close: not on the TV screen or on a newspaper page, but in person. Four worked on the Associated Pressí print coverage of the convention. Six spent May and June at NBC Studios in New York City, traveled to Boston in July to cover the Democratic convention, and then went back to New York in August to report on the Republican convention. Another 15 served as NBC runners in July, and 10 others interned with the Democratic National Committee, helping to build the convention that the other students, with their various media organizations, were observing.

All of the students were under the tutelage of either University College of Citizenship and Public Service Lecturer Roberta Oster Sachs (who supervised the FOX and Democratic National Committee interns and taught them a four - session course entitled: "Civic Engagement and Internships at the Democratic Convention") or ExCollege Associate Director Susan Eisenhauer (who supervised the Associated Press and NBC interns). And all were behind the scenes as the convention unfolded, looking on from the inside out at an event that over 35,000 politicians, delegates, foreign dignitaries and media members attended.

Lananh Nyugen, Larry Mahl, Jennifer duBois, Greg Hawley, and Ana Meghalchi are five of those 45 interns, and these are their stories.


Larry Mahl The fireworks have barely faded from the Fourth of July sky, but the Democratic National Convention - which will take place in Boston from July 26 - 29 - is already in the forefront of Larry Mahlís mind. In fact, heís been focused on the convention since May 19, when he traveled to New York City to begin his summer - long internship with NBC News.

"Iíve been in New York City since the Monday after finals," says the Tufts senior, a history major, on July 11. "From about a month ago, weíve been working in tandem with NBCís political unit and nightly news producers to put together a huge DNC research guide with bios of everyone at the convention. Itíll be given to the producers and the anchors. Weíre bouncing ideas for it off of [the political unit and the nightly news producers] - theyíve given us a lot of responsibility, which I didnít think weíd get, to be honest."

Mahlís journey from the classroom to the control room testifies to his ability to handle responsibility well. Heís the producer of "Jumbo Love Match," a popular dating show on Tuftsí student - run TV network, and last spring he was a teaching assistant in the ExCollege class "Producing TV Programs for Social Change," in which students film their own documentaries on social issues.

Roberta Oster Sachs (the veteran television producer who teaches the class) brought the NBC internship to Mahlís attention. Oster Sachsí class also reinvigorated his enthusiasm for TV journalism.

"The class was the major catalyst in terms of where I am now and where I want to go," says Mahl, who grew up in New York. "I was really in the dark about a lot of social issues, and the class exposed them to me. Todayís TV journalism often blurs the line between entertainment and news, so the class was sort of bringing it back to the roots of journalism - the interest was already there, and she just kind of sparked it."

In the weeks leading up to the DNC, Mahl - in addition to serving as the point person for the DNC media guide - is working with the NBC News Specials unit. "Itís the breaking news and planning department; anything that occurs when thereís not regular news programming on," he says. "Those special reports - thatís us. Breaking news is like Ďimproví news. Itís a combination of preparation and just doing the right thing as it happens. It really is exciting because a lot of the things weíre reporting on are constantly evolving."

With the start of the convention, Mahlís responsibilities evolved as well. "During the convention, I was primarily with the political unit - the authors of the weblog First Read," Mahl says the week after the convention. "Itís on every morning on MSNBC.com; itís basically political analysis of the previous day and the days to come. They start writing it at six in the morning, and then the rest of us all come in at about seven. Then in the afternoon, Iíd do research for them."

Mahl also worked in the field. "I went on a shoot with one of the producers from the political unit," he says. "We were shooting b - roll for an opening segment of Nightly News, and the camera crew was stuck in traffic."

Once the crew arrived and filmed the b - roll, Mahl ran the tape to a nearby NBC satellite truck instead of the Boston NBC affiliate. ("Too far - it was a really big time crunch!" Mahl says.) The truck started feeding the tape to NBC Studios in New York. "We had sent it at 6:15, and they needed it ready for 6:35," Mahl says. But all of his running around paid off: "It was really touch and go as to whether it would make it on the air, but it did," he says.

Mahl also got to spend time on the floor. "Iíd get in really early, so Iíd finish up a little earlier than everyone else too. So, for the last three nights, I was on the floor. It was incredible: when the balloons dropped, you had to catch your breath."

