The Digital Journalist
A Letter from Central America: SOTU VS SOTS
January 2005

by James Colburn

Oh, the differences between Washington and Central America. It's calmer here in Nebraska. A bit more relaxed. The blood pressure goes down and the commute's easier. Instead of spending an hour-plus traveling 12 miles, you can travel 51 miles in 51 minutes. Door to door.

A case in point. There's the State Of The Union (SOTU) address given in Washington, D.C., every year by the President of the United States before a joint session of Congress. Security is tight. Tighter than (fill in the blank with your preferred euphemism). Credentials must be applied for in advance, space is limited and they have a system of "rotating passes' that will allow a photographer into the gallery of the House of Representatives for, say, 10 minutes at a time so that said photographer can try to push through the crowd of onlookers and guests to get a clean shot (oops, photo) of the president making his annual speech to the nation.

If you're lucky enough to be assigned by one of the wire services, newspapers or magazines, you might qualify for a fixed position in the gallery at which you actually get to sit down for the whole shebang and be (almost) sure of getting a decent picture. Once the speech is over you have to remain in the House until the Prez has left the building and then you and a few hundred other people slowly shuffle out and try to get your photos transmitted.

Due to security concerns you really have to show up for the 9:00 p.m. speech at ... oh ... 6:00 p.m. ... If you've got one of the groovy fixed positions, you can dump your gear and go off to try and find a meal. If you're a "rover," you'll have to stand in line for 2-3 hours, or more, to get a chance at an okay spot with a good angle. Once your 10 minutes are up you have to go to another vantage point, stand in line again, and hope for another chance at an okay spot with a good angle.

Compare this with Nebraska's State Of The State speech by the governor. For one thing it's held at the sensible hour of 10:00 a.m. Early birds can show up at 9:00 a.m. and head on over to the governor's office. The governor greets you, as does his communications director and other members of his staff. The escort committee arrives to walk the governor over to give his speech. If you want, you can photograph him walking over to the legislature's chamber and, damn near, follow him into the hall. You then split right (or left) and take a position on the floor of the chamber. You're pretty free to go where you want as long as you don't get in anyone's way. You take your pictures, many pictures perhaps. Go here, go there, try for a different angle, have some fun. Once the speech is over you can either transmit your photos from the hall or head on upstairs to the governor's reception rooms for the reception, the receiving line and the news conference.

Then there are the horror stories I've been hearing about the Presidential Inauguration...

© James Colburn
Contributing Writer