• Tonight, Donald Trump and Joe Biden will face off for their first presidential debate ahead of Election Day 2020 in November.
  • Tonight’s presidential debate will be hosted by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, and topics will include everything from the coronavirus pandemic to the economy as well as “race and violence in our cities.”
  • The debate is set to begin tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern time.

As someone who’s covered multiple presidential debates in the past, allow me to share one of the biggest changes wrought by the coronavirus pandemic which won’t be visible during tonight’s first clash between President Trump and Joe Biden — but which will have an effect on the debate, nonetheless.

No more “Spin Alley.” What is that, and why does it matter? I’m glad you asked. My first encounter with the perennial president debate phenomenon known as Spin Alley was back in 2008, during the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain on the campus of the University of Mississippi, in Oxford.

Hundreds of reporters, myself included, were crowded into a cavernous, auditorium-like space that had been retrofitted with row after row of workstations. We all sat in front of our own individual monitors, watching a feed of the Obama-McCain debate that was finishing up elsewhere on campus. We were all pecking away on our respective laptops. As I recall, some 10 or 15 minutes before the debate officially wrapped, I saw some political heavyweights moving into position off to the side of the room. Reporters started to crowd former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Obama’s campaign manager, David Axelrod, had materialized, huddling with an aide. McCain was still finishing up his final answer for the debate, but reporters by and large had to started to check out and crowd a kind of roped-off area to the side. Camera lights came in. Tape recorders began to be extended in front of gaggles of reporters.


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Welcome to Spin Alley.

This is the debate post-game show, where everyone starts spinning even while the debate itself is still drawing to a close. The press releases from the respective campaigns start landing in reporters’ inboxes around this time, prepared with predictable framing. Tonight’s debate showed why our candidate deserves to be the next president of the United States (even while said candidate is potentially still finishing up his final answer of the debate) — you get the idea.

The coverage that comes out of Spin Alley is what dominates all of the post-debate commentary, and it’s something we of course won’t have this year since there’s no way to stand in a crowd of reporters and be simultaneously socially distant.

It remains to be seen, in fact, what impact the lack of in-person interaction will have on coverage of the debate as a whole. When I covered my first, in Oxford, I sat a few rows in front of New York Times opinion writer Maureen Dowd. Reporters from around the world were packed together, and I remember one tense encounter between an American and a foreign journalist arguing over adjusting the thermostat in the room.

Walking into the big media center, my hands full, I noticed former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw stride past me, so I struck up a brief conversation with him. Why not? Various campaign surrogates breezed through the media center intermittently throughout the day. I caught up with John Kerry lounging on a railing outside, held the door at one point for former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, shared a buffet line with Fox anchor Chris Wallace (who, incidentally, is the moderator for tonight’s debate), and almost got run over by former Fox newsman Carl Cameron, who apparently has trouble minding peoples’ personal space.

Everyone just lounging around, ready and willing to talk to reporters. Former Michigan Senator Carl Levin had no idea who I was, squinted at me, then started rambling about a bank bailout plan at the time and how stupid Republicans were.

Once ensconced in my appointed space in the media center for the debate, it became clear that I, and the other reporters, would be watching the night’s debate unfold just the same as everyone else at home: On a screen.

Speaking of screens, there are a ton of ways to watch tonight’s first match-up between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The debate will be simulcast across all the major cable news programs and TV networks. If you prefer the web, the major networks should all be streaming it on their sites. YouTube is another source, and networks like CBS, CSPAN, and ABC News have you covered there.

As far as tonight’s debate goes, there will be only a few dozen people in the audience — a mere fraction of past debate audience sizes. Moreover, everyone in the crowd at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland will have been tested for the coronavirus, and will be following safety protocols.

The debate is set to begin at 9 p.m. Eastern time, and it will run without any commercial interruptions for 90 minutes. According to the CNN, topics for tonight’s discussion include “The Trump and Biden Records,” “The Supreme Court,” “COVID-19,” “The Economy,” “Race and Violence in our Cities,” and “The Integrity of the Election.”

As the time draws closer for the debate to begin, it all certainly gets a little dramatic for the reporters covering the event.

Back in Oxford, for example, the late Jim Lehrer was the host for that first debate between Obama and McCain. A few minutes before 8 p.m., he came onstage.

All of our screens in the media center switched over to the live feed.

By way of some introductory remarks, Lehrer admonished audience members not to disturb the night’s proceedings. “It’s going to require my absolute concentration, and I don’t want to worry about anyone cheering and hollering behind me,” he warned. “This is not a competing pep rally. If I hear (anything), I’ll raise my hand. And that means hush.”

In describing the periods of open discussion between the candidates that would be sprinkled throughout the 90-minute debate, he said: “That’s when it’s going to get hairy for me and for everybody. This has to be a credible debate. It has to be fair, and it has to appear to be fair.”

Raising his voice, he added, “And NO cell phones. If you’ve got a cell phone, throw it away or turn it off.”

He then took his seat on stage with his back to the crowd. A few minutes passed. Then Lehrer intoned: “Thirty seconds … The next words you hear from me will be the real ones.”

Andy is a reporter in Memphis who also contributes to outlets like Fast Company and The Guardian. When he’s not writing about technology, he can be found hunched protectively over his burgeoning collection of vinyl, as well as nursing his Whovianism and bingeing on a variety of TV shows you probably don’t like.