But even when in the midst of the craziness, Mahl didnít abandon his journalistic ambitions. "I was out there for myself as a journalist, not having a mindset that I was just watching," he says. "I would try and go talk to people. As a journalist, I could go up to anybody, say, ĎIím with NBC News - what are you feeling right now? How are you doing? Is this what you expected it to be?í"

Mahl felt comfortable doing so - even when the people he interviewed were household names. "It sort of brought everything down to earth - the intimidation and nervousness wasnít there any more," he says. "I got that out of my system when I was in New York. It gave me the confidence to go up to these political hotshots and not feel any hesitation and ask them a question or two. I felt like I had a right to be there."

Slightly tougher for Mahl was maintaining a sense of journalistic removal from the events surrounding him. " Everyone was so enthusiastic; it was really contagious, which is difficult when youíre a journalist," he says. "You wanna clap, you wanna cheer when someone makes an unbelievable speech. Itís interesting; itís definitely a great lesson in journalism, to separate yourself from the situation."

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Jennifer duBoisShe may be new to television journalism, but Tufts junior and NBC runner Jennifer duBois is no first - timer when it comes to the inner workings of campaigns - including that of a certain Massachusetts senator and presidential nominee.

"I worked for John Kerryís Senate reelection bid back in my freshman year," says duBois, who is double - majoring in philosophy and political science. "Before the DNC, I hadnít been specifically interested in television news, so the primary attraction was the politics stuff. Iím a big politics nerd!"

Itís mid - July, about two weeks before the convention starts. Fresh from a six - week Tufts summer session in Talloires, duBois has just started working as a runner with NBC, and so far, sheís been exercising her actual muscles rather than her political ones.

"Itís been a lot of moving things around - manual labor, basically," laughs the Northampton, Mass. native. "Right now, itís just setting up, but I really like the other runners, and the producers who are in charge are really interesting. Plus, itís exciting to set up Katie Couricís desk!"

Once the convention begins, duBois estimates that her responsibilities will shift. "What weíre doing - thereís 65 of us runners involved - could be anything from actually being in the control room to running back and forth between the trailers, fetching people coffee."

Ideally, the "political nerd" - who also worked on Shannon OíBrienís 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign - would like access to the FleetCenter floor to observe speakersí mechanics, maneuvers and nuances on an up close and personal level.

"I donít know if Iíll be able to see any of the actual convention and get into the building because security concerns are very tight, but that would be amazing," she says. "I would freak out if I got to actually see Bill Clinton speak, or John Kerry, or anybody. Fingers crossed!"

Flash forward to the conventionís completion: duBoisí fingers are safely - and successfully - uncrossed.

"I was surprised by the runners' access to the convention - I got to see way more of it than I'd expected," she says. "Three out of the four nights, I was on the floor. Getting to hear Bill Clinton speak on the first night of the convention was insane - there was so much energy in the building, and people were acting like it was a rock concert or something. It was great."

When she wasnít on the floor, duBois was stationed in the "Specials" trailer in the NBC compound in the parking lot behind the FleetCenter. "I did whatever errands the news desk people needed done, usually running credentials out to NBC people who needed to get into the Fleet," she says.

duBoisí hours were well - suited to her political interest - she worked each day from 4 p.m. through midnight, the same time period during which the speeches were going on - but other runners had to wake up quite a bit earlier.

"Some of them were getting up at 4 a.m. to work on the ĎToday Showí," she says. "We all had different experiences - some were in the anchor booths in the FleetCenter all the time, and others worked in the control room in the compound and never went into the FleetCenter."

One thing nearly all the NBC runners had in common was age. "All the other runners were young people," she says, "except for one older woman who worked in the dispatch trailer: she was 65 and retired, and doing this for fun."

"Being an NBC runner gave me new insight into the relationship between the media and politics," duBois adds. "Some of the media people seemed to regard the political people as sort of silly. It was funny to go back and forth between the FleetCenter, where everyone was waving flags and freaking out with sincerity, and the trailers, where the producers were making fun of the speeches."

Silly or not, sheíd still rather be one of "the political people" than one of "the media people" - "It re - energized my interest in politics, but I'm not sure that journalism is really my calling," she says of her experience. But the work duBois did behind the scenes with NBC did give her a new appreciation for the profession.

"The whole process is a lot more complicated than I'd realized," she says. "I was impressed by the producersí capacity to respond quickly to the changing plans of the politicians they were covering.

