Early on Wednesday morning, I received an email about a Town Hall that CNN was hosting later that night at Columbus Circle. As a student in the Sports Management Master’s Program here at Columbia, “the value of showing up” is an idea that is emphasized and one part of our role to accomplish. As I read the email and realized the opportunity to see a live national broadcast up close doesn’t come up every day, I immediately responded to reserve my spot in the audience.
During my undergraduate studies at the University of Florida, I majored in Telecommunication. The chance to see one of the largest cable news outlets produce a live show was not something possible in Gainesville, but here in New York it became a reality. I was excited to see how Anderson Cooper prepared, how their cameras coordinated shots with each other, and how the staff organizes so many moving features of a town-hall setting live production.
As we walked into the studio, I heard what I assumed was a recording of Anderson Cooper speaking. As it turned out, I looked up to see the real Anderson Cooper speaking on a platform along with three other CNN personalities. Seeing him and the other on-air talent was a thrill. Then, we were given a few minutes to mingle in the studio and take pictures.
About ten minutes to showtime, we all took our seats. We were then briefed on the do’s and don’t of being a live studio audience. After a few minutes of anticipation, the Town Hall began. CNN did a great job of creating a flow, starting off with Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins. As a remote guest, Jenkins helped set the tone of the event, making strong points about his experience and where he stands on the issue of kneeling during the national anthem.
The special then moved swiftly. Anderson Cooper navigated the different opinions of film director Spike Lee, former NFL Super Bowl Champion Hines Ward, Army Green Beret Nate Boyer, and former Jets player Michael Faulkner. Faulkner and Lee disagreed throughout the night, with Boyer acting as the mediator for much of their time on air. Boyer impressively straddled the line between supporting military veterans, while also making very clear that he supports the NFL’s players right to protest. Ward tied in his experience of being an NFL player with an obligation to support one’s teammates during difficult times.
The first portion of the special ended with the panel sharing their thoughts. The second portion included several questions from audience members. These audience members included military personnel and family members of NFL players. I found this part of the night to be especially moving. The parents of Louis Bonacasa, a staff sergeant killed in Afghanistan, spoke about their view that the protests are a sign of disrespect to their son’s sacrifice. Brandon Rumbaugh, a Marine who lost both his legs in Afghanistan, voiced his support for the NFL player’s right to protest. Whether they spoke in favor of or against the protests, their presence and stories were impactful and brought a more personal tone to the issue being discussed.
The final segment featured an interview with Seattle Seahawks players Michael Bennett and Doug Baldwin. Both spoke eloquently, but Baldwin stole the show. Over the span of just two minutes, Baldwin specifically addressed points made by the panel well before he came on air. Baldwin then specifically brought up two points that he wanted to see become reality in the near future:
1) More resources for police officers to learn better de-escalation tactics
2) Funding more education programs like D.A.R.E for public schools
Baldwin was specific, direct, and efficient in getting his points across. His words rang the loudest of all spoken during the town hall.
Overall, the experience was eye-opening. On the professional side, I got a glimpse into how CNN goes about being one of the titans of cable news networks. All of the behind-the-scenes coordination and gritty details helped me better understand this side of the media industry. The town hall itself, however, made an emotional impact. I saw first-hand how this issue affects so many different people and families. I saw both sides of the argument make points that were hard to argue with. It was a night that I appreciate having the opportunity to attend, and further illustrates that “just showing up” may be the best way to have an incredible experience.