How a National News Outlet Has Had to Keep Adapting for Milwaukee’s DNC

Is Milwaukee still getting attention from national media?

Before the coronavirus pandemic ruined Milwaukee’s moment in the international political spotlight, the Democratic National Convention had expected to attract as many as 20,000 media members.

Even a scaled down DNC still likely would have attracted a large media throng, but when it became known last week that Joe Biden wouldn’t be giving his speech in Milwaukee accepting the Democratic nomination in the race for president, and neither would his presumptive vice presidential running mate, the now nearly all virtual convention has lost much of its luster for the city.

Reporters and news anchors from around the world had big plans to deliver daily and nightly reports and political shows from Milwaukee. 

Fox News Channel’s chief political anchor Bret Baier had expected to co-anchor the network’s political coverage from Milwaukee along with Martha MacCallum.

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Fox News’ plans for covering the convention, like those of international, national and local news outlets, have been in flux for weeks, Baier said.

Martha and I were going to be there on the ground, and we were going to do as much as we could,” Baier said. 

Then came the announcement in late June that the DNC would primarily be a virtual event, forcing Fox News to reconsider how it would carry out its coverage in Milwaukee. 

“We were assuming that Joe Biden was still going to make his acceptance speech in Milwaukee, and we would still do our show from there,” Baier said. 

Those plans are in flux now that Biden plans to deliver his acceptance speech virtually from his home state of Delaware. As a result, Milwaukee is off the travel itinerary for Baier and MacCallum.

Fox News Channel announced Tuesday that its convention coverage will commence with a primetime special on Aug. 16 emanating from Washington, D.C., that will be helmed by Baier and MacCallum and offer a preview of the DNC in Milwaukee.  

But Fox News hasn’t totally given up on coming to Milwaukee for its DNC coverage. 

“I know we’re going to have a reporting team on the ground in Milwaukee for the formalities, but I don’t know what our entire plan will be,” he said. “For all the stuff about how it’s all going to look and feel different, the substance of it is still really important. It’s officially a launching point for the campaign and there are some meaty, important issues that we are dealing with that we’re going to be covering. It’s just going to be less about balloons falling and atmospherics.”

Milwaukee will be the site of the convention’s formalities even though the main speeches will be virtual and emanate out of a variety of locations across the United States, including Milwaukee.

Fox News crews have made several scouting and planning trips to Milwaukee in advance of the DNC. Most of the work from those trips has had to be scrapped due to the drastically changing nature of the convention.

“We’ve been going out there for months,” Baier said. “It’s really weeks and weeks of work that gets changed. Unfortunately, the virus has a vote and it has not worked out for us.”

Baier has traveled to Milwaukee several times over the past few years because of the city’s and state’s importance in national elections.

“Milwaukee is such a great place,” Baier said. “We did some election stuff there the last time and understood how important Wisconsin is in the election picture.”

Shifting gears this late in the convention process poses a significant challenge, he said.

“It’s a major, major lift,” Baier said. “We would have had anchor team and people in place in Milwaukee.”

Photo courtesy of FOX News

The network is also dealing with a similar challenge with the Republican National Convention. 

“We were going to Jacksonville, then we were going to Charlotte and now we are kind of up in the air,” Baier said. “Fortunately, we have an amazing team of engineers and camera people, and logistics folks who can make our train run. We’ve turned town halls around in a couple days, so we have a little experience doing things on short notice. It’s going to be interesting to see how each party tries to make it exciting in such a weird year.”

Although Milwaukee is experiencing a major disappointment after missing out on a full-fledged convention this year, Baier believes the city could be in the running for another convention or major political event again soon.

“I think Wisconsin is in a position to be a swing state for quite some time, so I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “It is well positioned in a purplish way to be really important for both parties, so it’s not over yet.”

But for this year, Milwaukee is essentially being left out of the big party-like atmosphere that normally comes with hosting a convention.

“What you are missing out on is the fanfare and the crazy hats and the excitement of the moment,” Baier said. “That will come back in a post-COVID world. I trust we will be back on track. I don’t think it’s the end of conventions. There is that storyline out there, but I don’t think that will happen.”

Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, Baier said he’s surprised that the key convention speeches won’t be delivered in Milwaukee.

“The Democrats have been much more cautious from the beginning and kept saying it was going to be more of a digital convention,” he said. “We expected it to be scaled back but when they cut the whole thing off and said Biden wasn’t accepting (in Milwaukee), that was a little bit surprising. But safety is premiere. You’ve got to take care of folks. In this weird time, it takes precedence over everything else.”

The Democratic National Convention Committee announced on Tuesday that members of the Wisconsin delegation will speak from the Wisconsin Center in Downtown Milwaukee, where the convention will gavel in and out each night. The Wisconsin Center will also be home to a custom virtual video control room that has been designed to take in hundreds of feeds from around the country. 

On Aug. 17, Congresswoman Gwen Moore will deliver remarks. The following night, Convention Co-Chair and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett will call the convention to order and Milwaukee native and Convention Secretary Jason Rae will direct the roll call vote across all 50 states and seven territories from the Wisconsin Center. Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes will lead the Wisconsin delegation in offering the state votes to nominate Vice President Joe Biden as the next president. On Aug. 19, Gov. Tony Evers will help kick off the third evening of programming. Sen. Tammy Baldwin will deliver remarks on Aug. 20, the final night of the convention.

The Democratic National Convention Committee also announced that a lineup of speakers from across the country will share their stories as part of the convention. Two Milwaukeeans are among those chosen to participate.

Luz Chaparro Hernandez, a mother, educator and member of the National Education Association, teaches a bilingual program for second- and third-grade students at a Milwaukee elementary school. She had to quickly adjust to continue teaching during the pandemic. 

The other is retired educator Julie Buckholt, who suffers from myasthenia gravis and is opposed to efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  

Baier said he will miss the traditional fanfare and other excitement that comes with covering conventions in the host cities.

“One of my favorite parts of the election time is to go around to the different diners and other places and just talk to folks about what’s important to them,” he said. “We’ll do that, but it will have a different flavor.”

Not delivering a convention speech in person in Milwaukee as originally planned isn’t likely to be problematic for Biden’s bid to become the country’s 45th president, Baier said. 

“No candidate is really out campaigning,” he said. “I think he’s going to fight it out on the airwaves. I’m sure you are going to be seeing a lot of ads for both parties over the coming weeks. It probably would have been better to have a Milwaukee background to do the speech, but we are where we are at this point.”

Even without the all the attention that the convention would have brought to the city, Baier said Milwaukee, and the state, will be vitally important in the upcoming presidential election.

“I don’t know if we are going to be on the ground for the convention but if we’re not I know we will be back to Milwaukee and Wisconsin throughout the election,” he said. “The state will be really important as far as determining who the next president is.”

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.