"Getting a crew to the right place on short notice isn't always easy, especially when you're dealing with such heightened security," adds duBois (a statement with which Mahl would definitely agree). "It's something I never thought about when watching TV."

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Lananh NyugenEven before beginning her internship with the Associated Press, Lananh Nyugen knew she wanted to be a print journalist.

"Once, I tried a TV internship, and I didnít really like it," says Nyugen, who graduated from Tufts in May after majoring in political science and minoring in communications and media studies. "It was interesting, and very exciting and glamorous, but also a little bit too dramatic for me. Iím still keeping that door open, but most likely Iíll go into print journalism. I think itís a little more thoughtful, a little better - researched and more comprehensive."

Though she was fairly certain of her career goal, itís still nice to have confirmation - and thatís just what Nyugen got from working with the AP at the DNC.

"This experience gave me more resolve to pursue journalism as a career," says Nyugen, who grew up in Cupertino, California. "[It] gave me a boost of professional confidence - I thrive on the fast pace of the news environment, and this experience was confirmation of that fact."

Especially during the first part of her internship - when she was stationed at the APís Boston bureau, a 25 - minute walk away from the excitement of the FleetCenter - Nyugen says she "truly lost [her] illusions about the glamour of journalism."

"Iím helping with the odds and ends and the logistical stuff before the drama really starts," she says in mid - July, a week into her internship. "Itís been what I expected in terms of a lot of random tasks and chores. Itís kind of just office work right now; it hasnít picked up, and I know it will."

Nyugen was right: within the next few days, she began working at the AP newsroom in the temporary, two - story press pavilion adjoining the FleetCenter. There, she had the chance to meet, mingle with and learn from the media elite.

"It was a privilege to work among the best journalists in the country," Nyugen says. "I met Pulitzer Prize winners, [saw] prominent television journalists casually walking in the street - Peter Jennings and Wolf Blitzer - and even met some entertainers, like Janeane Garofalo. Journalists are supposed to be unfazed by this kind of thing, but was still a thrill for me!"

Nyugen also found it thrilling - and professionally valuable - to gain insight into the APís structure and culture.

"I expected the work to be gritty, and it was. I expected the workplace to be male - dominated, and it was," she says. "Most importantly, I expected to gain a lot of knowledge about journalism in general and the AP in particular, and I do feel like I was able to get information from insiders."

Being stationed in the AP newsroom bolstered Nyugenís understanding of the relationships between journalists and their sources.

"I was able to follow political events and understand how journalists could build sources informally prior to the big event and then take advantage of them in important situations," she says.

She was also fascinated by the newsroomís power dynamic. "Some journalists were monsters and wouldn't address me by name when they ordered me around," she says. "Others were absolutely wonderful. They treated me as an equal and encouraged me to be confident and assert myself."

Nyugen is taking the latter reportersí advice: the recent graduate traveled to Britain this fall to take a journalism certification course. ("I like traveling and I like international journalism," says Nyugen. "If thereís a career in that for me, Iíd like to pursue it.")

But national - and even regional - journalism isnít out of the question, either. "Iíd love to cover the next DNC as a print reporter for a local or regional paper," Nyugen says.

And now, armed with "a much better understanding of both the formal and informal workings of a news organization," sheís ready.

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Greg HawleyTwenty - year - old Greg Hawley has racked up enough frequent flier miles to rival those of many diplomats, let alone most college juniors.

"My father is American, my mother is French. I was born in London and then moved around, spending two years in Argentina, a few months in Angola, seven years in London and nine years in Italy," the well - traveled political science major says.

As a result of his cross - cultural upbringing, Hawley speaks enough languages - English, French, Italian and some Spanish - to give even John Kerry's famously multilingual wife a run for her money. But in the coming weeks, the language in which Hawley will most need fluency is that of politics.

It's the Sunday before he'll begin his internship with the Democratic National Committee's finance division, and though Hawley's no political neophyte, working at the convention will be a new experience for him.

"Since Iíve come to America, Iíve gotten involved in politics, but less with parties, more with interest groups," says Hawley, who'll be spending the upcoming year studying political science and international history at the London School of Economics.

