On Tuesday, Nov. 19, former President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush spoke to a select group of USC faculty, trustees, donors and students in Bovard Auditorium.
Those lucky enough to receive an invitation and RSVP in time were admitted to Bovard under specific instructions: no backpacks or large bags — security also requested that laptops be checked — and no heavy coats. In addition, no filming, photography, recording or posting on social media would be allowed. After initially being told that they’d receive press passes, the Daily Trojan, Neon Tommy and Annenberg Television News were informed by e-mail that the event would be closed to all media.
Before the event began, audience members were asked to turn off all electronics. Students sitting in the orchestra section said if security saw members of the audience take one picture they would get a warning, and after a second offense, they would be asked to leave.
This isn’t the first time former, future or potential presidents have tried to keep the media out of their events. In the 2008 presidential election, reporter Mayhill Fowler attended a San Francisco fundraiser for President Barack Obama that was closed to the media. Fowler, who was a member of the Huffington Post’s “Off the Bus” band of citizen journalists and was invited to the fundraiser because she was also an Obama donor, later blogged about the event. The coverage became infamous because of a comment Obama made that “bitter” Pennsylvanians were turning to guns and religion, according to the Daily Beast. The scandal soon became known as “Bittergate.”
Four years later, Republicans made the same mistake. During a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser for Mitt Romney that was closed to the media, a bartender stealthily videotaped the event and leaked footage to the press, according to the Huffington Post. The controversy this time was over Romney’s comment about how 47 percent of Americans feel entitled to services such as health care, food and housing, but pay no income tax.
The Daily Trojan, Neon Tommy and ATVN all covered the event. Similar to how Fowler attended the Obama event as a donor, but covered it as a journalist, students attended through invitations extended to them as scholars or members of clubs, but wrote about it as journalists. ATVN even diverged from their usual broadcast-heavy online presence to do a longer print article because they were not allowed to film the event.
Bush appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno the same day he spoke in Bovard. His discussion with Leno, however, covered less political and controversial topics than his appearance at USC. So, was he willing to say some of the things he did at USC because he didn’t believe they would receive media attention?
If that was Bush’s calculation, it was an ill-advised one. In an era in which being a “journalist” has become less of a career and more of a hobby for many, there is no way to guarantee that any event will truly be private.
Even though most students were respectful of the social media ban in place during the event, as soon as it was over, attendees began tweeting and posting statuses and pictures on Facebook, often including exact quotes they had taken note of during the discussion.
In a country where fifth graders owning smartphones is a common sight, where Wi-Fi is as ubiquitous as cell service and an average of 500 million tweets are sent per day, events being closed to the media has become an antiquated and obsolete idea.
Bush was president of the United States for eight years. Perhaps more than anyone, he should know that people are always watching. In an auditorium that seats 1,235, it was simply ludicrous for Bush or the Washington Speakers’ Bureau, the company that organized the event, to believe that the event would ever remain truly off the record.
Isabella Sayyah is a sophomore majoring in print and digital journalism and international relations. She is also the news editor of the Daily Trojan.
Follow Isabella on Twitter @isabellasayyah