Though he's slightly disappointed in his internship placement ("If I had a choice, I wouldnít have gone with the finance department - I'm not a money person, I've focused more on policy - but I know finance is a critical part of any convention"), Hawley is still "excited to work with anyone in the DNC."

"Considering how much I enjoy, how much I learn, it might influence what I decide to do after I graduate, what kind of political science I go into, whether I go to law school or directly into politics," he adds. "I'm very interested in the politics of Europe because Iíve lived there all my life, but now, because of the DNC, there's a possibility of leaning towards American politics."

The week after the convention ends, that possibility has become a reality. "Working at the convention inspired me to run for office myself," says Hawley, who decided to spend the rest of the summer working on Gashanís campaign for the Massachusetts State Senate. "It's not a 'maybe' any more; it's something I will definitely do."

As an intern with Meredith DeWitt, the New England Finance Director for the DNC, Hawley - who describes his overall experience as "amazing" - says his job was "basically babysitting the bigtime party donors." His responsibilities included staffing a registration desk, organizing events and transportation and matching donors with the proper credentials. He also staffed events, "collecting tickets, working as a doorman and working the troubleshooting desk to make special arrangements for VIPs and important donors who forgot their tickets."

"[Sometimes], my work didn't seem related to the political convictions that had motivated me to apply for the internship in the first place," Hawley says. "Much of the time, I could have been working for the Republican National Convention, or any kind of non - political gathering, and I wouldnít have been able to tell the difference. But I reminded myself that the work I was doing did have value, even if it was grunt work."

It wasn't all "grunt work" for Hawley, though. "Using my volunteer badge, I managed on Monday and Tuesday to get on the floor of the FleetCenter, and being there was just amazing," he says. "In 2008, I'd love to be a delegate, because they're actually a part of the process. I was inspired by their energy and enthusiasm."

Experiencing the convention first - hand gave the policy - minded Hawley a new appreciation for politicking. "I've given up on viewing conventions as places for debate or discussion of party policy; it was pure campaigning," he says of the event. "But I understand that the focus is on unseating the opponent, and publicly airing the arguing could weaken the party."

In the wake of his convention internship, Hawley - now in the midst of Gashanís grass roots campaign - has plunged into politics on a local rather than national level.

"I'm more interested in being in a higher position within a smaller campaign - having a direct effect on policy; seeing results quicker," he says. "At the Convention, you're proud to be a part of it, but you're not having any direct effect on policy - I met people who had been in politics for 20 years and were still doing lower - level work."

He also, however, met "very interesting and successful people" like former U.S. Ambassador to Portugal and New York congressional candidate Janine Selendy - who offered him an internship in her campaign.

Hawley hopes he'll one day be offering internships to individuals interested in campaigning for him. But his devotion to politics on a smaller, local scale doesn't mean he'll shy away from a certain large national event in 2008. Far from it, in fact: "I'd love to be at every Democratic National Convention," he grins. "I'm hooked; I'm addicted for life."

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Ana Meghalchi When FOX News intern Anaheta Meghalchi was a sophomore in high school, her life was a beach - literally. "I lived in the Bahamas for a year in high school and went to school there," says the Boston-born Tufts sophomore, a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen who grew up in Newton, Mass. "I was part of a program that was run by a scientist and an ex-Navy SEAL who got a grant to open up a school and do research on expanding the fish population - fishing is the main source of income there - that would be presented to the government."

Itís the day before her internship with FOX is set to begin, and the very busy Meghalchi - whoís also taking economics and Farsi classes over the summer - is still dealing with things aquatic: sheís just come from her job, teaching swimming lessons.

Political waters of the sort sheíll be diving into the following day, though, are as yet uncharted for Metgalchi. "Thatís my only close tie to [politics]," Meghalchi says of her year in the Bahamas. "But doing science research and presenting it to these Bahamian government officials - itís a completely different world."

That world - the one of national American politics - is one Metgalchi became interested in upon arriving at Tufts. "I came to school thinking maybe some kind of science, maybe pre-med, but I started taking more political science classes, and now Iím leaning more towards international relations," she says. "So right now, Iím undecided. I want to deal with other cultures, whether that be in business or in politics. Iím still trying to figure it out."

Meghalchi views her approaching internship as an ideal way to do just that. "I think itís the perfect opportunity to see how local versus national politics go," she says. "Iím familiar with the way things work in Newton and the city of Boston - of course, I donít know exactly what an alderman does, but I know heís there! - but now, what better experience than to be at a national convention?"

The week following her internship, Meghalchi has her answer: Virtually none. "It was amazing - probably the best experience Iíve ever had," she says of working at the convention. "I ended up being a runner, meeting guests either within the premises or outside the gates, and walking them in, getting them all ready through makeup and whatever they needed, and then getting them to the studio. Iíd sit in on a lot of shows and then get them out of there - to their cars, and wherever they needed to go. As far as starting intern positions, itís one of the most fun things I can think of."

Case in point: "On Wednesday, I met one of my favorite politicians - Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson, a Tufts graduate," Meghalchi says. "Afterwards, I was talking to his assistant and said, ĎYou know, I met Ben Affleck yesterday, and meeting Governor Richardson is so much more important to me. Heís done some amazing things for the state of New Mexico. I hope one day to see him one day running for a higher position."

The assistantís response? "ĎYou know, it means a lot to him to hear that from a young person. Heís gonna be at the Wang Center for the [John] Edwards party tonight.í Then," says Megalchi, still sounding dazzled, "Richardson wrote me a note on the back of his business card that said, ĎGovernor Richardson invites Ana to come to this event,í and I went!"

The party - at which the Clintons and John Edwards spoke, John Mellencamp performed, and Meghalchi "got handed cards for jobs for different volunteer organizations left and right" - was "crazy," but like many of her fellow interns, Meghalchiís favorite moments from the convention were those spent on the floor.

"Never ever in my wildest dreams did I think it would be that much of a relaxed atmosphere," she says. "The entire population of that venue was so diverse - from people wearing torn jeans and a T-shirt to an Armani suit to a three-year-old kid. And there were so many young people between the ages of 20 and 25."

Metgalchi, a self-described "fairly liberal person," went into her FOX internship hoping to get a first-hand view of the networkís political leanings.

"There were a lot more conservatives on the staff than there were liberals," she says. "And I think people kind of caught on that I was more liberal, because during the speeches I would turn off my walkie talkie, because I really wanted to listen. But it was definitely great to see things from the other side."

In addition to providing her with access to politicians and insight into FOXís political coverage, Metgalchiís internship - like Hawleyís - cemented her interest in politics. "Now, I think I really do want to be in politics somehow," she says.

But unlike Hawley, whose convention experience pushed him toward local politics, Meghalchi is more interested in politics on a national - and even global - level. "I donít think I want to be in local politics - I think itís very messy," she says. "Iím also unsure if I want to live in this country when Iím older - all my familyís in Europe, and I love traveling. But I am gonna take more classes that relate to what Iíve learned at the DNC, because what I learned was very very interesting. The dynamic of how politicians interact with each other and interact with the media is something I never understood until I experienced it firsthand."

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In early August, Larry Mahl is back in New York City, preparing for the Republican National Convention.

"I think the RNCís going to be a completely different story - I think weíre going to see deep contrast, and itís going to be interesting to be able to compare the two in hindsight after the RNCís done," Mahl says.

Mahl is looking forward as well as looking backward. "At the DNC, the president of NBC News, [Tufts graduate] Neil Shapiro, gave a really inspirational talk to the runners and the interns about how he came to be president of NBC news," he says. "He gave some really great advice for prospective jounalists and people interested in the news in general. It was nice to have that connection: someone from your school whoís made it that far and gives you hope that you can replicate some of that success."

Itís safe to say that one day Mahl would like to be playing Shapiroís role at a future convention. ("If I were so fortunate, Iíd love to," he says.) His personal ambitions, however, are rooted in a larger context.

"As a history major, you really see that youíre playing a role in history," Mahl says. "Theyíre writing history in the control room; theyíre shaping what Americans will take away from events like this. It really makes me want a career in journalism at this level."

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Patrice Taddonio, Class of 2006

Patrice Taddonio, a native of Holland, Pennsylvania, is an English major and a communications and media studies minor. Currently the Tufts Daily's head features editor, she interned with the Improper Bostonian magazine during her sophomore year, and worked as a temporary text editor with the Associated Press at this July's Democratic National Convention. A member of the Class of 2006 and a songwriter, Taddonio has also performed on guitar and vocals at on-campus venues and at Boston-area benefits.

This story originally ran on Oct. 25, 2004